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Common nutrition issues for runners

Fitting in the fuel

A poorly planned diet or one that places too much emphasis on protein rich or high fat food choices will result in inadequate repletion of muscle glycogen stores.  This may have a negative impact on training performance and recovery, especially if this period of inadequate refueling goes on for long periods of time.

Your carbohydrate intake should reflect your daily training load i.e. more for harder training days, less on easy or recovery days.  A useful strategy is to establish a dietary routine that emphasises nutrient dense carbohydrate rich foods that meets the fuel demands on an easy training day. Excellent foods include brown rice, wholegrain bread, pasta, quinoa, couscous, lentils, starchy vegetables, cereal and beans.

On heavier loading days, where fuel requirements are increased, additional carbohydrate rich foods can be orientated around training to enhance performance during or recovery after the session.  For example, consuming sports drinks or gels during a long run, an extra couple of slices of toast for breakfast and a carbohydrate rich snack soon after finishing your session.

Optimising recovery

Running will not only challenge your carbohydrate stores, but it will also cause some damage to muscle fibres, which will delay recovery. Strategic intake of carbohydrate rich food soon after training will enhance the rate of muscle glycogen repletion ensuring the muscle is topped up with energy before the next session. This is especially important when you have two training sessions a day. Many runners are aware of their carbohydrate needs but neglect their protein needs. Including a small amount of protein (15-20 g) at this time may further enhance the recovery process, as well as promote more positive adaptations from the session. These recovery goals can be met by consuming a regular meal e.g. Greek yoghurt with fruit and nuts, peanut butter sandwich, chocolate milkshake or a sports product such as a recovery bar if you have limited availability of whole foods.

Fuelling early morning training

Many runners train early in the morning, either out of habit or simply due to other commitments, making it difficult to consume any food or fluid prior to the session.  The decision on whether to consume any carbohydrate and protein at this time should be guided by the type of training being undertaken.  If you’re doing a quality session e.g. intervals or high-intensity, long-duration, you should aim to maximize carbohydrate availability with the intake of an easily digested carbohydrate rich snack e.g. toast with honey, oats with raisins or a homemade smoothies. Alternatively, consume carbohydrate during the session e.g. sports drink, gel or banana.  If, however, the goal of the session is simply to lose weight, some water before and during may suffice, and may even enhance the physiological response from the session. It is important to bear in mind that exercising in a glycogen depleted state can result in a decrease in the intensity and duration of the exercise performed, an increase in your perception of effort and a reduction in immune function.

Iron Deficiency

Distance runners, particularly females, are at a risk of low iron status secondary to both increased losses e.g. in sweat, from gastrointestinal bleeding, red blood cell damage, or poor intake of iron rich foods.  The latter is particularly a concern for fussy meat eaters, those on an energy restricted diet and vegetarians.  Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly common for athletes to self prescribe iron supplements in the belief it may provide a performance edge or to counter the feelings of fatigue associated with the heavy training loads.  However, you need to be aware that supplementation will only be of benefit when a recognized deficiency exists.  Indeed, excess iron intake may compromise immune function and in susceptible individuals, lead to iron overload or haemochromatosis.

Gastrointestinal Problems

Many runners report gastrointestinal problems e.g. stomach cramps, diarrhoea, during hard runs, particularly races.  The cause of these problems is largely unknown, but it seems to be related to the intensity of the running, the stress of competition, hydration status, or the type and volume of food consumed before the run.  Often, it is best to run on an empty stomach, with the pre-race meal eaten 3-4 hours in advance. Choosing low fibre foods, reducing your diary intake 24 hours before the race or replacing meals with liquid meal supplements the day before hard training sessions or important races may also help alleviate concerns.

Race day fluids and fuel

The goal of food and fluid intake prior to racing is to top up fuel stores and optimise hydration status.  Therefore the foods and fluids consumed should be ones that are rich in carbohydrate and low in fat, fibre and protein.  Some practical examples may include toast, plain muffins with jam or honey or pancakes with maple syrup.  Liquid meal supplements provide a compact and quickly digested alternative to solid food in situations where time is scarce or pre-race nerves are a problem.

Fuel and food requirements during the race will depend on a variety of factors including the race distance, the adequacy of the pre-race meal, as well as the environmental conditions.
For events up to the half marathon, provided you consume an adequate pre-race meal, there is little benefit in consuming additional carbohydrate during the race (<60-90 minutes in duration). Race nutrition strategies should instead focus on minimising the level of dehydration.

For the marathon, you will need to be more aggressive with your intake of fuel and fluids, both in the lead up and during the race itself.  In the two days before the race, you should undertake a carbohydrate load to help super compensate muscle glycogen stores, as well consume a carbohydrate rich pre race meal.

During the race, you should look to create opportunities to have regular access to fuel and fluids.  Sports gels provide a compact source of carbohydrate that runners may easily carry with them while running or have at special needs stations located at various points along the race course.  Sports drinks also provide an opportunity to top up fuel stores, while simultaneously providing a fluid to help minimise the fluid deficit, which in a marathon can be substantial.  It is important that you practice your fuel and fluid strategies in lead up races or hard training sessions to assess tolerance when consuming these products on the run.