Your diet should give you the energy you need to exercise, recover and reach your full potential as a runner, while still enabling you to stay in great shape. When you’re new to running, it can be a real challenge to eat the right combination of nutrients to fuel your workouts. Here are eight golden rules that will keep your nutrition on the right track…
FUEL YOUR RUNNING WITH COMPLEX CARBS
Low-GI, high-quality carbs should be your primary source of energy to fuel your running. Stored as glycogen in your liver and muscles, these carbs are released as you run, to fuel up to 90 minutes of exercise. ‘Eat plenty of carbs during your main meals and in a low-GI, complex form, such
as porridge, pasta, rice or potatoes,’ says sports dietician Alexandra Cook (www. alexandranutrition.co.uk). If you plan to run several hours after your last meal, a light, higher-GI carb snack a couple of hours before you head out will keep you fuelled. Try a ripe banana or a slice of toast with peanut butter. When exercising for longer than 90 minutes, take on more carbs in the form of running gels or a sports drink.
EAT SMART AND CLEAN
Aim for regular, balanced meals based on real food cooked from scratch as much as possible. Cut out processed meals, junk food and topping up with supplements – eat a good diet with a variety of foods and it should contain everything you need. As well as complex carbs, opt for lean protein to help you repair and renew muscles, such as fish or chicken. Avoid fatty and processed meats. Opt for healthy fats, such as olive oil, nut oils and oily fish. Eat five to ten portions of fruit and veg daily.
THINK ABOUT HOW YOU EAT
Be vigilant with your portion sizes and eat mindfully. Studies show dieting and skipping meals don’t work. Research from the Harvard Weight Loss Registry shows those who eat breakfast are more likely to keep weight off than those who miss out and are tempted to snack later on unhealthy foods. ‘It’s not a good idea to skip meals and restrict yourself excessively because you will be low on energy and tempted to make up for it later,’ says state-registered dietician Helen Bond (www.helenbond.co.uk). Eat from a smaller plate and serve a little less at each meal than you used to eat. Chew slowly, turn off the television and focus fully on your food and stop when you feel full.
MAXIMISE POST-WORKOUT RECOVERY
Always eat a healthy snack or meal immediately after a run. Some sports scientists believe there’s a 20 to 60-minute window when you can replenish calories burned and reload depleted muscles. ‘It’s important to eat post-run, even if you don’t feel hungry,’ says Alexandra Cook. Ideally, opt for a combination of carbs and protein, such as chocolate milk, a chicken sandwich or low-fat yogurt.
BEWARE OF CONFUSING THIRST AND HUNGER
‘Thirst signals can easily get confused with hunger, because they run along the same neural pathways,’ says Helen Bond. ‘If you start running, you are likely to feel thirsty more.’ If you’re not sure which it is, try drinking a glass of water and waiting 15 minutes to see if you really are hungry. Hydration is crucial for optimum running performance, so drink plenty during the day to make sure you’re hydrated.
DON’T RUN WITH FOOD IN YOUR STOMACH
Run before your food is properly digested and you’re likely to feel nauseous, bloated and even experience abdominal cramps. You’ll also find you just can’t perform as well as usual and will feel lethargic. ‘Your body is focused on digestion, with extra blood supply sent to your stomach, rather than your muscles,’ says Alexandra Cook. ‘For optimum performance, allow time to digest your food before you head out.’ The exception is running around 45 to 60 minutes after a high-GI carb snack, such as a ripe banana.
DON’T OVERCOMPENSATE FOR CALORIES BURNED ON THE RUN
Dietician Helen Bond says be careful not to eat more calories than you just burned in your run by rewarding yourself with sugary, fatty junk food. ‘The same healthy eating principles apply, even if you’ve just done a run – don’t see it as a green light to eat unhealthy treats,’ she says.
KEEP A FOOD AND EXERCISE DIARY
Dietician Paul McCardle says it’s the best way to ensure your nutrition stays on track. ‘Keep it in a traditional diary, or use one of the many smartphone apps now available,’ he says. ‘It’s a great way to record where the calories are coming from and it makes you more accountable.’ The very act of keeping a diary usually ensures you make healthier choices, because you’ll have to write them down. A recent study in the Journal of Preventive Medicine found that adults who managed to keep a food diary kept their weight in check better than those who didn’t.