TIP 4: FUEL UP
I’ve saved thousands of pounds since quitting alcohol in 2018, and a huge proportion of this has gone straight back into ensuring I eat luxurious desserts every single day. What I lack in chia seeds I make up for in my extensive love of carbs.“Nutrition” and “fuel” seem to be interchangeable in some areas online, which can be confusing. I consider “nutrition” to encompass the entirety of a runner’s diet and not just what they’re snacking on prior to/during a run. This post is about the latter. Changing what you eat before and during your run could transform your performance.
Notwithstanding running 20+ miles of training in each week, it wasn’t until a month before my first half marathon that I used an energy gel for the first time.
Previously when running home, I’d never skip lunch but after the first 10km I would feel my energy levels draining. By the time I did get home I’d collapse into the shower, completely wiped of energy and extremely hungry. I assumed this was how you were meant to feel after running so I used to give myself a mental pat on the back for working hard.
Then one day a colleague (a seasoned marathon runner) dropped a couple of SIS gels on my desk one afternoon and I reluctantly tried one out. They changed everything for me- I knocked 10 minutes off my (19km) runcommute time.
Even if you’ve carb loaded the night before, we can only store a set amount of glycogen in our bodies and if you’re participating in endurance races you may notice performance wane after an hour of high effort running.
Glycogen stores are held in the muscles and liver. Carbohydrates get converted into glucose (a sugar) which then gets transferred into a form of energy that the body can utilise (glycogen). However once these stores begin to deplete, fatigue will kick in so it’s essential to keep these topped up if you’re chasing that PB.
If you’re new to gels, experimenting prior to race day is essential. Buy several varieties and try a different one for each weekly long run that you do leading up to race day.
When running a half you’re going to sweat a lot. Through this you’ll be losing electrolytes, particularly potassium and sodium. Potassium supports muscle function, so you’ll be less likely to cramp up if your choice of breakfast contains it.
Speaking from experience, there was one gel that resulted in me keeling over on my bathroom floor for an entire evening after one race. I’d also advise testing the frequency of how often you take in gels. Carbohydrate-based gels are small and designed to be slurped in one go, but if your body isn’t accustomed to them then spacing them out might be a better option. Drinking half a gel every 15 minutes can prevent any gastrointestinal (GI) distress, whilst keeping your energy levels up.
For my half though, I used an isotonic gel at 10km and half a caffeinated one at 15km to boost that final stretch. There are endless amounts of flavours and types, so you’re bound to find one that suits you.
I didn’t need additional fuel for those first 10km because I forced myself to eat breakfast at 7am.
I suspect many others skipped breakfast. By mile 2 of the half marathon there were an abundance of empty gel sachets littered over the roads. If you’ve fuelled sufficiently prior to the start line then you should be able to run several miles without extra carbs. To avoid any GI issues, eat at least 2 hours beforehand. That might mean you have to eat at some ungodly hour, but on race day there’s usually hours of queueing/waiting around before you’ve even crossed the start line.
Any plain carb-based breakfast should work in your favour. I always opt for banana-topped porridge on race day as it’s cheap and readily available. Both are high in carbohydrates and bananas have the added benefit of being rich in potassium. When running a half, you’re going to sweat a lot. Through this you’ll be losing electrolytes, particularly potassium and sodium. Potassium supports muscle function, so you’ll be less likely to cramp up if your choice of breakfast contains it. Sodium (salt) gets a bad rep but for long distances, it’ll save you from dehydration. It’s why many sports drinks use it in their recipes.
If you’re not obsessed with oats (are you even a runner?!) then try some high carb (and low protein) alternatives such as bananas on toast or a few slices of malt loaf. Keep it simple. No one wants to be cooking quinoa at 6am.
By all means wash it down with an Americano. The International Journal of Exercise Science have written extensively on research proving that caffeine can actually reduce the body’s perception of effort. You can read their study by clicking here.
Allow enough time to test a variety of foods prior to race day. Yes, caffeine is supposed to reduce the body’s perception of effort. Carb loading the night before will fuel your body’s glycogen stores. But if your body is not prepared for either you might find yourself searching for a Portaloo after twenty minutes on the road.
PROTEIN: NOT JUST FOR BODYBUILDERS
Post-race food is also important. Within an hour of finishing the race you should be replenishing those energy stores with more carbohydrates and protein. Your muscles will have worked extremely hard for those 13+ miles and eating between 10-20g of protein after running will optimise recovery. Ideally you’ll be getting these from lean sources such as chicken or soy if you’re vegan. But let’s be realistic- you’ll still be queueing to collect your bag within that first hour, so that’s where protein bars come in handy:
I’ll try and keep this brief as it’s mostly down to personal preference. Comparing “convenience” protein can be a headache, particularly as so many brand themselves as healthy. Check the macros (macronutrients) on the back of the packet, which will indicate its fat, protein and carbohydrates. Milk protein tends to provide the most grams of protein per calorie. Whey and casein are both milk proteins but casein takes longer to digest. So if you’re slightly sensitive to milk, opt for whey or a vegan alternative.
Some people lean towards nutty vegan “raw” bars after running because they’re packaged up as “high in protein”. Whilst nuts are a source of protein, they’re extremely high in fat and calories. If you’re searching for a high protein vegan option try Whey Box or Pulsin powder, which are sold in sachet form.
See what’s available in your country before shelling out for postage. Some of the tastiest bars I’ve tasted were bought when travelling abroad. Barebells and Fulfil are stocked throughout Europe. In Australia, Smart Diet Solutions are tasty, natural and high in fibre too.
Pack one in your bag for when you’ve finished. Or mix a sachet with your choice of milk for some post-race nourishment.