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Marathon training: Nutrition tips for runners

January 13, 2010 10:30 IST
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With the Mumbai Marathon coming up January 17, here is some nutritional advice for those who will be competing.

Nutrition is one of the most important aspects of being healthy. Good nutrition is especially important for athletes and runners, whose energy is constantly depleted from training, whether it's long distance, tempo or intervals. It is hard to know exactly what constitutes proper nutrition for a runner, or any athlete for that matter. A ton of information is available online. The hard part is separating the good info from the bad. Some of the information is simply common sense. Below you will find a few pointers about nutrition for runners:

Eat a balanced diet

Fuelling for any type of endurance race -- whether a 100k, a marathon or even a half-marathon -- is not just about carbo-loading before a race; eating a healthy training diet needs to form an integral part of your training. When you are doing any kind of serious mileage, you will be burning thousands of extra calories each week. Your body not only needs additional fuel but it needs the correct type of fuel to keep energy levels consistent, to recover positively from runs and most importantly, to enjoy your training. The better you eat, the better you will train and this will inevitably lead to better race performance. An ideal training diet is around 60% percent carbohydrate, with a good mix of protein (around 15 percent), and less than 30 percent fat. As an athlete, you also need to increase your intake of vitamins and minerals.

Include more carbs!

Carbohydrate-rich foods are the optimum fuel for energy and an essential part of the athlete's diet. Once digested, carbohydrate is converted into blood glucose and used for energy, or stored as glycogen in the muscle and liver. Base your meals and snacks on slow-burning (low-medium Glycemic Index or GI) carbohydrates; that's wholegrain bread, unprocessed cereals such as oats, pasta, pulses, long grain rice, fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds etc, which will gradually release energy to your muscles. Refined carbohydrates (high GI) such as white bread, short grain white rice, confectionery etc should be limited to immediately after exercise, as these will act quickly to replenish depleted glycogen levels.

Consume quality calories

Quality comes from fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and whole grains, lean protein from chicken, turkey, fish and egg whites. By consuming these types of food 90 percent of the time, your running performance will continue to improve, you will have energy for a longer duration and experience quicker recovery compared to runners who eat less quality food like white processed bread, sweets, chips and high fat.

Multivitamins are essential

Multivitamins are also essential to ensure that you are getting enough of the proper vitamins and minerals in your diet without eating in excess.

Keep yourself hydrated

Don't just drink before, during and after a training session. It is best to keep your hydration levels topped up all the time. If you wait until you feel thirsty you will be slightly dehydrated already. Keep bottles of water with you, at your desk, in the car, on your bedside table. Try to ensure that your urine is a light straw colour as this will mean that you are adequately hydrated. Make sure you're prepared for your long runs. You will need plenty of fluid and a sports drink to replace sodium lost through sweat for runs over 90 minutes.

Don't train on an empty stomach

Try to plan your training sessions so that you can eat 1-2 hours before setting off, especially if you are planning an intense or longer workout. You will train stronger and feel better. Eat something which is low in fat, easy to digest and high in slow-burning carbohydrate; a bowl of unrefined porridge with blueberries, a wholemeal sandwich with a handful of nuts and raisins and a banana. However, avoid eating immediately before a run. If you must eat, have a banana and a handful of nuts half an hour before you head out to train, and fill up on protein within half an hour of returning from your run.

Eat a little at regular intervals

Eat small meals every three hours to maintain a fast metabolism and avoid overeating. Small portions will provide you with a stable amount of energy throughout the day.

Be a good listener

The most important thing is to listen to your body. Learn what works well for your body and running, and what works against it. Write down what you consume and how it makes you feel afterwards to understand what your body needs and how it's going to react to certain foods.

Recovery plays a key role

Eat and drink to refuel within the 15 minute magic window to speed recovery. Carbohydrate is stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen. Glycogen levels become depleted after a workout and the quicker they are topped up again, the quicker your recovery will be and the better you will feel for your next session. You also need water and electrolytes to replace fluid loss, and protein to repair your muscle cells. Grab something as soon as you finish your workout, like a honey sandwich, a bowl of rice pudding, a slice of toast with scrambled egg, an energy bar, a piece of fruit (melon is good) or a refreshing home-made smoothie made with skimmed milk or yoghurt.

Eat well on rest days

Rest days are highly important for recovery, as this is the time when your muscles are at their most receptive. It can take up to 20 hours for muscle glycogen stores to be fully replenished and it is often when the hunger starts to kick in with a vengeance. Make the most of it, replenish your depleted energy stores and feed your muscles by eating well and give your legs a well-earned rest.

The day before the big race, eat a carbohydrate-rich diet to increase your glycogen stores and get plenty of water. Avoid alcohol, as this will dehydrate you as well as drive your blood sugar levels into a roller coaster ride. The right nutrition will make all the difference to your workouts, providing your body with the right tools to perform at its best!

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