Common Running Nutrition Mistakes

This is a guest blog post by Renee McGregor, a dietitian who I look up to for evidence-based information, especially in regards to running and nutrition. 

Renee is a leading Sports and Eating disorder specialist dietitian with 20 years of experience working in clinical and performance nutrition. She’s worked with athletes across the globe including supporting Olympic (London, 2012), Paralympic (Rio, 2016) and Commonwealth (Queensland, 2018) teams. She is regularly asked to work directly with high performing and professional athletes that have developed a dysfunctional relationship with food that is impacting their performance, health and career. On top of this Renee is the founder of Enspire clinic, a centre specialising in supporting individuals and athletes of all levels and ages, coaches and sports science teams to provide nutritional strategies to enhance sports performance and manage eating disorders. This is reflected in her work on social media too, priding herself on proving an educational hub for both the professional and everyday athlete. When not inspiring others with her incredible work, Renee can be found running the mountains and chasing the trails, most likely training for a crazy ultra-marathon!

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Everyone has an opinion about nutrition – why shouldn’t they? After all, we all need food to survive. However, there is a difference between anecdotal nutrition advice and actual nutritional science. On social media we are exposed to the former a lot more than the latter. What works for one person in a sample of n=1, may not work for another. Just the other day I was on a group chat where someone very boldly stated that their new vegan regime was the cause of their newly found energy and improved recovery. However, this was based on subjective information, which they had collected over a few weeks. Is this science? No – this is one individual’s personal experience with no information of what her diet had been like previously or even if any other aspect of her life had also changed which may have resulted in how she was feeling. Presently there is no evidence in the literature to suggest that a plant-based diet can improve an individual’s performance – such anecdotal evidence could cause more harm than good.

Nutritional science, and particularly sports specific nutrition, is actually quite complex. While many simply look at the impact of one particular nutrient or process on performance, this completely ignores the fact that the human body is run on an intricate system of endocrine, biochemical, immunological, physiological and psychological pathways that all work collectively.

Let’s take the keto diet as an example. This was a huge trend a few years ago and many still promote it with the idea that if we remove carbohydrate from our diet, then our body will use more fat for fuel and improve our performance but also our body composition. While on the surface this may seem to have some gravitas – take out carbohydrate and the body will have to find another fuel source to provide the body with energy – what has been completely ignored is the importance of carbohydrate intake on the hypothalamic pituitary axis, which is necessary to get adaptation from a training response. In addition, carbohydrate has a critical role in optimising immune function in those who are physically very active.

So, with this all in mind, here are some of the common mistakes often made…

 

Carbohydrates

Numerous studies have demonstrated that carbohydrate is the preferred fuel used by the body and is definitely the key to optimal performance. That said, many runners still have little understanding of how much they actually need in order to meet their requirements with many under fuelling.

As stated above, carbohydrate availability is particularly key for the hormonal cascade needed in order to see adaptation and thus progression. This means ensuring sufficient carbohydrate before, during if your runs are over 90 minutes and within 30 minutes of completing your session. While everyone’s physiology is slightly different, as a rule of thumb the requirements set are 5g/Kg BW of carbohydrate if you are running for 60 minutes a day, with this figure increasing for longer or multiple training sessions. In general, I do not encourage fasted sessions and the recommendations state that if you are going to include these, you should not do more than 2 a week and they should be no longer thank 60 minutes, at an effort of no more than 6/10. More than this and at higher efforts, potentially can result in chromic stress on your body leading to a depressed immune system, higher risk of injury and down regulation of your hormones, particularly your thyroid gland, oestrogen and testosterone, leading to further negative health consequences.

In practise, if you are training regularly, it is unlikely that you will ever have full glycogen stores and so it is essential to ensure that you consume carbohydrate at meals and snacks throughout the day. Aim to include nutrient dense carbohydrates such as oats, potatoes, whole grains, fruit and yoghurts at 3 meals (about a 1/3 of your plate) as well as including 2-3 smaller carbohydrate based snacks such as bananas, cereal bars, 2 slices malt loaf or 2-3 oatcakes with peanut butter.

One common observation I have seen is that many people view vegetables as carbohydrate, often displacing these for pasta, grains, bread and potatoes. While vegetables play a role within our diet and should be included, they are predominantly fibre which means they add bulk to the diet but not essential carbohydrate fuel.

 

Protein

There is a lot of hype around protein in the recovery phase, with many runners stressing about not getting enough to enhance recovery. Protein does play a role in the response to training and should be included in addition to carbohydrate, particularly immediately after. The general recommendations are that a recovery meal/snack/choice should provide 1.2g/Kg BW carbohydrate and 0.4g/Kg BW protein. So for someone who is 55Kg this would be 66g of carbohydrate and 22g protein and looks like a medium size baked potato with a small tin of tuna.

It is important to appreciate that the body will struggle to utilise more than 0.4g/Kg BW post training for muscle protein synthesis and adaptation. Any additional protein consumed will be used as fuel or stored as excess. Therefore, it is actually really important to spread your protein requirements out throughout the day. Aim for palm size portion of protein at 3 meals and then half this amount for snacks. This will ensure that your body always has an amino acid pool to draw from in order to repair and rebuild muscles, throughout the day, as well as preventing blood sugar fluctuations.

 

Sugar

With so much negativity around sugar, it is hardly surprising that many runners are equally concerned about their intake. While I would never advocate a high sugar diet, there are definitely times during training and competing, where sugar is the only option. During endurance events, such as a half or full marathon, the body will need an easily digestible source of carbohydrate to keep stores topped up so that running pace can be maintained beyond 60-90 minutes. Gels, jelly babies, sports drinks are all suitable options and they all contain sugar. So in this case, sugar actually enables and potentially enhances your performance.

 

5 Nutrition Staples:

  • Don’t be drawn to the latest fad – many runners will try almost anything to improve their performance. Focus on training and getting the building blocks of your diet correct first – this is going to have more impact than whether you are gluten free or not.
  • After a very hard training session and especially when you will be training again within 12 hours, taking on something like flavoured milk is an ideal choice to start recovery as quickly as possible. The combination of added sugar to the natural milk sugar causes insulin to increase in the blood. Contrary to what you might think, this is actually really important. Only when our insulin levels are raised, can we draw carbohydrates and protein into the muscles to start the recovery process.
  • Always practise your race day nutrition – the worst mistake you can make is to use what is available on race day without previously having tried it –this could have real negative effects on your performance.
  • Work out what is right for you – just because your training partner swears by a bowl of porridge every morning, this does not necessarily mean this is the right fuel choice for you.
  • You don’t have to eat less on your rest day – for most this will fall between two training days so it is the perfect opportunity to recover and then refuel. By being consistent with your nutrition, you will also allow for consistency with your training which allows for progression.

 

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Carbs – what, when and why?

Carbs – the dirtiest word of the last few years. Ostracised through no carb diets, endorsed by celebrities, demonised through gluten-free diets and all round rejected by many trying to be fit and healthy.

But where did this come from? It’s easy to follow suit when our favourite and most well respected influencers start to promote a particular way of living, but I would urge you to do your research before taking on a new ‘extreme’ diet (and yes, this does include cutting out carbohydrates).

 

What are carbohydrates and why do we need them?

Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients required in our diet, along with protein and fats. They are our body’s preferred source of energy, providing far more ATP (unit of energy) than either protein or fats. Carbohydrates are essentially anything that isn’t a protein or fat.

Starch and sugar are the important carbohydrates in our diet. Starches are found in foods you would traditionally think of as ‘carby’, such as pasta, some vegetables and rice, and sugars are found naturally occurring in foods such as fruits and dairy products (lactose is a sugar). Fibre is found in carbohydrate and you can’t digest it – it keeps your heart and digestive system healthy.

Carbohydrates are broken down by the body into simple sugars. The more complex the carb, the more energy it takes to break it down and the less it spikes your insulin levels. Simple carbs, if not used for energy (for example by exercising), may be turned into triglycerides (if not needed by the muscles or liver), which can then be stored in fat cells.

 

So when should I eat them?

The simple answer is whenever you eat a meal! I know a lot of people are afraid of eating carbs before bed or before a certain (arbitrary) time in the evening. However, your body should be fuelled before training with carbohydrates and refuelled after training with a mixture of carbs to replenish your muscle’s glycogen (energy) stores and protein to repair damaged muscles.

Enjoy complex carbs:

  • After training to replace lost glycogen in muscles and increase nutrient transportation to them
  • In the morning to replenish glycogen stores lost overnight
  • Evening carbs aid the production of tryptophan, which can help sleep.

Simple carbs:

  • Useful if you need a quick energy hit. A fruit before a workout will help you push that little bit harder. This is why endurance athletes have energy gels whilst running – these provide the muscles with instant energy. This is useful on a run but not so much when sitting at a desk or lying in bed so choose the timing of simple carb consumption carefully.

 

Good carbs? Bad carbs?

Whilst I hate to label foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it can be useful to know which foods should be eaten in moderation and which should be eaten frequently. Generally, carbohydrates with lots of fibre in are great for your body, maintaining healthy digestion and helping to slow the absorption rate of sugars. These include foods such as wholemeal bread, brown/wild rice and root vegetables.

Carbs that should be limited are those that have been highly processed (the ‘simple sugars’), as these contain low fibre levels and may produce insulin spikes, creating a rollercoaster of blood sugar levels. These include goods such as cakes, biscuits and some granola. Pure sugar, as a form of carbohydrate, is the quickest to be absorbed into the bloodstream, especially when consumed without other wholesome foods. This includes some fizzy drinks, sweets and honey.

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Cake – simple carbs at their finest. Just eat them in moderation

So how much should I be eating?

Everyone needs carbohydrates everyday. There is no fixed number that works for everyone – this depends on your age, activity level, sex and a million other factors. Different things work for different people, but the important thing is to be eating enough fibre and getting enough micro as well as macronutrients. If you’re not sure if you’re getting it right, or experiencing digestion issues, visit a registered nutritionist or speak to your doctor.

There’s no one size fits all, but generally the more endurance exercise you’re doing, the more carbohydrates you should be eating. If you’re sitting at a desk all day, realistically you don’t need as many carbs as someone who has a very active job or someone who runs 10km every morning.

In all, carbs should be making up anywhere from 45-65% of your diet for the average person. If this seems like a lot to you, just remember that almost everything has some form of carbohydrate in it. Without tracking, it’s hard to get these numbers right, but including oats or wholemeal toast with breakfast, vegetables at lunch and dinner and slow release carbs with dinner can ensure that you are getting enough to provide you with sufficient energy and nutrition to fuel you through the day.

 

A nutritionist’s point of view:

I spoke to Rhiannon Lambert, Harley Street nutritionist and author of Re-Nourish: The definitive guide to optimum nutrition (which you can pre-order here for release on December 28th). Check out her Instagram and Twitter.

“Carbohydrates are a fundamental part of any diet, without them, we cannot aid our bodies performance and lift its mood. Carbohydrates – especially complex or starchy ones such as sweet potatoes – are a good source of energy and fibre, which helps your digestive system stay healthy and keeps your blood sugar levels steady. Better still, they contain all sorts of micronutrients that help to release the energy from food.

The misconception that all carbohydrates are created equal is quite simply incorrect. We benefit from the additional fibre and nutrients in wholegrain produce in comparison to the refined carbohydrates, which don’t contain as much nutritional value.

My top advice is to know your portions and to include some carbohydrate at every meal, Your balanced plate should contain protein, carbohydrate, vegetables or fruit and a small amount of good fat. For example, salmon fillet with roasted vegetables in olive oil and a portion of brown rice.

Although some people experience initial weight loss from a no-carb diet, most can’t maintain it. Fad diets don’t work; a healthy, balanced diet is the yardstick we should all be aiming for. If you want to lose weight, look at portion control and upping your exercise so that you’re burning off more calories that you eat. It’s that simple.”

 

I hope this article helps you in some way. Sometimes nutrition can seem like a bit of a minefield, but sticking to healthy, ‘real’ foods (ones you have to cook from scratch) is a great place to start.

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For a great post-workout meal, try this high protein salmon and prawn linguine