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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If you enjoyed this blog post, go and check out Renee on Instagram and share this post!

The Amazon Is Burning

What on earth can we do to help?

It shocked and saddened me to the core when I heard a few days ago about the huge fires raging in the Amazon rainforest. Not only had I heard nothing about it on the news, I was also totally at a loss as to what was causing it and what I could do.

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The extent of the fires is so great you can see them from space. Source: NASA, Aug 13

 

I know I’m not alone in this – as more and more people have been sharing the news across social media, I have seen the same comments time and time again. ‘This is so tragic, but what can I do to stop it?’. Whilst Notre Dame had to be saved by private billionaire donors, we’re lucky that each and every one of us can have a part to play in the preservation of the lungs of our world.

 

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Some facts

  • The Amazon rainforest is key to fighting climate change on our planet. It produces much of the world’s oxygen and acts as a carbon sink, and without it there is no way we can expect to fight climate change.
  • The fires are often started intentionally, in order to clear land for the growing of crops and grazing of cattle. Weaker enforcement by authorities mean that farmers have been able to organise ‘fire days‘ without legal consequence.

Cattle ranching is the largest driver of deforestation in every Amazon country, accounting for 80% of current deforestation rates (Nepstad et al. 2008). Amazon Brazil is home to approximately 200 million head of cattle, and is the largest exporter in the world, supplying about one quarter of the global market.

  • Brazil has had more than 72,000 fires this year, an increase of 84% on this time last year. Brazil houses 60% of the Amazon rainforest.
  • The fires release both Carbon Dioxide (228 megatons so far this year) and Carbon Monoxide, a toxic gas, which is being carried beyond South America’s coastlines.
  • The deforestation rate in the Amazon has increased markedly since July, with areas the size of Manhattan being cleared daily, partially due to encouragement by the new far-right president, Bolsonaro.
  • If deforestation continues at its current rate, the trees will not be able to regrow, and much of what was forest will become savannah, with devastating effects on biodiversity and the future of the planet.

Carlos Nobre, a senior researcher with the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of São Paulo, said the surge in deforestation was taking the rainforest closer to a tipping point at which swaths of the usually humid forest would become a dry savannah, with dire consequences for the climate, wildlife and forest dwellers.

Amazon burning

 

That’s depressing. So what can we do? 

Human-made fires are especially hard to stop, but there are some things we can do to help, both immediately and moving forward.

1. Donate to one of the below charities, all of which aim to raise awareness and actively protect the Amazon rainforest (edited list courtesy of cnet, which has more information, and CBS News).

The highlighted bullet points are charities that receive the highest ratings on Charity Navigator, a non-profit that evaluates financial health, transparency and accountability in charities – if you can only donate to one, make it one of these.

  • Donate to the Rainforest Foundation, which is committed to making sure donations made reaches projects such as supporting environmental defenders, indigenous advocacy organisations and deforestation monitoring.
  • Donate to Rainforest Action Network to protect an acre of the Amazonian rainforest.
  • Amazon Conservation Association accepts donations and lists exactly what your money goes toward –– whether it’s planting trees, sponsoring education, buying a solar panel and preserving indigenous lands.
  • Donate to the Rainforest Trust to help buy land in the rainforest. Since 1988, the organization has saved over 23 million acres. 
  • The World Wide Fund for Nature (known as the World Wildlife Fund in the US and Canada) works to protect the  species in the Amazon and around the world.
  • Donate to Amazon Watch, an organization that protects the rainforest, defends Indigenous rights and works to address climate change.
  • Donate to the Amazon Conservation Team, which works to fight climate change, protect the Amazon and empower Indigenous peoples. 
  • Amazon Conservation accepts donations and lists exactly what your money goes toward. You can help plant trees, sponsor education, protect habitats, buy a solar panel, preserve Indigenous lands and more.
  • Donate to One Tree Planted, which works to stop deforestation around the world and in the Amazon Rainforest. One Tree Planted will keep you updated on the Peru Project and the impact your trees are having on the community.

2. Cut your beef consumption. Much of our processed meat, e.g. burger meat, is sourced from the Amazon, and Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of beef. Although many people argue that soy is a leading cause of deforestation, as much as 80% of this production is to feed farm animals, requiring 10x the amount of land than if we were to eat the soy directly. Avoiding soy from the rainforest still might not be a bad idea either, but giving up beef (at least non UK-raised beef) is your best course of action.

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Livestock farming is an important driver of deforestation, and not just in the Amazon

3. Use Ecosia instead of google as your preferred search engine

4. Sign petitions such as the below:

5. To ensure responsible logging, only buy wood products with the FSC logo, or buy second-hand. Much of the world’s trade in wood is from illegal logging.

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A deforested plot of the Amazon near Porto Velho on Aug. 21. Image: Reuters

 

Please do share this far and wide if you can – we are not helpless, even where we are unable to douse the fires ourselves. Collective action is powerful – find me on Instagram and let me know what you’re doing to help!

EDIT: My friend Sophie Hellyer, who recently spent some time in the Amazon, mentioned two further organisations helping out on the ground, Instituto Socioambiental and Peoples of the ForestLocals that she worked with suggested these, but I have not vetted them. Woth checking out regardless!