Running is a demanding sport and your diet plays an important role in reaching your goals. But few runners give serious thought to the nutrients their bodies need to stay strong, prevent injury and recover faster.
Since everything we eat has a direct impact on our performance it pays to adopt a mindful approach to food. Alison Patterson, a sport dietitian who works with endurance athletes, says runners need to be both well trained and well fuelled for maximum performance.
"Don't underestimate the benefit that a solid nutrition plan can have on your energy levels – not only during training, but also for everyday work and life," states Patterson. "It's amazing how much better runners feel when they're nourishing their body with the right foods to match the demands of their training."
She says there's no such thing as a balanced meal plan for runners because the amount and type of food should be adjusted to match training demands. For example, on a day with a long training run, the carbohydrate portion of the meal should be higher to meet the extra fuel demands of the session. On the other hand, carbohydrate needs are lower on rest days (because muscle fuel needs are lower). On these days, there should be more protein and vegetables in the meal compared to carbohydrates.
Planning is the key to making sure you meet your fuelling and recovery needs. As much as possible, Patterson recommends runners should plan and have ready-to-go options available for busy days.
She says bircher muesli makes a great breakfast option for busy mornings because its packed with carbohydrates, protein and essential nutrients.
"Freezer friendly dinners and slow cooker meals make it easy to meet your recovery nutrition goals after evening training sessions," adds Patterson.
There's plenty of research showing the importance of carbohydrates for runners as well as protein to boost recovery. But there are also several studies that show the importance of eating sufficient iron rich foods, particularly for any events or training blocks that are done at altitude where iron needs are higher than at sea level.
Patterson recommends runners make sure their diet includes the following key five nutrients to help them eat their way to peak performance:
Iron is essential for helping to transport oxygen around the body. Too little iron in the body can lead to fatigue and overall reduced performance. The recommended daily intake for adult males is eight milligrams per day and 18mg for women.
"Pump up your iron stores by eating lean red meats, poultry, eggs, tofu, legumes, iron-fortified cereals, dark green leafy vegetables, some nuts (e.g. cashews, pine nuts and almonds) and dried apricots," suggests Patterson.
Calcium is vital for bone strength, which is important for preventing injuries such as painful stress fractures. Men and women should aim for 1000mg per day.
Dairy foods like milk, yoghurt and cheese provide the best source of calcium, but tofu, tahini, fortified soy milk, almonds and dark green leafy vegetables are also good options, especially for vegetarians or those who prefer not to eat dairy.
3. Vitamin D
"Vitamin D works closely with calcium to optimise bone strength," explains Patterson, who recommends adults should aim for five milligrams per day.
You'll find it in foods like tuna and salmon, but only in very small amounts. The best source of vitamin D is sunlight.
Fibre is an essential nutrient for supporting good gut health and digestion. "Since our gut plays an important role in immune function, it's important that we keep our gut healthy to reduce the risk of illness," says Patterson. She recommends adult runners aims for 30g of fibre per day.
Fibre is found in unprocessed (or minimally processed) foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrain cereals, legumes, nuts and seeds.
5. B-Group vitamins
The B-group vitamins are important for runners as they help the body to metabolise carbohydrates – the key fuel used by the muscles during running.
The amount needed varies for each of the B-group vitamins, but the good news is that it's easy to hit your daily needs if you're eating a varied diet. B-group vitamins are commonly found in wholegrains, legumes, dairy foods, some meats as well as nuts and seeds.
Should you supplement?
Patterson says sports supplements like energy gels are a convenient and easy way to carry carbohydrate top up during long training sessions.
"Vitamin and mineral supplements are only really required if there is a diagnosed medical deficiency or an extended period with limited access to food – for example, if you're travelling for an event and won't have good access to fresh food."
The goal of one day completing an ultra-marathon inspires running fanatic Laura Hill to clock up the kilometres each week. With a day job in the corporate world, Laura loves nothing more than lacing up her runners and hitting the pavement to clear her mind and challenge her body.
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