Running for whatever reason involves struggling through the miles, stretching those aching muscles, and feeling the pain of the foam roller, but nutrition provides a critical part of your running life as well. Working side-by-side with all of those training runs and races, the right food before and after any run will help you gain the fitness you want, and all those miles, sprints and hills will become more pain-free than painful.
To allow yourself the best chance to get the best out of your body during a run, the right balance of nutrients is needed, not just to maximise your run, whether it be pace, distance, how you feel, or times, but also to reduce the nasty stuff like injuries, tiredness, fatigue, or even having to stop for something more serious.
Keeping to some basic principles, and having the key knowledge of what key nutrients do is, well, key!
Before you get those trainers on
Nutrition before a run has to take into consideration what you have done in the last 48 hours. Whether it is a light gym session or marathon training, don’t ignore the needs of a previous session totally. What you need after a session we will come to later.
Think of your body as a car! Any car you buy will have fuel stored on board, normally petrol or diesel. Your fuel is carbohydrates (CHO) and fat, and as with a car, there is a limit to what it can hold. Before setting off, use nutrition to fill the tank to the brim and have as much energy stored and ready to use as possible, or as needed.
If you were to leave for a long journey, you would put more petrol in the tank, and this is the same as your runs. The longer the run, the more you might consider putting more in the tank. Storage of CHO comes from every bit of CHO you eat in the days leading up to your run, not just your breakfast, so start adding fuel to the tank two days prior to a long run if needed, and don’t rely on a big last-minute breakfast to help avoid stomach pains!
You may have heard of ‘the wall’, not a physical wall you run into, but an energy-related point in a run where your CHO starts to run out. As long as you fuel up properly, and train your body to dig into its reserves, you will delay hitting this wall, or avoid it all together! Before a long journey, or run, you would also top up on oil, windscreen washer, and air for those tyres. Your body can cope with losing a little water by sweating, but on longer runs, on hotter days, or tougher runs, you may lose enough for your body to start to struggle, suffer, or even get ill. Water needs to be topped up regularly, with little and often, throughout the day, every day, not just when you are thirsty. This keeps your hydration level as good as can be.
Try adding electrolytes to your water just before a run too. Electrolyte drinks often include sodium, potassium and magnesium, which you lose when sweating and when taken before a run, may help reduce cramp, maintain muscle and nervous systems, and help keep performance up!
Experiment with different meals and breakfasts and see what works and what causes the least issues such as stomach discomfort. Dairy, protein or intolerances can be causes of stomach discomfort so mix it up, try things out, but stick to what you know before a long run or race day.
Once your run stops, your recovery begins. This is vital. Fail to recover properly and you don’t take advantage of all that running, and you may not see as much improvement as you would like.
The first stage of recovery is the first 30 minutes once you have stopped. You may have stopped running, but your body still uses its stored energy to get your muscles and blood sugar levels back to normal. By having a CHO and sugar loaded drink such as High 5 4:1, this supply goes straight to your blood and muscles, and helps your quick stage of recovery rely less on your own storage, reduce fatigue and feel better!
A touch of protein goes a long way too! As with your car, the oil and petrol you top up after a drive do different things. Both CHO and Protein go hand-in-hand to your muscles, but for different reasons. CHO attends to your energy levels, whilst protein helps rebuild damaged muscles from your run, reducing muscle soreness, making you stronger and helping you gain the fitness you worked on. It also may help reduce hunger throughout the day! Within 30 mins after a run, your body is more receptive to CHO, protein and water, so don’t hang about!
Your car will need a little repair after a trip, and so do you. Beyond CHO and protein, sweating will mean you have lost water and electrolytes. Most recovery drinks for running contain the latter, and you put in the former, so your stores are back to normal!
The length of your drive then relates to how much fuel you put back in. The longer the run, the more CHO you need to recover. When going from a short run to a long run, you may change the CHO: Protein ration from 50:50 to 4:1 to suit each run. Protein does not need to follow suit, as too much protein inhibits CHO intake, and most would go to waste anyways, so this generally stays the same regardless of the run. High 5 and SiS do great ranges or recovery drinks, but why not try your own smoothie and make the same formula yourself!
The fun doesn’t end their though! Your second stage of recovery starts at 30 minutes. The same principles of CHO, protein, water and electrolytes apply, with varying amount depending on your run length, intensity and conditions, but less urgency as you have recovered a little by now. You may have stretched, showered, foam rolled and sat down for with the remote in hand, but it can take a few days to fully restore your nutrition levels. With regular top ups of CHO and protein, you will keep your body in a repair state, where it has the fuel and nutrients to get back to normal, and if done right, may get you back to a better state than before your run with improved fitness!
At this point, you would also consider varying your diet to get good, slow process CHO, good quality protein sources, good fats as you have used some as fuel, water and key nutrients should be considered.