The act of running is fairly simple in and of itself. It really is just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. In order to train and race successfully, however, other factors come into play. Runners have to add in speed workouts, hill workouts, and proper recovery into their training programs. One element of a successful training program that is often overlooked, particularly by beginning runners, is fueling and hydration. However, failing to fuel and hydrate properly has caused many a runner, including elite athletes, to fall apart during a race. This week, Project Purple’s Coach Jane gives us some tips for how to eat and drink for success.
Q: Coach Jane, what is the best way to optimally fuel for long training runs or races?
Coach Jane: In general, for runs of over ninety minutes I recommend fueling with either an electrolyte beverage, gels or both. There is no magic formula for the type, amount or frequency of fuel you should take in, because it really is dependent on the individual. For example, 2:28 elite Canadian marathoner and registered dietician Krista Duchene consumes an entire gel every 3 miles, totaling 8 gels during the entire marathon. At the speed she is running that is a gel every 18 minutes! While it works for her, for others that many gels may be too stressful on their GI system (like GI Jane over here!). Personally I can’t tolerate gels very well and prefer drinking 200-300ml of an electrolyte beverage every 3 miles.
My former coach, a 2:32 marathoner, ran some marathons simply drinking water to thirst. Because she did all of her training runs that way, her body was conditioned to use her glycogen stores as sources of fuel for the entire race. This highlights a key point that is whatever you do in training should be what you do on race day, because that’s what your body has most efficiently learned to use. During your long runs experiment with the type, frequency and amount of calories you take in and settle with what your body responds best to.
Question: How should a runner fuel following a long training run or race? What can runners do to maximize their recovery?
Coach Jane: After a long run or race it is critical to get in nutrients within 30-60 minutes of finishing for optimal recovery. This window is when your muscles are primed to absorb nutrients and restore glycogen levels to your pre-run state. Your post-race fuel is therefore critical to rebuild muscle and promote the desired adaptations to training. The most important part of your post-run snack are the carbohydrates that will top up your glycogen stores. Choose carbohydrates that are high in sucrose and glucose rather than fructose – in other words starchy carbohydrates instead of fruit or juices – for maximal benefits, and aim to consume approximately 0.5g/pound of body weight. In addition, research has shown that adding a small amount of protein (15-20g) speeds recovery, so if you opt for a post-run bagel, top it with a nut butter that contains protein for maximal benefits. Finally, it is extremely important to re-hydrate after races and runs (and all those post-race beers don’t count!). Electrolyte beverages are best as they are retained in your system for longer than water alone and therefore help achieve maximal hydration. To know whether you are rehydrated or not drink until your urine is light in color or weigh yourself before and after exercise and drink up the difference in weight!
Q: We used to worry so much about not drinking enough. Now, a common problem among distance runners seems to be over hydration. What can you tell us about that?
Coach Jane: Like many things in life, too little or too much of something can have a negative impact on one’s health. And while most marathoners fear becoming dehydrated, few contemplate the effects of becoming overhydrated. Overhydration, or hyponatremia, is a condition where your blood sodium levels plumet, usually because you are drinking too much of a hypotonic fluid, like water. Slower runners are most at risk since they have more time to fill up on fluids and because it is easier for them to drink large quantities at a time. It also is most common when runners are drinking plain water instead of an electrolyte beverage, though hyponatremia can also occur with overconsumption of sports drinks. Some tips to avoid overhydration are to stick to electrolyte drinks, drink small quantities frequently and to drink to thirst. If you are hydrated going into your race, don’t let a fear of becoming dehydrated make you consume too many fluids on the race course!
Q: Do you have any tips on how to choose the best electrolyte drink?
Coach Jane: The type of electrolyte beverage that is best to consume during prolonged exercise varies depending on the individual. Think about the last time you ran with a group. You will have undoubtedly noticed that some people finish drenched in sweat, while others look like they haven’t run a step. Everyone’s sweat rates are different and therefore the amount of water and salt excreted during exercise can vary greatly from runner to runner. Thus, the ‘electrolyte load’ that you need in a sports drink will depend on what category you fall into. If you tend to experience muscle cramps following your runs, or get home covered in salt, you probably need a drink high in electrolytes that contains sodium and chloride. Likewise, an ultramarathoner would need a higher carbohydrate content in their drink than a half-marathoner would because they are burning through more glycogen in training. My tip for choosing the right drink for you is to look at the labels of different types and brands of drinks to determine a few that you think fall into your range, and go with the one that sits best in your stomach.
Q: Coach Jane, fueling during and immediately after running is important. Runners have some unique nutritional and energy needs in general. What kind of general nutritional advice do you have for runners?
Coach Jane: My best general nutrition advice is to strive for balance. Too often I see athletes adhering to overly strict diets during training that end up making them consume too few calories or nutrients, causing them to perform sub-optimally, burnout or get injured. Moreover, such diets are usually not sustainable and leave you craving the foods on your ‘X’ list, leading to phases of binging on ridiculous amounts of junk food. Both extremes are unhealthy!
During training the quality of your calories can make a big difference in your energy levels and performance. Therefore, my advice is to stick to a healthy diet that allows treats once in a while. A healthy diet emphasizes unprocessed foods, plenty of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, low-glycemic carbohydrates, high-fibre foods and lean protein. Stay away from products that are highly processed, high in sugar, trans-fats and sodium. However, having ice cream after a long run or indulging in cookies on your day off is not going to suddenly take a minute off your time. In fact, it may even help you top up your tank and make you more motivated on your run the next day!