Top 5 foundation tips for runners from a sports nutritionist

Author: Sharmada Venkat, Sports Nutritionist

Nutrition is one of the key factors that can help optimize a endurance athletes health, performance & recovery.

I’m happy to present you with the top 5 foundation nutritional tips that will most definitely help you build awareness and guide you in the right direction.

  1. Carbohydrates are your best friend: Carbohydrate and fat act as the primary sources of fuel during endurance exercise, its intensity, and duration. However, while humans have abundant fat stores, we have limited carbohydrate storage capacity. The stored carbohydrates can only provide energy for ~2-3h of endurance exercise depending upon the athlete’s physiological conditions and performing conditions. As a result, this becomes a limiting factor for submaximal endurance performance. Depletion of blood glucose and stored muscle glycogen [1]The stored form of glucose is made up of many connected glucose molecules and is called glycogen are reasons for fatigue during endurance exercise. Athletes should aim to achieve carbohydrate intakes to meet the fuel requirements of their training program and to optimize restoration of muscle glycogen stores between workouts [2]Louise M Burke, Bente Kiens & John L Ivy: Carbohydrates and fat for training and recovery For the same reason, high carbohydrate diets help in delaying the onset of fatigue during endurance exercise. It has shown to improve exercise performance, greater than 2 hours in duration. This shows that carbohydrates are an essential fuel before and during endurance exercise.  Post-exercise refueling is necessary in order to replenish the used stores and enhance recovery.  With news circulating about the benefits of a low carb/keto diet, for an endurance athlete, carbohydrates will always be an important macronutrient. 
  2. Hydration is key: Endurance runners perform under a range of environments including different altitudes, high humidity, extreme temperatures, and exposure to the heat and cold.  Hot weather conditions in combination with metabolic rate and clothing can increase the body’s core temperature, which in turn increases the blood flow to the skin thus leading to sweating. Sweat contains water and several important electrolytes. While the rate of sweating varies, it is imperative to replenish the lost water and electrolytes through hydration. Dehydration of >2% body weight can be detrimental to performance [3]Asker E. Jeukendrup Nutrition for endurance sports: Marathon, triathlon, and road cycling While in some cases dehydration occurs during the course of the sport/event, sometimes an individual may start the activity or event in a dehydrated state. Dehydration can cause a variety of physiological strain on the body such as increased heart rate, rate of perceived exertion, and core temperature. Dehydration can manifest in the form of nausea, headaches, dizziness, and even lead to heat exhaustion and cramps. Hence,  optimal hydration becomes a key determinant of performance.
  3. Recovery along with Nutrition is important: Protein is an important and essential macronutrient, not just for performance but also for general health. A survey conducted by the Indian Market Research Bureau (IMRB) in 2015 concluded that 9 out of 10 Indians consume a protein-deficient diet. While this was not an athlete-specific population, one can only wonder if recreational athletes get their required intake! Hence, it is of priority that athletes get their individualized amount of high-quality protein to support muscle recovery and also for the body to function optimally. Protein from animal sources and plant sources vary in the amino acids [4]Amino Acids are organic compounds that combine to form proteins. Amino acids and proteins are the building blocks of life that they contain. When all essential amino acids (those that your body cannot make and need to be obtained through food) they are called complete proteins. The ones that do not contain all the essential amino acids are called incomplete proteins. Animal sources like eggs, meat, and dairy are complete proteins. Plant sources like quinoa and soy are complete proteins but lentils and legumes are incomplete proteins. The type of protein consumed will depend on the individual’s preferences and lifestyle. While animal sources do have all essential amino acids, it is possible to meet protein requirements by consuming a variety of plant-based sources.
  4. Sleep is more important than you think: While addressing all nutrition-related concerns, we often forget about an important habit. Yes, sleep. Your quality of sleep has an impact on your performance and your eating habits as well. 6-8 hours of sound sleep is ideal for most individuals. If you are struggling to fall asleep, these pointers might help;
    • Develop a sleep routine. Sleep and wake up at the same time to make it a habit.
    • Switch off all gadgets 40-60 minutes before bed. Read a book or listen to some music instead
    • Avoid caffeine consumption post 2-3 pm in the afternoon
    • Ensure that your room is not too hot or too cold and is completely dark
  5. Say no to crash/fad diets: There are numerous diets making the rounds of late, that make big promises to improve health. However, a common trend among all these diets is to exclude food groups. Each food group (namely, carbohydrates, protein, and fat) have a very important role to play in the body. As a runner, excluding any of these food groups will affect performance. For example, if a particular diet advocates extremely low carbohydrate consumption, the runner can experience fatigue earlier than normal during a run. Moreover, each individual has a unique amount of energy they require based on their lifestyle and activity levels. More active individuals likely require more food to fuel performance and recovery. Most of these diets may not account for that and could be counterproductive. They could also lead to micronutrient deficiencies that also have an impact on performance.

References:

  1. https://shapeamerica.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02640414.2011.585473#.XrOq3agzY2w
  2. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02640414.2011.610348
  3.  https://academic.oup.com/nutritionreviews/article/70/suppl_2/S132/1811529

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About the author Sharmada Venkat

Sharmada Venkat holds a BSc in Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Service management from Women’s Christian College, Chennai, and MSc in Sports Nutrition from Loughborough University, UK; also an accredited advisor under the UK Anti-doping (UKAD). To meet her client’s diverse fitness goals Sharmada develops personalized nutrition plans and helps them reach their goals with ease. She aims to equip them with the knowledge and skills to develop a better relationship with food and a sustainable lifestyle during their fitness journey.

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