You are what you eat is an old cliché but so true when it comes to staying fit and healthy. We all have to ensure we get the required nutrients in our body, but if you exercise this is even more important. In fact your performance depends on it. Whether you are learning to run or planning an epic bike ride what you take in and how often will determine your success.
There are often misconceptions about how much you should eat – and drink – before, during and after exercise. How much protein should I eat and when? Is carbo-loading still the thing to do prior to an endurance event? Do I have to drink eight glasses of water a day to stay hydrated? You can listen to all the nutrition advice in the world, and read the hundreds of articles out there, but the bottom line is you need to find out what is right for you and your body type.
We all need protein, carbohydrates and water but a 130Ib woman doesn’t need the same as a 200Ib man. Eating small amounts of low fat protein such as chicken, turkey and eggs should be part of a daily diet. Carbs are essential as well, but in moderation – the days of gorging on pasta the night before a race are gone. We have such a variety of carbohydrates now – couscous and quinoa are examples – so it is easy to have a great variety in your diet. The essential thing to remember is don’t change up your diet radically, particularly leading up to an event.
Eating and running is different from eating and cycling. Most cyclists have the luxury of being able to eat prior to a ride and fuel up during it, but runners have to be more cautious. Personally, I never ate anything three hours prior to running, for years. This can be quite challenging when my long runs were in the morning. By not eating it meant I hadn’t had food for 10-12 hours. Even though I have an electrolyte drink on long runs, my energy level was affected and I often felt tired towards the end. Replicating this habit in a race situation can be a disaster when you have specific goals in mind. So I smartened up and started experimenting with foods and found those I can eat 90 minutes before a long run. So a breakfast before a long run (and by long I mean minimum 90 minutes) for me is a yogurt drink and an organic crunchy bar. I then have a sport drink and also a pack of carbohydrate chews on the run.
This might work for me but not for everyone. I know someone who sets their alarm for 4:30 am in the morning, has a peanut butter sandwich – conveniently pre-made and by the bed – and then goes back to sleep until it’s time to get up and run. Experiment until you find what works. Carrying your nutrition with you on long runs is important – even if you may not feel hungry at the start, you will need it. It takes 20 minutes or so for your food to digest and get into your system so plan ahead. We have all heard the term ‘bonking’ – when you have hit the wall because you have run out of energy. You need to ensure that this doesn’t happen by spreading out your nutrition.
Staying hydrated is as important and you need to drink before you get thirsty. So do we need to drink eight glasses of water a day? That depends on our body type and weight and what other fluids you consume. Drinking too much can have an adverse effect – Hyponatremia is a condition when the blood becomes diluted from too much water. Sipping during the day and topping up your glass frequently is the best scenario – mixing in an electrolyte adds flavour, and is recommended the day before an endurance event. And what about those electrolyte drinks? There are so many out there that you need to try them and see what works for you. There is a misconception that you need to take in electrolytes from the start of your exercise routine. That isn’t the case. Water is quite adequate for up to an hour of exercise. More than an hour and you should have a sport drink or another source of fuel as your body needs to replenish its glycogen stores.
Nutritionists recommend eating within an hour of exercising. Depending on what you have just done this may not be practical or feasible. I can’t eat anything for at least an hour after I finish a long run, I just can’t stomach it, so I will munch on any remaining chews I have, so at least I know that I am taking something in.
With all the different types of nutrition out there you can have fun trying different brands and flavours. And when you find your magic formula, stick to it and make it part of your regular exercise routine.