Posted on September 28 2021
The first time I was intrigued with running was when I picked my copy of Eat and Run by Scott Jurek.
Scott wrote: “The reward of running — of anything — lies within us … We focus on something external to motivate us, but we need to remember that it’s the process of reaching for that prize — not the prize itself — that can bring us peace and joy.”
The book talks a little bout nutrition for runners, but mostly is about his journey on falling in love with running.
But not long after was I coaching my first ever ultra runner. Working with him made me go back and dig deeper into my sports nutrition books and was truly a life changing experience. My client went on to successfully complete his course at his personal best and ever since, I have worked with countless runners to help them improve their performance.
Unlike with other sports, ultra runners need constant fuelling not only before and after, but also during the big event. This is what's challenging for a nutritionist but also very exciting.
Nutrition and lifestyle modifications are essential, like physical preparation for running a course.
Let's explore some ways to optimise performance.
Food as fuel
As a fitness and nutrition specialist, I have the opportunity to work with people from all walks of life. It includes sportspeople, runners, professionals, and general people too! I enjoy assisting others on their lifestyle issues and observe the similarities and variances in each group of people.
Humans, like snowflakes, appear to have the same fundamental shape from afar. Yet up close, we have the intricacies that distinguish us from one another.
Consider that the human body is a well-calibrated biological machine. This machine can pull out incredible feats of strength, intelligence, memory, deduction, learning, and balance.
Running is one such incredible feat that the human body pulls off. For this, clean and consistent fuel—in our case is essential.
Should athletes eat fats or carbs?
Time and again this question begins to pop as to what the right fuel for athletes is.
Nutritionists are aware that carbs are beneficial to their performance. It is because they are the preferred energy source for muscles during activity. Read this for more information:
Not only are carbs the preferred fuel source for the body, they are also anti- inflammatory and gut friendly. Carbs are also digested fastest by the body, unlike fats that can take upto 40 hours in transit, mouth to anus. This gives athletes an added advantage of using it as a fuel source in between training sessions.
Ideally, carbohydrates should make up 45-65% of our diet. Yet, a carbohydrate-rich diet should also include fat to boost vitamin absorption.
Certain vitamins are better absorbed in the presence of essential fatty acids. Though, aim to get no more than 2-4 tbsp of fats per meal. Essential fats comprise of nuts/ seeds/ seed butters/ olives and avocadoes.
A little over 50% of your plate should be filled with grains, vegetables, fruits and starches. About 20% of your plate should comprise of nuts, seeds, seed butters and olives. Let the remaining 20- 25% of the plate fill up with plant- based protein options like lentils, beans, pulses, sprouts and soy products like tofu and soy beans.
We will explore specific foods to include pre/ during and post training a little later, but let's first look at some adaptogens that help runners.
Benefits of nutritional yeast for athletes.
This flaky- vegan cheese alternative food has taken some spotlight recently for its health benefits. But how does it help runners?
Moderate exercise has been demonstrated to boost immunity and reduce sickness rates in studies. Even as little as 6 minutes of physical activity per day for children has been associated with a boost in the growth of immune cells.
So finding time to go to the gym everyday will actually translate to less time spent falling sick and more time to dedicate to your work.
However, the same is not true for high intense training sessions. As training intensity increases, like in case of ultra athletes, immune function actually decreases. Checkout this study comparing incidence of upper respiratory track infection for individuals who are not active, to moderately active individuals to highly active athletes.
Inflammation rates are higher and immunity levels are lower for athletes who train vigorously. So this means they fall sick more often.
Enter, nutritional yeast to the rescue!
A new study shows that taking a unique fibre found in baker's, brewer's, and nutritional yeast can help cut down inflammation after intense exercise. This translates to increased immunity and lesser episodes of falling sick.
One study particularly studies marathon runners and here is what they found:
Beta- glucan here is the magical compound in nutritional yeast. Just 1/3rd of a tbsp of nooch cuts the risk of upper respiratory track infections (UTRI) to half not only right after the race, but for many weeks later.
So add nooch to your salads or make a cheesy dip with the same. Either ways, eat some nooch today.
Ginger for DOMS management.
Delayed Oppressed Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is a common effect experienced by runners. DOMS appears 12-24 hours after exercise and peaks between 24 and 72 hours after the workout.
Ginger's anti-inflammatory, and analgesic properties are effective in reducing pain and inflammation. Thus, it makes it a promising candidate for inclusion in sports supplements.
Health and sport science experts from an American research institutions conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical experiment in 2015.
20 non-weight-trained male and female participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group got placebo capsules containing 4 g of dextrose and the other 4 g of ginger powder. Before conducting a high-intensity elbow eccentric exercise routine targeted at producing DOMS, participants were asked to take one capsule for five days.
The results saw a significant improvement in the ginger group. Additionally, the recovery was faster compared to the placebo group. Thus, the survey showed ginger supplementation enhances muscle strength recovery following high-intensity exercise.
Start your day with the juice of a thumb of ginger. Even grating some on top of daal and curries is a great idea.
Can chocolate boost your stamina?
You may be well aware of how crucial it is to have a pre-and post-workout regimen to avoid injury. Whether you're preparing for a race or run for pleasure, a dedicated regimen is essential.
But did you know that chocolate (more precisely cacao beans) can help you perform better during your run and recover faster? Essential fats and antioxidants are two features of cacao beans beneficial to your workout.
However, ensure to not go overboard with the sugar; you can opt for the darker variant. The darker is the chocolate, the more beneficial it is. Darker chocolate also has more antioxidants than milk chocolate.
There are various ways how chocolates boost your workout. They are:
- Increase aerobic capacity: Research studies show that dark chocolate enhances the VO2 max or how the body uses the oxygen. Sedentary people who took 20 grams of dark chocolate every day for three months observed a 17% rise in their oxygen consumption.
- Reduce Inflammation: Flavonoids decreases inflammation. Flavonoids are antioxidants found in chocolate. While dark chocolate has more compounds than milk chocolate, both contain them. As running creates acute inflammation in muscles and joints, consuming chocolate before or after a workout may help. It will lessen the inflammation and minor discomfort that comes with it. Furthermore, two recent studies show that flavonoids improve brain and cardiovascular health.
- Get your mind right: There's a reason you feel great after eating chocolate. Serotonin the mood-regulating hormone is triggered by cacao beans.
- You can run farther: Dark chocolate contains caffeine! Who knew! Caffeine consumption improves both strength and endurance, according to a study. Additionally, combining caffeine with carbohydrates can aid muscle repair after a strenuous workout.
I would insist a cacao nibs smoothie pre run or cacao and dates energy balls post run. Avoid processed chocolate bars by itself as they tend to have added sugars.
Mail my team and they will be glad to share the recipe.
Other food to improve athletic performance.
Green vegetables, such as spinach, are particularly beneficial in increasing athletic performance. The process of running marathons itself leads to oxidative stress in the body.
Research studies show that increasing the consumption of green leafy vegetables like Brahmi, Kale, Lettuce, Spinach, Gongura etc has a positive effect in reducing oxidation in the body. This not only boosts recovery, but also keeps your skin and cells young and healthy. The process of oxidation leads to ageing, cut down oxidation with the consumption of greens, you slow down ageing.
The study had participants eating 1gram of spinach per kilogram of body weight. So that is 50 grams of greens per day if you are 50 kilo's. I would explore different types of greens and avoid consuming just spinach daily.
Berries (all types, particularly Goji Berries), tart cherry juice and black current juice have a similar effect on the body. All are highly anti- oxidant.
What to eat before a run?
I have been promoting a plant- centric vegan nutrition intake for years now. However, the stereotype that vegans are weak and vegan diet deteriorates performance still prevails.
iIt was not untill the documentary Gamechangers released that plant- based diets took the center state for athletes. A recent revolutionary study also found that a vegan diet improves athletic performance. This is not a one of a kind study.
Here is a quote from the creators of Game Changers:
"Hard-working muscles run primarily on glycogen, a form of carbohydrate stored in our liver and muscle. Carbohydrates, which come almost exclusively from plants, also provide our brain with its primary and preferred fuel — glucose — which helps us stay sharp and focused during intense training sessions and competitions.
Performance-based diets built around meat and other animal products often provide dietary fat at the expense of carbohydrates. Unlike carbohydrates, fat can’t produce energy fast enough to meet the demands of intense exercise, so diets that sacrifice carbohydrates typically impair high-intensity performance. Low-carbohydrate diets, including the ketogenic (keto) diet, have been shown to cause so much fatigue that they even affect our motivation to begin a training session, let alone finish it."
That being said, before starting a run, athletes should take a small snack that is high in carbs. It permits them to maximise the amount of blood glucose that conserves energy. A short run (anything less than an hour) requires roughly 30 grams of carbs pre run. A longer run might require more fuel.
A slice of fruit, oats porridge, a few slices of bread or sweet potato are all great options. This will changes based on a few factors though, like:
- Your current gut health (if fibrous food makes your gut act up).
- The distance you are targeting.
- Temperature etc..
Pre-Run Snack Ideas
Longer run's might require you to load up on carbs the night before so your liver and muscle glycogen stores are full.
If your run is longer, you will also need to consider optimal hydration before, during and after run.
What to consume during a run?
When deciding whether to eat or not during a run, the duration of the run is the most crucial aspect to consider. Most of the body energy comes from stored muscle glycogen while you run for less than 60 minutes.
For most people, the food you eat pre- run will suffice for about 60- 75 minutes into the run. You will need to refuel anywhere between 100- 250 calories for every hour after the first 75 minutes. This roughly translates to 30- 50 grams of carbs or an equivalent amount of sports drink.
However, experts suggest to start fuelling roughly at about the 45 minutes mark and not wait till you 'hit the wall', meaning, are already deprived of energy stores.
Multiple other factors also play into account how soon your energy stores drain out. For instance, beginners often fatigue sooner since the same amount of efforts for them might take more energy, given their endurance levels are low.
An uphill terrain might also require more outburst of energy levels. Thus, this part of nutrition needs individual customisation.
Some intra run snacks that work with most people are mentioned below.
Intra- run snacks must be chosen based on three key factors:
- Adequate hydration (like coconut water).
- Replenishing lost electrolytes due to excessive sweating (like seaweed crisps).
- Fast releasing carbs for quick energy (like energy gels).
What to eat after a run?
The demands on the bodies of ultra runners are much more than powerlifters and most other athletes. Ultra runs often go on for hours together and thus requires proper hydration and fuel post runs.
Scientifically speaking, you want to replenish with about 1.2 grams of carbs for every kg of body weight post an endurance event. So if my bodyweight is 55 kilo's, this would roughly translate to 66 grams of carbs.
Though carbs are important, another nutrients important post a good run is some form of an anti- inflammatory agent.
If you were to head to a hospital post a run to get your blood work taken, the amount of inflammation and DNA damage to your cells would resemble that of a very sick person. This is not bad though, this exercise induced inflammation triggers the release of anti- inflammatory enzymes in your body that have many beneficial effects.
Adding anti- inflammatory foods, only help your body recover faster. Fruits and vegetables are great, but spices stand as the hero in this category.
Chewing on 2-3 clove pods, adding a pinch of cinnamon to your pasta or turmeric to your smoothie does the trick. Matcha tea and adaptogenic herbs like maca and ashwagandha are great too.
You definitely want to keep meat and dairy of your plate, as animal protein not only causes more inflammation, but also leads to destroying the good bacteria of the gut that help reduce inflammation.
Vegetarian Post Run Meals:
Concept of carb-loading.
You may be wondering what does carb-loading means. It is when runners or endurance athletes load on carbs-rich foods before a run. This could be anywhere between one week before the race or even just the night before the race.
Why is this important?
Humans use glucose from the food we eat as the main source of energy to function. Excess glucose is stored in the liver cells and muscles of the body. When these store are full, do we store the excess glucose as fat cells.
The body will not breakdown fat stores or muscle mass for energy as long as it can continue getting energy from food consumed and/ or liver and muscle stores.
Card loading is the concept of re- fueling the liver and muscle stores before a race so there is sustained flow of energy. When the body is forced to breakdown fat cells or muscle mass do runner start feeling fatigue.
So how do you load carbs?
First, reduce your exercise load while gradually increasing your carbohydrate intake. This tapering approach, while giving nutrition to muscles, packs the body's fuel tank. So that when you are about to run your main event, your liver and muscle glycogen stores are loaded.
For a successful carb-loading process, include fruits, cereals, rice, potatoes, bread, and pasta. Although sugar is a no-no if you are a runner, fruits are your friends here. Choose whole carb options instead of write rice/ white pasta and white breads.
Work with an expert to understand how much you need to carb load. It will be anywhere between 5- 12 grams per KG of body weight.
Something as simple as a carb- heavy dinner the night before the race is good enough for athletes. A whole wheat pasta dish, brown rice or millet porridge are all great options.
Running and dehydration go hand in hand. Water is a close second to oxygen on the list of life's needs. Water is helpful in maintaining blood volume and pressure, among other things.
How much water should you drink for every hour of practice?
It is beneficial to keep up with your water intake as a runner and also for your heart. Over 25 years, researchers conducted a study called 'Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities", a study on 16,000 middle-aged adults who participated in the long-running. As a result, they discovered that runners with good hydration are less likely to develop heart failure.
So, what is the amount of water that you should drink for every hour of practice?
- At least two hours before your run, drink 16 ounces (2 cups) of water along with a snack or a meal. Then, drink six to eight ounces (1 cup) of water around 15 minutes before your run.
- Drink water at regular intervals during a run that lasts more than an hour. It is dependent on your sweat rate. Those who sweat a lot may require 16 ounces (2 cups) of water every 15- 20 minutes. Along with water, you'll want to ingest some carbohydrates and electrolytes. Sports gels and dried fruit are two examples.
- Drink at least 16 ounces (2 cups) of water with food after a run. Replenish with 20 to 24 ounces (3 cups) per pound lost if you know your sweat rate.
Drinking the right amount of water is crucial for your performance as well as your health. Drinking water should not be a task but a habit. Practice hydrating yourself while on long runs. This way, you will also learn how much water is enough for your body.
Too much water?
A person running for over four hours should follow their thirst. Also, avoid drinking excessive amounts of water, and use sodium-containing gel's instead. Excessive water will mean excessive pee- breaks. This will not only slow you down, but also wash out sodium and other electrolytes from your body.
Remember, practice is critical. Your stomach is trainable!. If you train it with the proper water intake, it will get accustomed, and you will be able to figure when it's too much.
Dehydration: Myths and Risks.
- Does coffee count?
Beverages like coffee and tea, actully dehydrate you. For every cup of caffine you have, add two cups of water.
On the other hand, soups, fruits, and vegetables are high in water and can also help hydrate your body. These foods offer around 20% of the total water ingested in a day.
- Are sports drinks a good hydrating option?
Sports drinks are a good way of hydrating the body during the race. Although sports drinks hydrate faster, drinking enough water before and after exercise is still crucial. Besides this, some brands really just serve sugar in the name of electrolytes. Sugar is a diuretic and will dehydrates you. Thus, pick a good brand.
- Can I drink too much water?
Hyponatremia, or low blood sodium, occurs by drinking too much water in a short period. While this is a rare ailment, it is more common in marathon runners. It is caused by several disorders when the body has too much water to process. As a result, the brain cells and the body swells, causing fatigue and even possibility of death.
Studies show that dehydration can decrease alertness, slower response time, impaired memory, reduced thinking and math skills. Poor exercise performance also links to dehydration. thus, finding the right balance is important.
Common food myths for runners
You need to be able to differentiate facts from fiction if you're a runner. So let's debunk some myths related to food intake for runners.
1. Energy gel and drinks are suitable for every run.
It's easy to imagine that energy gels and drinks with high-quality components are necessary for runners. But this is certainly not suitable to all body types and definitely not necessary.
If you organise pre-run meals, you should be able to include enough energy rich foods to get you through runs without powering up. Gels and liquids are beneficial for longer runs. But test them out beforehand to see if they agree with your stomach. You can also keep it simple by making your own energy drink.
2. Low-fat diets are better for runners.
Even though tonnes of research has refuted this notion, it remains. Fats are a crucial component of our diet. It is especially true for runners, as fats are an essential energy source.
They are also a necessary component of hormone manufacturing, nervous system function, and muscle regeneration. However, the types of fats you consume are critical. Avoid transfat rich deep-fried foods, favouring fats in bakery goods, and instead choose fats coming in from nuts and seeds. Eggs are big NO too, watch this for more information:
3. Coffee will dehydrate you.
According to studies, caffeine has little effect on hydration potential up to 200mg (about two cups of coffee). Its diuretic characteristics only kicking in above that threshold.
However, the possible benefits include greater endurance and performance. Coffee is also a prebiotic fiber, feeding the healthy bacteria in your gut. In addition, a decreased psychological sense of exertion and higher fat burn, so if you need coffee before a run, go ahead.
4. You will lose weight if you run.
Many individuals begin running to lose weight. While it can be a practical part of a weight-loss plan, multiple other factors play role.
Nutrition and recovery management are key components to ensure you do not lose more weight than desired. That being said, running as a sport does lead to lower body fat percentage but also lean muscle growth.
To best compliment, your running routine, track your calorie expenditure and plan healthy meals. Also include a few strength training session through the week to build lean muscle mass. Ensure that the foods you eat are whole, natural, and minimally processed foods. These foods provide a wide range of critical nutrients.
5. Carbs and proteins make the perfect runner meal.
With all the hype about carbohydrate loading and muscle recovery, it's tempting to believe that all you need is carbs and protein. Runners must also consume a sufficient amount of antioxidant to prevent free radical damage. Free radicals are highly reactive chemicals that can harm cells.
Essential fatty acids and certain herbal adaptogens must also make their way into your plate.
Antioxidant compounds from vividly coloured fruit and vegetables like berries, dark-green leafy vegetables, and bright-orange vegetables such as butternut squash and sweet potato can help to counteract their effects.
Can runners perform well on a vegan diet?
A well-balanced diet is essential for runners' health and athletic performance.
With this in mind, can a plant-based diet help you get the most out of your running?
Several sportspeople have demonstrated that eating meat is not required for sporting success. For example, Scott Jurek, an ultrarunner, attributes his accomplishments to his plant-based diet. Rich Roll, another ultra runner has a podcast where he speaks to guests about the benefits of a plant based diet and athleticism.
There is a widespread misunderstanding that vegans do not get vital elements that non-vegans get from animal-based protein sources. On the contrary, plants are the only real source of minerals and vitamins. A plant- based diet is the most dense when it comes to nutrients. It provides all vital elements for good health at any age or stage of life.
Besides this, being highly alkalizing, anti- inflammatory and anti- oxidant rich diet, a plant- based diet helps you with faster recovery, slows down ageing and keeps you on top of your game.
Looking for customised nutrition plan as per your running goals? Fill up the form below for free consultation.