Typically, runners start considering nutrition when they get to half marathon distances. At this distance it’s time to time to adapt the amount of food you eat, particularly on heavy training days. In this episode we’ll talk about.
- How YOUR nutrition needs to change as running distance increases
- Pre, During and Post Running – what and when to eat
- How much to eat to fuel your distance
This episode is for you if you are planning your first half marathon, or if you are an experienced half marathon runner looking to get the edge or if you are stepping up to marathon distance or indeed wanting to fuel your ongoing marathon training with great nutrition.
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An overview of the main changes to nutrition as distance increases
When you get into running half marathon and longer distances it’s time to adapt the amount of food you eat on heavy training days to ensure you are fueling your training and racing.
The main changes are:
· How much you eat (eating enough on heavy training days),
· The proportion of macro requirements will change
· Learning how to strategically use slow and quick release carbohydrates is important thing to understand, to practice and fine tune
· You will need to be more conscious of eating pre, during and post training
The key reasons for adapting nutrition as distance increases are:
· To preserve stored glucose (glycogen) - in liver and muscles, prevent using protein for energy
· Sustain Performance
· Provide enough energy (kcal) for training
· Support recovery and repair
One of the concepts we teach our clients is switching between different athlete plates. That particularly helps you focus on your macronutrient requirements are your training changes. As distance increases the distribution of macronutrients on plate needs to change too.
An everyday healthy food plan is adequate for up to 9-10 miles or a run lasting up to 90 minutes but when you start to increase your training runs beyond that you’ll need change your food plan on your long run training day(s).
The MAIN CHANGE on days when completing a longer endurance run is to adjust CHO content up to reflect the energy expenditure of the run – so roughly moving from ¼ plate to 1/3 plate of CHO - this would be appropriate for distances of up to 15/16 miles for longer distances we’d suggest a higher carbohydrate intake. (This will vary between individuals but gives you a rough guide)
It’s important that you maintain portions of protein or fat intake as they are required for fuel as well as muscle strength, recovery and repair following the run
Also ensure your vegetable intake is varied and eat at each meal – micronutrients are key for energy production and recovery.
Hydration – needs to increase too. Depending on temperatures and sweat rate – electrolyte drops may need to be added. It’s good to practice carrying water and hydrating for longer distances – if you’d like more insights listen to Episodes 5 Hydration and Running and E46 Does Dehydration impair exercise performance.
When we move beyond training distances of 15-16miles, macronutrient intake needs to change yet again.
Protein intake REMAINS CONSTANT, it is Carbohydrate only that increases alongside a decrease in vegetable intake. Carbohydrate intake would increase to ½ plate portion size.
Our Athlete Plate would be the Hard Training Plate – ½ plate of CHO, ¼ protein and ¼ vegetables
Hydration – again this needs to be monitored and adjusted accordingly with a focus on electrolyte balance to help prevent muscle cramps and aches that could limit performance.
· if you are training for a half marathon for your long training runs you’d be using the moderate plate on training days
· On Half marathon race day you’d use the hard training plate to super compensate carbohydrate intake
· If you are training for a marathon or more you’d be using the hard training plate on the days you do long training runs (e.g. 16 miles and beyond but personalised to your requirements).
· On light training days or rest days follow everyday healthy eating principles
What would be the potential performance issues if a runner didn’t follow the adjustments to CHO we have suggested?
It’s widely recognised that Carbohydrate is one of the limiting factors in endurance running i.e. if you don’t have enough your performance will be compromised. Carbohydrate is the principle energy source BUT we have limited storage capacity (as glycogen) - 100g (400Kcal) glycogen stored in liver, 400g (1600Kcal) stored in muscle.
- CHO is digested and absorbed quickly - more quickly/efficiently than protein/fat
- We have limited storage for CHO and that’s why we need to manage top ups of CHO during longer endurance runs.
- CHO is key for optimal recovery – important if completing 2 or more exercise sessions/d OR endurance runs daily.
- Poor recovery could have a spiralling effect if not addressed eg. poor training quality, increased risk of injury, reduced performance
The key message is that when you are running longer distances, it's important on training days to increase your carbohydrate intake. And remember to maintain your protein intake and adjust hydration requirements. Also follow a healthy eating plan every day.
Learning how to strategically use slow and quick release carbohydrates. This is an important strategy to understand, to practice and fine tune.
Both types of carbohydrates have a place in the diet of a distance runner – it is about using them strategically …
Quick Release Carbohyrdates are simple sugars – they are digested quickly and so readily available for energy.
Examples of Quick Release Carbohydrates are:
Fruit: All fruits but especially: banana, mango, pineapple, papaya, other tropical fruits
Dried Fruit: All dried fruit but especially: medjool dates, mango
Fruit purees: mango, banana
Syrups: honey, maple, molasses
Jams (these tend to be processed)
White Grains: rice, pasta, couscous, spelt, wheat (bread/cereals)
You could use a Quick Release Carbohydrate snack Pre run if you have an hour or less before you set out.
Choose natural foods if possible. Use these foods to make running snacks.
During training you’d always be choosing Quick Release Carbohydrate but they do have a place pre and post as well.
Having a Quick Release Carbohydrate snack post run within 30 mins of completing your run is recommended for efficient glycogen repletion.
Slow-Release Carbohydrates would be described as complex carbohydrates, usually unrefined, include some fibre, the digestive process is longer and usually we recommend eating them as part of your everyday easy training plate. Eating slow-release carbs 1-2 hours before a run (alongside some protein) will help fuel you throughout a longer run
Some examples of SLOW-RELEASE Carbohydrates … they tend to fall into groups of foods e.g. WHOLEGRAINS such as rice, grains, oats, LEGUMES (beans and pulses) and ROOT VEGETABLES such as potato, sweet potato, pumpkin, squash, carrots, beetroot
Eating Pre Run
If you will be running for longer than 90 minutes it’s important to eat pre and during run.
· If you have 2hrs before a run – then choose a high protein/high CHO breakfast/meal e.g. overnight oats/porridge with nut butter or eggs with toast
· If only 1hr available – something lighter which will be easier to digest e.g. Nutrient dense Smoothie may be good here as it is liquid therefore not so much of a strain on the digestive system, but still needs to contain a good combination of nutrients esp. CHO/PRO – e.g. Berries, flaxseed, yogurt (or kefir), oats.
· If only 45mins available – choose a quick release carbohydrate food e.g. banana, dried fruit (medjool date), make your own energy bars
Eating during a run
· Important to fuel regularly and practice until you find what works best for you
· To keep your glycogen (stored energy from CHO) stores topped up it is important to introduce quick release CHO foods early in the run.
· General advice would be to have a QR CHO food at regular intervals i.e. within 45mins-1hr of your run
· Some runners find eating every 20mins more manageable than eating large amounts of CHO each hour. E.g. 1-2 medjool dates
· If speed is key then a fruit puree pouch (Ella’s Kitchen) or honey pouch (Honey Stinger) per hour may be preferable.
· Depending on your individual situation you’ll probably consume between 30g-60g per hour of quick release CHO
An elite athlete COULD consume up 90g CHO /hr but this is rare
· Continue to eat at 45min-1hr intervals DURING the run helps maintain performance and helps prevent muscle breakdown
Don’t neglect your post run fuelling as this will really support recovery and get you ready for your next training session … think of it in 2 parts – firstly what you eat within 30 mins of completing your run and what you do after 1-2 hours …
· Immediately Post run – quick release CHO within 30mins e.g. honey sandwich, dried mango, banana, fruit bar (Nak’d) – if I know I have a meal planned soon after I’ll just have a teaspoon of honey
· 1-2hrs – CHO/PRO 4:1 ratio – introduce protein to help muscle recovery/repair and help prevent injury. CHO still high to replace lost glycogen stores
· Important to keep this up for 6hrs post run THEN return to normal healthy eating
How much to eat to fuel your distance.
At Runners Health Hub we focus on using athletes’ plates to explain how much of each macronutrient to eat at each meal, so we have EASY TRAINING/MODERATE TRAINING/HARD TRAINING plate but sometimes it is useful to have insights into detail around how much specifically of each macronutrient to consume in relationship to body composition.
Guidance is given based on g per kg of body weight per day
CARBOHYDRATE – will fluctuate. Wide range as it will depend on running time/distance and personal goals. Sometimes may go as low as 3g/Kg BW/d – generally during rest/time away from training, weight/fat loss. For long endurance runs – approx 6-7g/Kg BW/d unless body composition is a focus then 5g/Kg BW/d would be more suitable. This may need to be adapted depending on individual needs. 12g/KgBW/d is generally reserved for highly trained professional/elite runners.
PROTEIN – needs to remain constant – at least 1.2g/Kg BW/d – will depend on individual goals e.g. body composition, muscle building, muscle repair. It is thought that novice runners may require higher amounts e.g. 1.6g/Kg BW/d and potentially older runners too as we naturally lose muscle mass as we age. Sometimes hear of individuals going as high as 2g/Kg, however it tends to be strength athletes. Runners need to be lean, not bulky.
FAT -1g/Kg BW/d for maintaining body composition. 0.5g/Kg BW/d if weight/fat loss required
Food choices tend not to change i.e. we should be focusing on healthy, unprocessed whole foods whatever distance we are running the main difference is that portion sizes will be bigger and our overall intake of food will increase due to that plus our pre/during/post foods/snacks.
Putting it all into practice
The first step is to get organised, particularly if you’ve never really thought much about pre/during/post fuelling.
· Get the foods/snacks you’d like to try – buy them, have them ready to use and then plan out the days you’ll be doing your long training runs.
· Writing your plan on paper, work out what time you plan to start your run and what time you expect to complete it.
· Jot down how that fits into your day and usual meal times – that guides yoy into deciding what and when to eat before/during and after. It takes a bit of thought but when you’ve done it a few times you’ll make the right choices naturally.
· Keep it really simple to begin with start with foods you know you like and that your digestion likes too!
· You could also build up week by week so start with pre fueling, then post fueling as those are easiest then practice eating during training.
· Gradually your body will adapt, and you’ll start to notice some improvements in how your energy levels are during and after training sessions and that your recovery is improved.
· You could start introducing these foods on shorter runs for a period of time to help your body adjust
· If you run early in the morning, make breakfast the night before, eat it as soon as you waken then go and get ready to give time to digest before heading out
· Plan your hydration in the same way that you would your nutrition. Think about where you will run…will there be water fountains on route? if not, how much do you need to carry with you? Does this mean investing in a camelbak?
· Also, something to note is that the digestive system changes the longer you run.ie what it can tolerate and what it is willing to receive changes. You may be ok with sweet foods early in a run, but prefer something more savoury or liquid later in the run…it’s worth bearing in mind and noting how you feel and how you react to foods as your run progresses.
Karen’s approach to fuelling for an 18-mile training run
Tips for fuelling later in the day
If you are running after work, say early evening, make sure you have a satisfying lunch and a carb/protein snack 2 hours before your run or a QR snack 1 hour before and remember to take your “during run” snacks with you. Remember don’t run on empty – you will be under fuelled.
Key Take Aways
1. As your running distance INCREASES macronutrient intake must do so too – especially carbohydrates
2. Slow release and quick release CHO have a place in an endurance runner’s diet … however need to be used STRATEGICALLY – pre, during and post training
3. A distance runner must eat BEFORE, DURING and AFTER an endurance run
4. How MUCH to eat will depend on the runner’s goals
5. g/Kg BW can be used to work out YOUR macronutrient needs related to your goals/body composition and life stage
· CARBOHYDRATE - 5-12g/Kg BW (body weight)/d
· PROTEIN - 1.2-1.6g/Kg BW/d
· FAT - 0.5-1g/Kg BW/d
6. Use Moderate or Hard Training Athlete Plate Guidance for days when scheduling longer distance runs and use Easy Training/Everyday Healthy Eating Athlete Plate for Rest days or Easy Training Days
7. PRACTICE! PRACTICE! PRACTICE!
The suggestions we make during this episode are for guidance and
advice only, and are not a substitute for medical advice or treatment.
If you have any concerns regarding your health, please contact
your healthcare professional for advice as soon as possible.
Aileen Smith and Karen Campbell met at as nutrition students (Institute for Optimum Nutrition, London) and became lifelong friends and nutritional buddies! Both have a love of running and a passion for nutrition, delicious food and healthy living.
Together they host RUNNERS HEALTH HUB. A place for like-minded runners who are looking for simple ways to support running performance, energy, endurance, and general great health.
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