Nutrition: building blocks on the way to race day

Sports nutrition takes the basic principles of healthy eating and applies it to bodies in motion. It doesn't matter if you are competing in your first 10km race or world class Ironman, sports nutrition is important for every athlete and there is always something new to learn.

Sports nutrition is also known as 'ergonenic nourishment' ie the consumption of foods to obtain nutrients for optimal human performance - Emma Wight-Boycott

Have you ever wondered?

  • How can I increase my performance through diet?
  • What foods and drinks should I eat and drink in the lead up to race day?
  • Which foods and drinks should I avoid to prepare me for the best race?

Eating to increase performance is something that most of us would like to achieve; it's not difficult if we follow some general guidelines. You may even have to rethink what you have been taught. The research coming out now is exciting and life-changing. Forget the old rules that have been rehashed over and over and approach your nutrition with an open mind.

My general philosophy regarding race training is based on the Maffetone Method:

  • Build a great aerobic base - predominantly through heart rate training to improve fat burning. Fat burning vs sugar burning improves stamina and overall health.

  • Eat well - ditch the crap and eat real food in the right volume, ratios and at the right time.

  • Reduce stress - training is a stressor to the body as is work, home and social issues etc. We need to change our reaction to 'stress' and allow our body to recover. While training may reduce your short term psychological stress you still need to increase your sleep and rest to counteract the stress impact on the body.

  • Improve brain function - the brain controls how we think, how we react to stress, how we breathe ad how we train. Training methods also affect the brain in return.

Here I will focus on eating well.

My golden rules for eating well are:

1. Consume fats!

We have been told for years that fats are unhealthy....this is a myth. Latest research tells us that it is not fat that causes weight gain; it is sugar. Avoid fats that have been altered and changed during manufacturing processes and eat naturally occurring fats.

2. Ditch the processed carbs!

There is a two-fold reason you might feel better or less tired immediately after consuming processed carbs (ie. carbohydrates that have been broken down into simple sugars). The first part of the reason is that the simple sugars provide energy by boosting blood sugar levels. This is a false sense of energy and will lead to a crash and will mess with your blood sugar. The second part of the reason is that complex carbohydrates require digestion to take place. If your digestive system isn't functioning well this can make you feel like you have indigestion, bloating and stomach cramps, so try NOT to include more simple carbohydrates in your diet.

3. Drip-feed protein!

Protein contributes to the maintenance of muscle mass and normal bone development. It is also essential for the production of amino acids which have a role in producing neurotransmitters maintaining muscles, bones, skin and hair as well as for the removal of all kinds of waste deposits produced in connection with the metabolism. Research suggests we need up to 1.6gm protein per kg of body weight.

4. Form a base of fibre!

Every meal should contain fibre. It maintains regular cleansing of the digestive system. Eating at least one large raw salad per day in addition to cooked vegetables and one serving of berries plus two servings of fruit per day will provide the optimal level of fibre. Aim for 7 servings of vegetables and 3 of fruit.

5. Add micronutrients!

The forgotten performance nutrients in recent decades are vitamins and minerals. Good quality micronutrients can keep you in tip top condition. They are needed for the conversion of carbs and fats to energy and keep your body working properly. 

One particular important and forgotten mineral is iron. Iron is necessary for production of haemoglobin in red blood cells. Haemoglobin carries oxygen from the lungs to the muscles. If iron stores are low, normal haemoglobin production slows down, which means the transport of oxygen around the body decreases, resulting in symptoms such as fatigue and tiredness. Runners especially need to ensure appropriate iron intake due to a combination of footstrike haemolysis (repeated pounding of the feet on hard surfaces which can damage red blood cells), and iron loss through sweat and natural wastage, as well as menstrual blood loss for those female runners. If diet alone is not providing all your additional iron requirement then Spatone® is a great way to maintain healthy iron levels.

6. Munch on plants!

Plant compounds, called phytonutrients, may be just as important as micronutrients in helping maintain a healthy body.

Don't forget to note that being able to complete a race is not a sign of health! Many people complete a race but are in no fit state at the end and nobody wants to be in the warzone of competitors inside the first aid tent at the end of a race. First and foremost focus on your health, then your ability to complete races followed by increased endurance, pace and speed.

Emma Wight-Boycott MSc mBANT

Food supplements should not be used as a substitute for a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle.