Physical activity, athletic performance and recovery from exercise are all enhanced by achieving optimal nutrition. The majority of sports nutrition research has focused on developing strategies to improve our athletic performance, since consuming the correct nutrients can be just as important as the training itself. Commonly, new runners are unsure on the ideal foods to be eating before and after their sessions, as well as the timings of when to plan their meals. Understanding these areas is important since continual low energy intake can result in loss of muscle mass, menstrual dysfunction, increased risk of injury, fatigue and illness and prolonged recovery time. Performance nutrition is, however, a very complex topic, and one in which I am by no means qualified in. The information provided in this post I have gathered through extensive reading as well as highlighting my own experiences and areas that have worked for me. Therefore, I hope this can be of help as a rough guide to aid beginners in starting to think about nutrition. If further, personalised nutrition advice is needed, always opt to discuss this with somebody qualified.
There's no worse feeling than starting a run and realising your breakfast and morning coffee really have not digested, bracing yourself over the nearest bin just in case. Timing your pre-run nutrition is quite dependent upon the intensity and length of your planned session and your personal digestive preferences. In short, the larger the meal you consume, the longer it will take to digest enough to run comfortably. Roughly, a snack should take less than an hour to digest, a small meal one to two hours and a large meal should be left about three to four hours before heading out. If you are only heading out for an easy session of less than 30 minutes at a relaxed pace, then you may get away with just a glass of water beforehand and not require any food. However, anything of more a moderate to high intensity will require energy in order for you to perform at your best. Similarly, higher intensity sessions often require longer digestion time than those carried out at a slow, comfortable pace. Personally, I usually always opt for a small meal around two hours before heading out as I find this works best for me. If this is not possible, for example I am running in an evening, I will ensure I've had a good sized lunch three to four hours before and then a snack around one hour before.
Fuelling yourself with the right foods will ensure you have the energy for consistent, good performance. Ingesting carbohydrates prior to exercise has been found to be very beneficial to performance, likely due to the increase in glycogen provided. The importance of muscle glycogen for exercise has been detected as early as the 1960s and, since then, research has undeniably shown high pre-exercise muscle glycogen stores enhance endurance in exercise. Studies in which participants consumed carbohydrates two to three hours before exercise have shown athletic performance to be consistently improved, highlighting the positive effects of consuming carbohydrates in your pre-exercise nutrition. Elite athletes are often recommended to 'carb load' for a competition, which requires eating 6-12g/kg body weight of carbohydrates in the 24-36 hours prior to the event.
It is advised that meals consumed before exercise should be relatively low in fibre and fat to facilitate gastric emptying and minimise gastrointestinal distress. Alongside this, and particularly on the day of an event, pre-exercise nutrition should consist of foods that are familiar for your body. I'm sure we've all experienced the sudden cramps and realisation your run may have to be cut shorter than anticipated.
As mentioned previously, nutrition often comes down to personal preferences. Some individuals do not like eating pre-run, however it can sometimes be necessary. Topping up your glycogen stores with some carbohydrates before a session ensures they do not drop too low during. This can especially be important for early morning exercise as during the night our glycogen stores are reduced by approximately 80%, meaning exercising in this fasted state is not considered optimal for the body. Symptoms of these stores dropping too low include dizziness, blurred vision, fatigue and lack of coordination, so if you are experiencing any of these perhaps rule out nutrition by assessing your pre-run choices. The greatest benefit to performance in carbohydrate ingestion will be seen in long-duration sessions since these can be limited by the initial amount of glycogen we are storing when setting out.
Common meals I have before running include;
Porridge (with either honey, banana, peanut butter, frozen berries or protein powder (or a combination of a couple))
Whole meal toast with peanut butter
High protein yoghurt with fruit
High protein yoghurt and granola
Weetabix (on it's own or with strawberries or a banana)
Protein shake with a banana
Protein smoothie consisting of; banana, frozen berries, protein powder and (sometimes) peanut butter
Whole meal toast with egg
Whole meal toast with avocado
After you have finished your session, it is advisable to try and eat as soon as possible. Ideally you should aim to eat within 20-30 minutes of finishing for optimal effect but anywhere up until, but not after, two hours is good. Longer than two hours is said to reduce glycogen synthesis by up to 50%, which is our bodies way of refilling it's depleted energy stores after exercise. Therefore, eating as soon as possible is best to maximise training benefits and recovery.
Your post-run meal should include a good source of both carbohydrates and protein, with research recommending a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. Protein is especially important to be consumed after exercise since it provides our body with the amino acids used for muscle recovery and building. Longer runs can cause micro-tears within our muscle tissue that require protein in order for us to experience the improvement in muscle strength and our bodies to recover from this stress. Many people have the misconception that protein is only essential when weight training. However, protein ingestion reduces muscle breakdown thus increasing muscle strength, which, in turn, improves our running performance, efficiency and lowers our risk of injury. Give my previous post a read for more on the importance of muscle strength for runners.
Carbohydrates are also essential after exercise, much like beforehand, to replenish our depleted glycogen stores. This helps us to gain control over our blood sugar levels since this can be affected for a considerable amount of time, likely dropping, after an especially long or tiring run. Consuming carbohydrates immediately after exercise is important in order to maximise the rate of muscle glycogen synthesis. If ingesting protein alongside, less carbohydrates need to be consumed, and it has even been theorised that a combination of carbohydrates and protein consumption has a higher positive influence on subsequent exercise performance than carbohydrates alone.
It is worth noting that sometimes our brain can mislead us by interpreting dehydration as hunger. Ensure you are also drinking enough water to replenish that lost during exercise, perhaps even drinking post-exercise before eating to make sure you do not overeat.
Common foods I eat after exercising:
A protein smoothie usually consisting of banana, fruit and protein powder
A tuna sandwich on whole meal bread with spinach
A chicken sandwich on whole meal bread or a whole meal wrap with spinach
A bagel or whole meal toast with eggs (sometimes with avocado also)
Whole meal toast with peanut butter and a protein shake
Pasta with bolognese or meatballs (and cheese.. obviously)
Chicken stir fry with noodles or whole grain rice
Chocolate milk is something highly recommended by many athletes as a post-exercise nutrition choice. It replenishes both carbohydrates and protein, as well as having a high water content helping to replace the fluid lost during exercise. Additionally, it is high in calcium which is key for energy metabolism and healthy bones.
As aforementioned, the ideal meal-timing formula is greatly down to personal preference and individual differences since everybody responds differently to differing foods. The foods I have mentioned may work well for me, however they may not for you. The key is to experiment. Test out different foods and timings, and find what works the best for you and your body. Potentially, this could even differ at different times of the day! If you do require individualised nutritional direction and advice then please always consult a qualified dietitian or sports dietitian.
What are your favourite pre and post exercise meals? Let me know in the comments below!