Balanced and strategized eating is a big part of successful training and racing. Your body uses food for fuel and recovery and what you eat (and drink) has a massive effect on your running performance. If you have ever experienced “the bonk” (loss of physical strength and/or mental focus, vision and even coordination), you know what I’m talking about.
To begin with, discussing sports nutrition is very hard, as there is no single best approach suitable for everyone. There are general principles that apply to most athletes, but the exact recipes must be fine-tuned by the runner.
Brief science of sports nutrition
Your muscles store glucose in the form of glycogen. It is the most readily available energy source and your body consumes it first, especially during high intensity activity.
When the readily available fuel storage runs out, you “hit the wall” – experience severe fatigue, heavy legs, sometimes even blurred vision and consciousness.
To prevent that, you have to fuel and hydrate – BEFORE you feel any signs of fatigue, since it takes some time for the food to be digested. The usual strategy is to consume around 100kcal (approx. 1 gel) after your first 30-50 minutes of running, followed by ¬100kcal intakes in 30-20 min intervals.
The exact amounts required will depend on your running pace, physiology, level of training, nutrition habit, etc., so you will have to find what works best for you individually.
Types of food for long run nutrition
Power Bars for Running
There is an incredible variety of sports bars available these days, varying in carbohydrate, protein and even fat content, size, sweetness, consistency and ingredients. They provide an excellent meal-substitute, as they actually feel like a meal, unlike gels and chews.
I use snack bars for my training runs all the time, but I do not tend to use them in my races that much, as they usually require a lot of chewing and feel heavier on my stomach then just a gel or some chocolate.
Best Running Gels
Easy and quick sugar source, with no impact to your stomach, hence perfect for racing. They are also light, pack easily and are dosed well, which makes the nutrition strategy during your race very easy. They are, however, sometimes difficult to swallow, and might taste super foul, when trying to ingest them with a dry throat. Some runners even report them making them feel sick.
The trick is that you MUST hydrate a lot with gels; hence a double benefit – you hydrate more efficiently and are able to absorb more calories with a less upset stomach. When you are running at a high intensity, digesting becomes challenging, and gels do not pose such issue.
One thing to note that the type of sweetener used will affect the timing of sugar release: honey-based sweeteners are a faster but shorter-lasting energy, while maltodextrin is slower to act, but works for longer periods.
Gummies or Running Chews
Similar to gels in being made of pure sugar, but are more pleasant as they resemble regular gummy candy. I personally prefer them over sucking the gel goo, but only when running is easy. I find it very hard to chew them, while having to focus on my breathing.
The Best Snacks for Running
Bananas, bagels, nuts, raisins, muffins and brownies, egg-wraps, hard boiled eggs are all good food options for your running nutrition. I personally prefer them during my training runs, especially if I’m planning to spend a long day out.
That being said, on the race day, you will run easier not having to carry heavy food items, and depending on how “well” is your stomach trained to process food under intense physical activity, it could be an issue to keep whole foods down.
Even if you choose your racing nutrition to be different from training nutrition (like it is for me), it is a good idea to try the race food combination before your race. Oh, can we count chocolate as whole food? White chocolate is one of my favourite things for EVERYTHING.
More important than food is your hydration. You might not feel thirsty, but you should be drinking a lot during your training and racing runs. Depending on the distance, intensity of your running, air temperature, altitude and your physiology, the amount of fluids you’ll need will differ, but the general rule applies of having to drink before you feel thirsty to sustain your energy levels.
It’s a very good idea to add electrolytes in your water or even some sugars, as it will allow you to hydrate much more efficiently. I sometimes just use the electrolyte tablets as candy – taking a tiny piece of them and letting it melt in my mouth, providing me my salts.
Caffeine and Additives
Gels, chews and sports bars often contain some supplements, such as essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals and sometimes even caffeine.
Vitamins and minerals are always very nice, but you should not worry about them too much, if, otherwise, you have a fully balanced diet. Caffeine, however, is something to be cautious with; a boost from caffeine can be amazing, when you feel your strength leaving you, but it can also make you anxious, upset your stomach or elevate your heart rate (like it is for me), especially in heat.
A word about flavour
On the race day, even your favourite flavour sports bar might taste like hell, so it is a good idea to have a few different options in your bag or drop bags. During one mountain ultra I remember struggling to eat anything for hours, and the only thing I could manage to take in was these sour fruit bars I never liked.
The generally existing consensus is that you should consume some recovery food as soon as possible after your exercise – ideally within 30-40 minutes, as your muscles start the recovery and rebuilding process, which requires nutrients.
Choose a combination of proteins to carbohydrates in, ideally 1:3 ratio. Try fruit and protein smoothie, for example: 1 banana, some frozen berries, tablespoon of seeds and nuts, a scoop of vegan protein and some almond/rice/wheat milk.
In conclusion, if you feel tired, cold and afraid, you might just be hungry.