Nutrition & Supplements
Nutrition for Athletes
By Sandra Brown
A good healthy diet will give you vitality, protect your immune system from infection and illness (avoiding time lost from training and racing), promote recovery from races, training and injury, and generally keep you in good shape for life and sport.
Fruit and Vegetables
Eat 5-10 portions daily of fruit and vegetables, including a wide variety. Mix up the colours, as different coloured fruit and veg (eg, red, yellow, green, black) contain different vitamins and minerals, and make their own different contributions to your health. Broccoli and all types of cabbage, red, green and yellow peppers, and carrots and other root veg are all very good. Apples and oranges are traditional health favourites, and bananas are a particularly good source of potassium (to counteract the effect of sodium and help prevent high blood pressure.) Dark fruits, which are common in autumn, are thought to help to fortify the immune system for winter. Dried fruits (dates, figs, prunes, apricots, raisins, bananas etc) are rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre, and easy to carry around as snacks.
Ultra distance athletes need more protein than normally recommended amounts, for general well-being, muscle maintenance and repair, injury prevention and recovery. Fish of all kinds is excellent. Eat plenty of low fat yoghurt, fromage frais, cottage cheese, for their calcium content as well as protein. Enjoy a few mixed nuts each day. Lean meat is also fine. Eggs and cheese are very nutritious, and especially useful after races.
Soya is a source of protein and good for its antioxidant and health-giving properties. Plain tofu is quick and versatile - no need to cook unless you want to. Soya and other bean dishes are useful, tasty and health-boosting for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. Vegetarians especially can help to ensure they get sufficient iron by eating iron-rich fruits and veg (including broccoli and green, leafy veg,) wholemeal bread and cereals.
Athletes need carbohydrates - including bread, cereals, potatoes, rice, pasta - for energy, to keep muscles fuelled, and to support muscle maintenance and repair, and to support the immune system especially after hard training and long races. If you don’t eat adequate carbs, the body will run down muscle, and the immune system will suffer. A word of warning; don’t assume you need very large amounts of carbs - the amount you need depends on your size and training volume. A good intake of fruits/veg and of protein are both more important to your health than carbs, and both will provide energy. Too many carbs can mean too little of important nutrients, and can lead to unwelcome weight gain if you eat too much for your training/racing energy needs. Too many refined carbs, sugary foods and foods with a high glaecemic value, can lead to energy peaks and troughs, and even contribute to borderline diabetes, so choose non-sugary and unrefined carbs, don’t eat too much at once, and combine carbs with protein, fruit and veg.
Be fairly sparing with fats, and be selective. Some fat in the diet is important to health and to the absorption of vitamins; choose monounsaturated fats like olive oil and peanut butter for preference. Try to avoid saturated and hydrogenated fats in food and cooking (visible meat fat, butter, margarine, cream and most fats sold for cooking.) Substitute vegetable oils (especially olive oil, as in the Mediterranean diet) and use them for all salad dressings and in baking. Don’t fry food, or dry fry with a minimum of oil. Instead of putting butter/margarine on bread, get used to the taste of bread on its own, or use a little honey, jam, vegemite, cottage cheese or quark instead.
Salt is a major contributory factor to raised blood pressure and hypertension. Don’t add it to food in cooking or at the table (you will soon adjust to a different and more subtle taste.) Avoid salty snacks, which are often also fatty. Training and racing will lower your resting pulse rate and blood pressure; for most people this is good news. Reducing salt intake will help in this. If, after a long race, you feel a desire for savoury foods, especially if you have been taking in lots of sweet food and drink, then enjoy them, and take the chance to eat some protein, but don’t pile on the salt. Cravings like this are the body’s way of restoring and rebalancing its levels of energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Drink plenty, much more than you probably think is needed! Drink a pint or so of water or very diluted juice/squash/energy drink before you go out training, and drink some more when you return. Use skimmed milk, and drink as much as you like for its calcium and vitamins.
- During ultra races, you need to eat and drink. Find out what works for you. Some race organisers put out food that some experienced athletes would not eat, so don’t assume that if something is provided, it must be sensible and effective to eat it! You need carbs which will go down easily and not cause digestive problems, as well as some protein if the race lasts for 24 hours or longer. Not all athletes take protein during races of 24 hours. What you can eat may depend on your pace. If you are pushing hard, you may be more restricted in what food you can tolerate than if you are going steadily. In general, be careful about pushing too hard in long races. It is easy to get carried away and go too fast in the early stages, then regret it when you feel tired and rough later on!
- With food and drink, it is a good idea to take a little and often, rather than to overload the system with larger, less frequent amounts. Some organisers provide real meals three times a day. In a multiday race, walking round the track slowly while you eat a meal, or even taking a break to eat, may provide a valuable rest and do you good. In a 24 hour race, however, it may be best to snack on small portions (eg a bit of potato and cheese, or pasta,) or to leave full meals to the supporters.
- In a 24 hour race, start drinking early and keep drinking at sensible intervals until the end. Try to start eating small amounts regularly after the first hour or so; if you have not had a meal for some hours you will feel you need something. How often you eat is up to you, and may vary with the amount you take - a mouthful every 10-20 mins, or a sandwich every 30-40 mins, and also with the size of the lap on a road course. On a lap of 5 miles, you may not get the chance to eat and drink often, so be ready to take something every time you pass the feeding station.
- During the first few hours of a 24 hour race, you may not feel you need to eat, and during the last 12 hours, you may not feel you can. In the early hours, try to make yourself eat a little regularly - you will be glad later, and be at less risk of suffering the physical and mental lows which come from depleted energy reserves, and which can creep up on you. If you forget to eat, or cannot eat, and begin to feel low on energy, slow, shivery, and weak, take action quickly: get additional, warm clothes on, and have a warm, sweet drink, and some food which is tempting and digestible and will give you a boost, such as cake. Keep moving to keep warm and to keep your circulation going, but slowly enough to digest the food and to rebuild your energy and confidence - a steady walk for a few minutes may be ideal. If you have a supporter, they should be on the lookout for the danger signs, such as refusal to eat
when a snack is scheduled.
- Learn from experience what you can tolerate, and what feeding strategy gives you the best results. If you have a bad race - for example with stomach problems, cramp or muscle pain, low energy, feeling cold or faint - analyse carefully afterwards what might have caused the problem. What did you eat and drink during the 1-2 days before the event, in the hours before the start, and during the race? Could something have upset you? Did you go into the race dehydrated, or get dehydrated during the race. We are all different. Many ace walkers thrive on a mixture of easy carbs (eg sandwiches, malt loaf, mashed potato, rice pudding, porridge/cereal) and some protein (eg small cubes of cheese, nuts, peanut butter) in small quantities as needed, which may vary from every 30-60 mins, usually more frequently in the second half of a race.
- Sports drinks don’t suit everyone; don’t feel you should necessarily use them because others do, or that you are at a disadvantage if you don’t like them. Find out what does work well for you. Just because something is called a sports drink and is provided at races, and even if it used successfully and endorsed by other athletes, don’t assume it must work for you, and don’t keep using a drink that causes you problems. The salty nature of some electrolytic drinks can cause stomach upsets and cramps; and even long-chain, complex carbohydrates (eg maltodextrins) can challenge the digestion and cause sickness. Some people can use such preparations only if they are well diluted, and more dilute than the manufacturers’ recommendations. There are alternatives: coke (regular, not -diet- nor defizzed - the fizz can help sort out the stomach,) Lucozade (original, not the sports variety which are full of sugar and ordinary orange squash, well diluted.|
- Dehydration is dangerous: be alert for any feelings of dehydration, and if they occur, drink more frequently. Don’t wait until you are thirsty: drink at regular intervals, depending on your pace and the weather conditions. Judge carefully how much to drink to keep yourself in balance. When the temperature cools down at night, or if your pace slackens, consider reducing the liquid intake (eg to 2 rather than 3 drinks an hour, or taking smaller amounts.) Watch out for signs of overdrinking - needing to urinate too often (it wastes time!), bloating and sometimes sickness. But never deny thirst: if you need it, drink!
- After a long training session or race, especially an ultra, it is vital to take in carbohydrates and protein, to replace energy, support the immune system (which is vulnerable to infection and chills at this time,) and to kick-start the repair and build up of muscle. Try to have some carbs and some protein (eg cereal with banana, milk and yoghurt; sandwiches with peanut butter, cheese, egg or other protein) within 15-20 minutes of finishing a race or training session. Organisers do not always provide for such nutritious snacks at the finish of a race so try to have something in your kit bag, such as a sliced malt loaf or sandwich, some cheese or a hard-boiled egg, an apple or dried fruit, and a bottle of water in case organisers’ supplies dry up.
- After a long race, your muscles will have suffered a lot of damage, and your system will be flushed with debris resulting from muscle and tissue breakdown. You need additional protein for several days to help the repair and building process. You also need plenty to drink, again for several days after a long race, to help the body to flush out debris and waste, and to carry nutrients to areas needing repair. Good sleep at night promotes repair. The quicker the repairs are carried out, the sooner you can train effectively and compete safely and successfully again.