Recently I went out and tramped part of the Kepler track. It’s a 70km loop, based in the west coast of the South Island of NZ. It is a stunning tramp made up of a lot of up and down hills through many different environments. The view is absolutely amazing and is definitely something not to be missed but as a Sports Nutritionist the thing that really interested me what the amount of people running the trail. I wanted to stop each one and ask how long they are going for, their split time, what they were training for but most importantly I wanted to ask what food and drink they had on them?? It was quite astonishing that one person could be carrying absolutely nothing, while the next person was carrying a heavy filled backpack and filled waist band.
This vast difference from one individual to the next got me thinking. To me running with heavy backpack would be annoying. Yes, you do need the essentials but being over prepared could hinder your performance by carrying this extra weight but in contrast running with nothing could be a detrimental if your sugar levels drop, you hit the wall or get too dehydrated. So what is right?
The most important thing is to know your body. Your body tells you when it’s hungry, thirsty or needs a break. It is important to listen to your body when you are training. Training is a time to push yourself to see what your body can do but if not adequately fueled with the right amount of nutrients and fluid the training you are doing won’t be beneficial. You body needs the nutrients and fluids to keep the systems going and further adapt.
There are vast differences in what you may need and this is based on training status, gender, and health status. Someone who is just starting off may take everything they “think” they need, while an elite runner who could do their training in their sleep might take nothing. So in a world where products are being advertised to us left and right what is suitable for you and what key aspects should you focus on?
I have 5 key tips below that I always follow and stick to when I’m training in order to gain the full benefit of pushing myself up a mountain without getting to close to dying!
What you consume before you train is what fuels your body during the session. It is therefore essential you fuel your body the right way in order to have a good training! You wouldn’t put diesel into a petrol car and expect it to run properly so why put bad food into yourself and expect the best out of your training.
Food consumed before exercise is only useful once it has been digested and absorbed. This means that the timing of your food intake needs to be spot on so that the fuel becomes available during the exercise session. The time required for digestion and absorption depends on the type and quantity of food consumed. A general guide is to have a meal about 3-4 hours before exercise and/or a lighter snack about 1-2 hours before exercise. Most foods consumed should be high in carbohydrates and fats as this is essentially what you will run on:
3-4 hours before:
- Cereal + milk or yoghurt
- Toast with jam or honey or scrambled eggs
- Pasta or rice dish with low fat sauce e.g. vegetarian sauce
1-2 hours before:
- Cereal bars
- Breakfast cereal with milk
Less than 1 hour before exercise:
- Sports drink
- Carbohydrate gel
- Jelly lollies
Drinking water during exercise is essential especially in hot conditions. Your ability to train can decline with very small amounts of dehydration. Just losing 2% of your body weight in fluid can decrease performance by up to 25%!! The good news is that staying hydrated during exercise really isn’t complicated. If your exercise session is under 60 minutes, and doesn’t involve high intensity activity in hot, humid conditions, you probably don’t to drink fluid but if going over 60 minutes and if its hot you definitely do.
If you don’t like carrying extra weight around with you, the easiest way to ingest water is (knowing that your trail provides fresh water) is just to carry a cup. Lightweight and easy to use, only carrying a cup is an easy way to decrease the amount you are carrying and can ease work-rate while on your training run. For example on the Kepler track, you know there is fresh water at the huts so there is no need to over carry water on this trail.
So what signs should you look out for if you think you are dehydrated?
- Urine colour- Dark urine with a strong smell is a clear sign you are dehydrated. If occurring before exercise ingesting 1-2 cups of water before exercise can help increase hydration and maintain performance. Clear to light yellow urine shows you are hydrated and just need to rehydrate gradually after exercise.
- You will feel thirsty- this is your body’s natural way of telling you, you need to drink. So don’t ignore it! Don’t over drink but drink enough to stop yourself feeling thirsty.
- Other signs are feeling light-headed, increase work-rate, muscle cramps and a decrease in coordination.
- Weigh yourself- weighing yourself before and after exercise can give you are accurate readings of your fluid loss. 2% body mass loss results in dehydration so figuring out what you lose on a run can be useful to figure out
If dehydration is not resolved heat exhaustion and heatstroke can occur and will need full medical attention which can be fatal.
For a runner, keeping your electrolytes balanced is key for successful training and optimum performance. If your electrolytes are imbalanced, you can potentially compromise your training because of muscle fatigue or cramping. While running you lose electrolytes through your sweat, mainly sodium and potassium that control muscle contraction. Cramping is the body’s way of letting you know the electrolyte tank is empty and it cannot continue; it’s like a car running out of gas. Electrolytes need to be replenished after sessions longer than 60 minutes to facilitate optimal recovery.
Proper electrolyte replenishment during endurance exercise requires a gradual, consistent approach that incorporates all electrolytes to maintain normal body mechanisms. This means that you need to consume enough to support body functions and prevent heat-related issues such as cramping without overwhelming your body. If an imbalance occurs due to too little or too much electrolyte consumption, it can lead to decreases in performance and worst-case scenario can be fatal
Most sports drinks mimic the composition of sweat and have sufficient electrolytes to replenish what you have lost. So a good option to replenish your electrolytes is to consume sports drinks e.g. Tailwind Nutrition.
Running over 60 minutes results in the depletion of your energy stores. To keep going at the same pace and to finish your exercise you need to top up those energy stores while you exercise. Having easy accessible food that can be easily digested is key to this. Foods high in sugar are also key as these are quickly diffused into the blood to be turned into energy. Usually 20-35 g of carbohydrates an hour can sufficiently keep up your energy stores for your whole training of up to 2-hours. If going for extremely long runs greater than 4hrs, make sure you take both sweet and savory as your taste buds alter with endurance exercise. Examples of good foods to eat while exercising: Nuts, lollies, gel packs, chocolate bar, muesli bar and/or scroggin mix.
How much should you take for 20-35 g of carbohydrate?
- 1x banana per hour
- Electrolytes (see above)
- 1x muesli bar per hour
- 4x jet planes
- 100 grams of almonds per hour
Make sure you try foods on shorter runs before taking them on a longer run. Nothing worse that getting a sore stomach or stitch when you still have a couple hours of training to go!
Ever since I was young I have always heard that you need recover. This includes stretching, rehydrating and eating. But why do you need to eat? Essentially after you have done a training run your muscles are starved of key nutrients (carbohydrates, fat and protein). Muscles and your body need nutrients to build, repair and adapt. If not adequately supplied within 30-60 minutes of exercise the muscles cannot recover and therefore the training you just did is useless. So what should you be eating?
For running protein is not needed to build up muscle mass but rather too repair and maintain muscles after long train sessions while fat and carbohydrate are needed to restock energy stores. So how much is ideal?
Below are some ideas that provide all three of fat, protein and carbohydrates at adequate levels to recover on:
- 300g creamed rice
- 250-300ml smoothie or protein shake with milk
- 1 large bowl (2 cups) breakfast cereal with milk
- 220g baked beans on 2 slices of toast
- 1 bread roll with cheese/meat filling + large banana
- 300g (large) baked potato + cottage cheese filling + glass of milk
So for those of you out there running the trails of New Zealand make sure you are well hydrated and fed to make your training worthwhile! It is worth experimenting to find out what works for you so that on race day you are well prepared and know what you body needs!