Ways to Optimise your diet for athletic performance

We look at the key advice out there for all runners on how to optimise your diet and improve your performance.

A properly thought out and effective strategy for your nutrition is a key component of your training and your goals to get fitter and faster. Getting your nutrition right is key to maximise your own training sessions by getting you to the track, road or the trail in the best possible shape, it helps promote those important training adaptations, it helps reduce the risk of illness and injury and can facilitate the maintenance of low body fat levels and muscle strength. “Health is wealth”.

There’s an old saying, “you can’t out-train a bad diet”. That’s a cliche that is often recanted but little understood. For starters, what exactly is a bad diet? When we say ‘out-train’ what does that even mean? For example, it’s now scientifically clear that in order to lose weight, you need to consume less calories, which is just a metric used to measure the energy contained in a given food source, than you burn through exercise and at rest. The actual food you get those calories from is *largely* irrelevant.

The sharp-minded amongst you will realise however, that just simply calorie counting, with no regard for the nutritional value of the food you’re eating, is likely to have a detrimental impact on your health, fitness and well-being. All vital elements of being a successful runner. 

Fortunately, as a runner and assuming you’re not trying to lose a lot of weight quickly, you will probably need to consume a lot of calories because your body uses those calories not just to run but also to enable it to carry out the vital recovery work after you’ve taken your running shoes off. This includes repairing the damaged muscles and, particularly after intense workouts, replenishing depleted glycogen stores. For runners, the nutritional balance of the food is just as important as the amount of calories being consumed:

Carbohydrates versus Proteins

The 2 principal macro-nutrients you really need to think about when trying to improve your performance as a runner are carbohydrates and proteins.

When it comes to aerobic activity and indeed any endurance event, particularly running, it’s carbohydrates that provide the principal energy source and these should . It’s a common misconception, however, that every run or session needs to be conducted following a bit of “carbo-loading”. Recent scientific studies have proved that planning to conduct some of your lower intensity runs, perhaps your weekly long run, after minimal carbohydrates (or even after an overnight fast), can promote other physiological adaptations by reducing your body’s reliance on glycogen and promoting the use of fat for energy. 

Equally, and although meals with high levels of carbohydrates will form the basis of a runner’s diet, runners should ensure that they don’t neglect their protein intake. Protein contains the vital ingredients to support training adaptions, support the repair of damage tissue (which occurs with every run). You should plan your protein intake too so that you have around 25-30g every 4 hours or so. This is a far more effective method of getting the goodness from protein rather than just necking a protein shake after your workout and neglecting it at all other times. 

In practical terms, we advise that you should plan your carb intake according to your training load. So, on session days, increase your intake of carbohydrates and on easy days, decrease it and encourage your body to utilise fat for energy. Don’t be afraid to grab a healthy snack to top up energy levels if you haven’t eaten for over 3 hours before a tough session. Bananas are a great, natural and healthy option packed with carbs and nutrients. 

Importance of hydration

A key component of any properly thought-out nutrition plan is hydration. About 60% of our bodies are made up from water and it plays a really important role in sustaining normal bodily function. With the immense increase in pressure that running, particularly at intensity, can have, hydration is even more important. 

During exercise, people often underestimate the amount they sweat, it can be up to 0.8 – 2L per hour. When you’re dehydrated, fatigue will onset far quicker and your body’s ability to regulate its temperature will be greatly reduced which has both performance effects as your HR increases and your ability to sustain greater efforts declines but, in severe cases, can have serious health consequences too. For runners, most of us hate taking water out with us, it’s something else to get in the way. If you hydrate regularly and consistently during the day you should not need to take a drink on any run that’s less than around 1 hour, unless it’s really hot, of course. 

If you’re a ‘salty sweater’, which is not a particularly nice image, then consider electrolytes and adding salt to your food. One product we use and would highly recommend is ‘Hydro‘ by Xendurance. We tend to sip it all day, especially on days before intense workouts and long runs to replace those vital electrolytes lost during exercise such as magnesium, potassium and sodium.

What about supplements?

The sport supplement industry is a multi-billion pound industry and much of it needs to be approached with caution. Without wishing to state the obvious, supplements are just that, supplements. They are not designed to and must not be used to replace a balanced and healthy diet. In fact, you should always try and obtain the necessary nutrients you need from food before turning to supplements. However, it can be difficult to enough of the right food, particularly as runners who benefit from higher doses of certain substances. As a runner, you should consider supplementing your diet with the following:

  • Iron – is a crucial substance that plays a key role in getting oxygen to your muscles and so it has a significant role to play in exercise. It’s also important for the normal function of the immune system.
  • Vitamin D – Vitamin D is proven to strengthen bones and joints and as runners we place a huge strain on these areas of the body. If we want to stay injury free and running throughout our life, Vitamin D is a hugely supplement it’s very difficult to get through food alone. If you live in the UK, it’s also unlikely there’s enough sunshine too.
  • Cod liver oil – We tend to recommend cod liver oil because it’s proven to help the body’s natural movement, keeping you supple and mobile and reducing the risk of injury.

It’s not just daily supplements that can help though. There are a range of trusted supplements specific to athletic performance that can help you maximise your training and run faster on race day. 

We recommend 2 from Xendurance specifically that we trust after being rigorously tried and tested:

Lactic Acid Buffer – The benefits include:

  • Reduced muscle soreness.
  • Can help mitigate cell damage and ageing caused by oxidative stress which occurs when there are imbalances between the number of a special group of molecules in the body called ‘Free Radicals’ (not the 90s pop band) and antioxidants.
  • Reduce the amount of creatine kinase in the blood which can help avoid muscle soreness and injury.
  • Can help increase your aerobic threshold.

This supplement works to reduce the effects of lactic acid which is produced as a by-product of the breakdown of bodily glucose stores during exercise. The science shows that it starts working 48-72 hours after taking it and that consistent and regular consumption is the key to greater benefits.

Fuel-5 – it has 4 separate carbohydrate sources to keep your glycogen levels topped up. Sufficient glycogen stores for endurance athletes is the vital for maintaining performance as we discussed above. Mixed with water and delivered in a frankly delicious berry flavour, it can be taken before, during and after exercise. Add 1 – 2 scoops of Fuel-5 with 230ml+ of water you can enjoy:

  • A reduction in tiredness and fatigue thanks to the magnesium ingredient.
  • An increase in hydration thanks to electrolyte solutions which enhance the absorption of water during physical exercise.
  • Infusion of Vitamins B6 and B12 to assist energy production, rehydration and recovery.