The Right Fuel
By Laura Ferro
Diet is a vital element to reach optimal performance. What we eat directly affects how we perform. In this article, I focus on what a long distance runner should eat to achieve maximum vitality and endurance.
I am sure you are familiar with the idea of loading up on carbohydrates before a race. This idea still stands true. However, it is very important for us to know the distinction between the different kinds of carbohydrates. Runners need to be particular about what type of carbohydrate they consume, because our body absorbs them very differently. Being able to distinguish between the correct carbs to eat is crucial knowledge, considering they are the most necessary macronutrient to provide energy. So the question is: how can we differentiate between the good and the bad?
There are two different types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are mostly found in white breads, white pastas, and processed foods. They are absorbed by our bloodstream and burned very quickly in the body. Thus, producing a huge energy rush, quickly followed by an equally large energy crash.
The reason for the spike in energy is because of the high Glycemic Index, or GI, of most simple carbs. The GI is used to measure how fast and how much a food increases our blood sugar levels. Carbohydrates are measured based on their GI index from 1-100 (1 being the lowest and 100 being the highest). Not all simple carbs are bad though. Some simple carbs that have a high GI yet still have some nutrient content, such as certain fruits. However, these high GI fruits should be eaten in moderation and are not recommended before long workouts.
These simple carbs found in white and processed foods, are considered the "bad" carbohydrates. They should be avoided in general, not only by athletes, but also for all seeking to feel healthier and more energetic on a daily basis. Not only do they increase our blood sugar levels, they cause a lot of stress on different areas of the body and are known to cause inflammation.
When your body breaks down carbohydrates, it turns them into a sugar called glucose. Most people hear the word sugar and assume it has a negative connotation. However, our bodies and brains need this specific kind of glucose produced by complex carbohydrates in order to fuel our body and brain. This fuel produced by the liver from carbohydrates is called glycogen. It is the most direct and efficient energy our brains and muscles can receive. Our goal should be to eat foods with low to medium (under 55) numbers on the glycemic index.
This is where the significance of complex carbohydrates comes in to play for athletes and those who are burning a lot of energy through running. The extra carbohydrates a runner needs should be sourced and provided by complex carbs. These carbohydrates are absorbed much slower in the blood stream because of the low GI level, and in turn provide the body with a steady flow of energy. They consist of foods such as whole grains, sweet potatoes, whole-wheat pastas, quinoa, and vegetables. Complex carbohydrates stabilize your blood sugar level and your mood, as well as provide you with long lasting energy. These carbs enable us to avoid "crashes’ and give us the endurance we need for long marathons and races. To get more information on the glycemic index, visit www.glycemicindex.com where you can also find low glycemic recipes and facts.
What and When to Eat
Now that we discussed the different types of carbohydrates, it’s time to talk about when, how much, and what to eat before a race. The day before, make sure you are eating about every 2-3 hours. You should eat foods that are made up of 65-70% complex carbohydrates. Avoid foods that are very high in fiber, which may cause gas and bloating the next day. Try to eat your pre-race dinner around 5-6 o’clock, to allow full digestion before going to bed. Dinner should consist of complex carbs and about 3-4 oz of lean protein, an example of a perfect pre-marathon dinner is my Herbed Chicken and Quinoa Salad below. The quinoa provides the right percentage of the complex carbohydrates needed. It is also packed with lean protein and an adequate amount of fiber, which will leave you feeling satisfied but not weighed down. The fresh herbs provide many micronutrients, are a great source of anti-oxidants, as well as bone and immune supportive vitamins (such as vitamin A & K).
The day of the race you want to be sure to eat your pre-run meal at least 3 hours before start time. Another rule to remember, never introduce anything new the morning of the race. You don’t want to eat something that your body cannot digest or may not agree with. Applying the same rule as the day before, you want to eat a meal made up of approximately 65-70% of complex carbohydrates. It should be a fairly light meal that is easily digestible, low in fat, contain lean or plant proteins, and low on the glycemic index.
Keep it simple and basic. Think oatmeal with banana and some nuts, plain Greek yogurt with homemade granola, multigrain bagel or toast with nut butter. If you chose peanut butter, make sure you are eating all natural and organic. I stick with homemade and easier to digest nut butters, such as walnut, pecan or almond (see recipe below).
I’ve also included a recipe for my maple-almond granola bars, which mainly consist of sweet potato puree, oats and nuts. They are fairly simple to make and provide an abundance of micronutrients, especially geared toward runners. Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of Vitamin A, which helps to control the free radicals and keep the immune system strong, which is often weakened from intense workouts and training. They also contain a healthy amount of potassium, which runners lose through sweating. Potassium helps to regulate muscle contraction, helping to prevent tightness and cramping. These energy packed bars also contain almonds, which are loaded with vitamin E, magnesium, iron, potassium and calcium. These vitamins and minerals help aid in muscle repair and strength, as well as providing long-term energy. All of the ingredients in these tasty bars contain healthy nutrients that provide runners with nourishment and energy. You may eat them through out the week for breakfast or lunch, or even for a small snack about 30 minutes prior to your race. These bars will keep your blood sugar from falling and give you the slow burning glycogen your body and brain will need for your peak performance.
A few other helpful tips - get a good night sleep, relax, and meditate to mentally prepare yourself. Enjoy the race!