What you eat and drink before a long run impacts your performance and your ability to recover, post race. If you’re looking to beat a previous time, or just finish, it’s important to focus on the fuel you are giving your body.
Your body’s energy source
I sometimes hear runners talk about the different macronutrients they are using for energy. Oftentimes these theories are overly complicated, and, really, not quite correct.
In short, your body converts glucose to energy. It gets glucose from carbohydrates, and stores it as glycogen in the liver and muscles. Muscles are the largest storage area and hold, on average, 400 grams of glycogen. Experienced endurance athletes are able to store more thanks to increased muscle mass.
Athletes that are on a low carbohydrate diet will find themselves hitting a wall in their training and races. There are also implications for your body’s overall health as without access to glycogen, your body will start to break down muscles for energy.
To ensure you are going into the race with a full fuel supply, focus on carbohydrates to maximize your liver and muscle glycogen stores. Complex carbohydrates from whole grains, such as steel cut oats and brown rice, are the key to efficient glycogen storage and steady blood glucose levels. Simple sugars from pasta, bread, and sweets should be limited as they will spike your blood sugar quickly rather than slowly releasing for your endurance sport needs.
Consume your pre-event complex carbohydrate meal two to four hours before the start of the race.
During the race is the time to prioritize simple sugars. While you are racing, your glycogen stores may be insufficient and you will need to refuel quickly and efficiently. Energy gels, maple or date syrup in your water, or liquid with glucose in it are great ways to maintain your energy and delay fatigue. The simple sugars are easy for your body to digest and absorb, which is essential as there is not a lot of capacity for digestion when you are moving.
While your body can convert protein into energy, it is not ideal. Protein is the dirtiest fuel option as it creates ammonia, which needs to be eliminated. It also is not stored in the body as an energy source. Protein plays an important role, however, in muscle recovery.
The branch-chain amino acids (BCAA) play a key role in preventing the breakdown of muscle tissue and related injuries. These amino acids are unique compared to other amino acids in that they can be used as energy without harming your muscles. The BCAAs include valine, leucine and isoleucine.
Certain energy gels or racing food products will include these amino acids. You can also purchase them in an isolated form to add to your pre- and during-race fuel supplies.
Consuming these amino acids immediately post-race will also help your muscles to recover more efficiently. Combine them with simple carbohydrates post-race to also quickly replenish your glycogen stores.
An additional performance fuel goal before and during your race should be hydration. To maintain optimal performance, you need to replace at least 80 per cent of your sweat loss.
Being even moderately dehydrated can cause fatigue, nausea and muscle cramps.
In the two hours before your race, drink 400-600mL of fluids. During the race, drink at regular intervals. Your thirst levels are not a good indicator of hydration, so do not rely on them. Blend your water with simple sugars and BCAAs for a performance boosting blend.