Picture the scene: you set off for the final leg of your first Olympic-distance race of the season, feeling good, on course for a PB, but after 5K your legs turn to jelly. You’ve taken on plenty of water on the bike and it’s not particularly hot but your tanks are empty. Your training was spot-on and your race was going well so what happened? Your nutrition strategy was wrong, that’s what, and now your body is making you pay. It has happened to the best, but the best learn from their mistakes. It’s essential to know what to eat and why, how much and when.
What’s on your plate?
The simple answer is ‘food’ but you really should know a little more than that if you want to make the most of what you eat. The three main building blocks of food are carbohydrates, protein and fat. Let’s take them one at a time. Carbohydrates are our main source of energy. There are two types: simple carbs (such as sugar, found in sweets, jam and desserts) and complex carbs (found in cereals, bread, rice, potatoes and pasta). Complex carbs are preferable because they are digested more slowly and contain more fibre. Around half your daily food intake should consist of carbs.
Proteins are biochemical compounds that consist of amino acids, which are vital for every human function. There are 20 amino acids, but only 12 are produced by the body. The other eight are called essential amino acids and have to come from our diet. Protein helps muscles to function effectively, and to grow and repair after the stress of physical exertion.
Depending on how various amino acids link together proteins can also form enzymes that help produce energy; insulin, which controls blood sugar; hormones, which govern our moods; and antibodies, which support our immune systems. Around 15 per cent of your daily energy should come from protein. Good sources include meat, dairy products and fish. Animal proteins have all the essential acids; to get your essential amino acids from plant sources, you need to eat a combination of plant proteins.
Fats have a bad reputation but a certain amount are vital for good health and not all fats are bad for you. They provide energy and lots of calories; however, fats alone do not make you fat. (Your body will also convert excess carbs and proteins into fat.) That said, an excess of fat is bad news. Saturated fats – usually found in meat or dairy – can raise cholesterol and increase the risk of heart disease. They also affect the transfer of nutrients to muscles. Unsaturated fats are far better because they contain essential fatty acids, which protect the heart and help lower cholesterol. The best sources of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are oily fish.
Other good sources of unsaturated fats are nuts, seeds and some oils (flaxseed, walnut, olive) and avocados. No more than 35 per cent of your daily diet should come from fat and no more than 11 per cent from saturates.
The worst fats are hydrogenated or trans fats. These are unsaturated fats that have been turned into fat that resembles saturates. They are often used in margarines and biscuits as a cheap alternative to butter. You’ll find them in abundance in processed foods because they also help to prolong shelf life. The dangers of trans fats are well known and steps are being taken in several countries to limit or ban their use in food production.
Counting on calories
Calories. We all think we know what they are – something to do with how many calories are in food, which doesn’t take us very far. “The calorie is a unit of measurement for heat or energy,” says Professor Ron Maughan of Loughborough University’s School of Sports and Exercise Sciences. “One calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1kg of water by 1° Celsius.”
Calories are a quantifiable measuring tool for the intake and expenditure of energy. Carbohydrates and protein each contain four calories per gram and fat contains nine. A Double Whopper with Cheese contains 1,070 calories. But a 60-minute 10K run will burn 850 calories, so hold the mayo on that burger. It’s simple: if you consume more calories than you burn, you’ll put on weight.
The metabolic rate
Every activity you perform requires fuel; you’re burning fuel even while you read this, but the more you do the more fuel you need. The question is how much? That’s where your metabolic rate comes into play. We burn calories in two ways: through our Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR, the rate we use calories to power our organs) and physical activity. To maintain a steady weight, calories consumed must equal calories burned (BMR + exercise).
Eating to win: How to fuel your training, racing and recovery
- Start with a breakfast full of slow-release energy, says sports nutritionist Dr Sarah Schenker (sarahschenker.co.uk). “Have porridge with a chopped apple or dried apricots, plus apple juice or a fruit smoothie. Or have wholegrain toast with peanut butter, which is full of healthy fats.”
- “To recover from training, have a bagel with low-fatnsoft cheese. The bagel contains fast-release carbs for replacing energy, while the cheese provides whey protein to help muscles recover. Add some salmon for omega 3, plus a smoothie, banana and cereal bar,” says Schenker.
- Three days before a race you should start ‘carbo loading’ – increasing your energy reserves. ‘Start with a large bowl of wholegrain cereal with a sliced banana and milk, a boiled egg for protein, toast with honey and a smoothie,” says Schenker. “For lunch, have a jacket potato with baked beans, a flapjack and chopped fruit, then yoghurt. And for dinner go for pasta with tuna and tomato sauce, followed by rice pudding.”
- Stay hydrated, adds Schenker. “Drink two litres of water the day before the race.”
- “Continually eat small helpings of carbs on race day,” says pro triathlete Vanessa Raw. “And have a breakfast that tops off the glycogen in your liver. I have porridge with honey.”
- “Take on 1,000ml of water, but have two bottles on your bike – one pure water, one mixed with isotonic drink,” says triathlete Will Clarke.
- Carry energy gel in the shoulder of your suit. “There’s no way of making them taste better but they work,” says Clarke. “Just don’t take it in the last 10 minutes of the race – there’s no point.”
- “I have an EAS Myoplexbar to recover,” says former ITU world champion Tim Don. “After that I treat myself to Pizza Express.”