Brain food

We runners expend plenty of mental energy thinking about the right foods to fuel our bodies. But what about fuelling our minds? The brain is a key muscle in running performance and to function at its best, when you need it most, it also needs the right nutrients.  

Whether your last race was a 5K or full marathon, the chances are there was a moment when you considered throwing in the towel. When legs get heavy and lungs scream out, it takes a lot of brainpower to keep the body moving. So how can you harness the psychological strength of a winner? According to the latest science, the answer is lurking in your larder: evidence shows that the right foods could give runners a mental edge. Here’s how to fuel your grey matter. 

The brain fueller - glucose

WHY

Carbohydrate gels aren’t just for your legs – the brain runs almost exclusively on glucose. ‘The brain is very sensitive to decreases in blood glucose concentration,’ says Martin Sellens, professor of sports and exercise science at the University of Essex. ‘It might even cause the body to slow mid-run to protect its supply.’ Backing this, recent University of Birmingham research found that 60-minute time trial performance improved when athletes swished a sports drink and spat it out. The researchers reckon sensors in the athletes’ mouths sent signals to the brain announcing the impending fuel. The brain then allowed the body to go faster in anticipation.

HOW

While your muscles don’t need extra carbohydrate on runs of less than 90 minutes, your brain may benefit from regularly swilling sports drink during 45-75-minute runs. ‘Mouth-rinsing with a shot of a 6.4 per cent maltodextrin [a complex carb] solution seems to work,’ says Sellens. ‘This is a similar concentration to most sports drinks, suggesting that just the promise of glucose is enough to convince the brain to maintain intensity.’ It also pays to keep your glycogen stores stocked by eating low glycaemic index (GI) foods such as sweet potatoes, porridge, brown rice and broccoli. ‘Low GI foods release energy slowly into the bloodstream,’ says Shona Wilkinson, head nutritionist at The Nutri Centre. ‘This ensures a steady flow of energy to the brain.’

The mental fatigue fighter - Creatine 

WHY

We already know it builds brawn, but now scientists at the Universities of Sydney and Macquarie have discovered that increased creatine intake reduces mental fatigue and boosts cognitive performance. Great news for weary soles facing intense sessions after long days at the office. 

HOW

Avoid large doses: ‘Creatine pulls water into the muscles, creating dead weight,’ says Sellens. Fortunately, research now shows that several small doses can be effective. Runners from Tartu University in Estonia took 6x5g doses of creatine daily and improved their 1K times. And, crucially, lower doses aren’t linked to weight gain. 

The motion controller - Alpha-linolenic acid

WHY

According to experts, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) – a type of omega-3 fatty acid – improves the functioning of the cerebral cortex, an area of your brain associated with spatial awareness and motor skills. ‘ALA is important for brain health,’ says nutritionist Dr Carrie Ruxton. ‘Plus it has the added benefit of acting as an anti-inflammatory that reduces post-run muscle stiffness.’

HOW

Sprinkle ALA-rich flaxseeds on pre-run meals. ‘Milled flaxseeds taste better than the unprocessed variety and can be added to cereals and stews,’ says Ruxton. ‘I’d recommend one or two tablespoons daily.’

The motivation booster - natural nitrates

WHY 

Paralympic superstar David Weir is known for his determination – and he’s also known to fuel his performance with nitrate-rich beetroot. Coincidence? We think not. Research from the University of Exeter shows high levels of nitrate, found in beetroot, are converted into nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide widens blood vessels, and further findings from Wake Forest University in the US show this may have a direct effect on mental power by boosting blood flow to the frontal lobe, an area of the brain linked to motivation and attention span.

HOW

Have two beetroot juice shots (about 0.6g of nitrates each) a few hours before speedwork, or four shots before a distance run. Exeter University research suggests the effect of nitrate peaks two to three hours after consumption. Not a beetroot fan? Swedish research discovered that taking 500mg of nitrate as a supplement works, too. Take two SiS Go+ Nitrate gels (£1.90, scienceinsport.com) daily, for six days before a race.

The messenger - Choline

WHY

Despite evidence to the contrary on the Christmas-party dancefloor, your legs don’t have a mind of their own. When running, they rely on the brain sending acetylcholine demands via nerve cells to the muscles. But without choline, your body can’t produce this essential chemical messenger. And research published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine shows that blood choline levels drop by as much as 40 per cent in the latter miles of a marathon. Consequently, scientists say that low choline could contribute to long-distance fatigue.

HOW

Mikolap recommends starting with 100-250mg of choline in your meal in the hours before training, and gradually increasing this to 500mg. ‘Some might experience headaches with increased choline dosage,’ explains Mikolap. ‘So start with one or two hard-boiled eggs [125mg each] and build up to a slice of pan-fried beef liver, which offers 339mg.’

The focus enhancer - vitamin E 

WHY

Research published in the Archives of Neurology suggests that the antioxidant can help maintain mental function until the final mile by protecting the brain from oxidative damage. ‘Blood-boosting fatty acids are prone to oxidation, which means they can become ineffective,’ says Ruxton. ‘Vitamin E prevents this process.’ The end result is blood cells carry more nutrients to brain cells, improving focus. 

HOW

Walnuts have a winning combination: ‘They’ve got a unique blend of fatty acids and vitamin E, which makes them particularly good for blood vessels in the brain,’ explains Ruxton. US researchers at Tufts University back this, finding that a moderate amount of walnuts daily can boost cognitive function. Positive effects are seen at daily intakes of 30g, according to Ruxton, so squirrel away 10 walnuts in the morning for brain-boosting benefits that last all day.

The concentration sharpner - Docosahexaenoic acid

WHY

About 50 per cent of the human brain is made of fat, of which a large portion is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), but this supercharged omega-3 cannot be made by the body and comes solely from dietary sources. This matters because studies show that DHA plays a big role in boosting mental focus and concentration levels during exercise. ‘DHA makes brain cells more receptive to messages from neurotransmitters,’ explains Ruxton. 

HOW

Eating eggs to power up on protein is a no-brainer, but they’re now a great source of DHA, too. According to Ruxton, changes in hen feed have helped convert egg fats into DHA. Go for a post-run sarnie filled with egg and omega-rich avocado for a powerful protein/fatty-acid combo. Or get your fix from fish oil. Research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found six grams a day delivers enough to DHA to improve performance.

The endurance booster - Tyrosine

WHY

Released when protein is broken down, this amino acid is used to make performance-boosting neurotransmitters, including epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine. Research from Jerusalem University Medical School shows tyrosine also decreases brain levels of the fatigue-inducing 5-HT neurotransmitter, while scientists at Aberystwyth University found that athletes exercising in 30C heat took longer to reach exhaustion after drinking a tyrosine-rich drink one hour beforehand.

HOW

Preliminary studies suggest moderate doses of 50-300mg per kilogram of bodyweight taken before exercising in extreme heat or cold can boost cognitive function. ‘But more research is required to prove the benefit of high amounts,’ says Professor Romain Meeusen, head of human physiology at Vrije University in Brussels. ‘They might even be dangerous.’ Get your dose from chicken or sesame seeds.

The energiser - caffeine 

WHY

Caffeine can reduce your rate of perceived exertion (RPE), blunting the pain of high-intensity exercise, according to US researchers at the University of Alabama. The stimulant reshapes the biochemical environment in the brain by blocking the release of adenosine, a neurotransmitter that stimulates relaxation, explains Greg Mikolap, director of personal training site PT Folder (ptfolder.com). The result: you feel energised and your body’s response to exhaustion is postponed. Plus University of Arizona researchers found caffeine triggers the release of stress hormones, which can increase your alertness by a third.

HOW

Have 90mg of caffeine – the equivalent of a cup of filter coffee – pre-run. A large dose doesn’t appear to boost performance any more than a moderate dose of 4-6mg per kilogram of bodyweight, but a study in The Journal of Applied Physiology found that regular coffee drinkers are less likely to feel the benefits. So save your daily dose for a pre-run kick.