The possibility of shaving a few seconds off a personal best, or running further than we ever thought we could, can lead us towards ever more inventive ways to train. But what if improving performance is as easy as making a few changes to your diet? Next time you need to run faster, stronger or longer, try these simple staples for a peak performance.
Goldilocks was onto something when she raided the three bears' house in search of steaming bowls of porridge. It's high in muscle-fuelling carbohydrate and is a good source of iron to maintain oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
Try it Porridge is perfect before a long run because it provides slow-release carbs that keep you going for longer. It's also great if you're trying to lose weight as it keeps you feeling full.
Fruit and fibre
In other words, fresh fruit and foods that are packed with fibre. A recent study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism revealed that fibre could be the secret to greater endurance. Eight runners were given low-fibre cornflakes and white toast with jam one morning, and high-fibre All Bran with fruit another morning. On each occasion the runners waited three hours after eating then ran to exhaustion. The eight managed to run for seven minutes longer – and burned more fat – after the high-fibre breakfast.
Try it Snack on high-fibre dried apricots several hours before hitting the gym, or carbo-load on whole-wheat pasta before your next big race.
You'll only perform at your peak if you're able to train regularly, and that's where skimmed milk comes in. It's an easy way to include plenty of calcium in your diet – one of the most important nutrients because of its role in bone-mineral health, muscle contraction and nerve conduction. Swigging this fat-free drink after a run will protect you against stress fractures, shin splints and possibly muscle cramps.
Try it Skimmed milk is a great post-run recovery food because it provides an excellent mix of carbohydrate to refuel your glycogen stores and protein to repair tired muscles.
This fruit is an excellent source of carbohydrate as well as the antioxidant vitamin C, which may help your muscles to recover faster after a run as well as boosting your immune system. Calcium and magnesium in oranges contribute to healthy muscle function.
Try it Drink fresh orange juice diluted half and half with water during a run to provide energy as well as folate – a water-soluble B vitamin that helps to maintain optimal levels of haemoglobin for your oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
A study at the University of Memphis Exercise and Sports Nutrition Laboratory in the USA found that honey may be one of the most effective forms of carbohydrate to ingest just prior to exercise since it's easily digested and releases energy at a steady rate. Another study at the same university revealed that the sweet stuff significantly improved the time-trial performances of cyclists and significantly increased their power output.
Try it Eat honey five minutes before a run for a steady supply of energy, or during races longer than 10K for a performance-boosting carb hit.
This popular fruit will keep you in peak condition as its potassium content helps to regulate heart function and fluid balance. It's no coincidence that bananas are regularly handed out after races – the easy-to-digest fruit gets to work on banishing the jelly-legs that are a result of a potassium-sodium imbalance after a hard effort.
Try it Speed recovery after a run with a banana washed down with some water – the potassium will work with your body's sodium to balance your fluid and electrolyte levels.
Okay, so we're not suggesting cola is exactly a pristine product of mother nature, but this popular fizzy drink delivers useful carbs as well as performance-enhancing caffeine.
Try it Drink flat or fizzy cola on long, steady runs and you'll stay well hydrated as well as delivering carbohydrate to your working muscles.