Get Active with Good Nutrition

If you haven’t already, it’s time to set your personal fitness goals for 2018.  Whether it’s your first 5km race, 10km or half marathon or if you’re a seasoned endurance athlete with numerous medals under your belt, it’s important that you have a good nutrition plan in place to maximise your performance and ensure a hassle free event.

If you’re participating in events like the Two Oceans half marathon, the Two Oceans Ultra, the Cape Town Cycle Tour or for the crazier folk out there, the Iron Man, Cape Epic, African X Trail Run or Comrades Marathon, you’ll need a proper game-plan in place when it comes to nutrition.

You want to optimise fuel stores both leading up to the day and during the event itself.

Also important is recovery after the event, where the right amount of carbohydrate and protein, combined with adequate re-hydration, will determine how soon you’ll be able to start training for the next event!

It’s never a good idea to try something new on race-day as I’m sure the more experienced athletes among us can testify too.  It’s important that you put a plan in place and practice this plan during your training sessions when the stakes aren’t as high.  You might find that you don’t tolerate a specific food before a race or perhaps it’s just about the timing of your meal.  Any nasty surprises on race day can be avoided if you plan ahead and know what works for you.

When it comes to shorter events, taking less than 60 minutes to complete, it’s the ‘before’ and ‘after’ nutrition that is most important.  It is unlikely that your body will require additional energy during the actual race itself.  That changes though as soon as you progress to events lasting longer than 60 to 90 minutes, when your body’s reserves of glycogen (your body’s storage form of carbohydrate) starts to decline and if you don’t re-fuel, it is likely that your pace will need to reduce significantly or alternatively you’ll need to stop altogether.

In order to delay this onset of ‘fatigue’ it is recommended that you eat a breakfast high in carbohydrate before the event (ideally 2-3 hours before but if this is not practical, you can eat something up to 1 hour before the event, depending on individual tolerance).  Even if you typically consume a low carbohydrate diet the rest of the time, it makes sense to give your body a ‘boost’ of carbohydrate before the event and then also supplement with some carbohydrate during the actual race itself, in order to preserve your muscle glycogen and  delay fatigue for as long as possible, especially in events where you want to be able to sprint/increase intensity periodically during the race (even if just to cross the finish line!)

Table 1 below will give you an indication of how much carbohydrate you should be consuming before, during and after an event.

Table 1: Carbohydrate requirements before, during and after an event.

 BeforeDuringAfter
Competing in a 5 or 10km race
(<90 minutes)
30-60g carbohydrate meal 1-4 hours before the event (as tolerated). Limit fibre, protein and fat.If under 60 mins, no supplementation is required during the race.

If 60-90 minutes, can consider supplementing with 30 grams carbohydrate/hour.
Recovery snack ideally within 30 to 45 minutes of completing the race. Aim for 1-1.2g carbohydrate /kg body weight combined with some protein.
Competing in events lasting longer than 90 minutes1-4 grams carbohydrate/kg body weight 1-4 hours before the event (as tolerated). Limit fibre, protein and fat.30-60 grams carbohydrate/hour. See the 30 and 50g carbohydrate lists below for some ideas.Recovery snack within 30 to 45 minutes of completing the race. Aim for 1-1.2g carbohydrate /kg body weight combined with some protein.
Ultra-endurance events like Iron Man, Comrades and Cape Epic1-4 grams carbohydrate/kg body weight 1-4 hours before the event (as tolerated). Limit fibre, protein and fat.60-90* grams carbohydrate/hour. See the 30 and 50g carbohydrate lists below for some ideas.Recovery snack within 30 to 45 minutes of completing the race. Aim for 1-1.2g carbohydrate /kg body weight combined with some protein.

*If aiming to consume more than 60g carbohydrate per hour, ensure that you choose products with a mix of glucose and fructose in order to maximise absorption.

So how do we translate this theory into practical guidelines?

Once you’ve worked out how many grams of carbohydrate you should be aiming to consume, you can refer to the lists below in table 2, where you’ll get an idea of how much 30 and 50 grams of carbohydrate equates to.  If it’s 60 grams per hour you’re after, either select 2 different options from the 30 gram list, or double the amount of your selected item.

Table 2: 30 and 50 gram carbohydrate portions

Please note that the amounts listed below are approximations and rounded off to the nearest practical serving size.

 30g Carbohydrate Portion50g Carbohydrate Portion
Standard Energy drinks (6-7 grams carb/100ml)
e.g. Energade, Game
500ml750ml
High Energy drinks (9-10g carb/100ml)
e.g. High 5 Energy Source 2:1, coke
300ml500ml
Sports gels30-35g gel sachet
(gives you approx. 23-25g carbohydrate)
X2 gel sachets
Energy bars (e.g. Powerbar, High 5)2/3 of a bar1 ¼ bars
Racefood fastbar2 bars (~26g carbohydrate)4 bars
Baby potatoes6 baby potatoes9 baby potatoes
Jelly babies7 jelly babies11 jelly babies
Bananas1 large banana or 2 small bananas1 ½ large bananas or 3 small bananas

 For those of you competing in endurance events, it’s important to make sure that your muscles’ glycogen levels are optimal before race day – carbo-loading 2-3 days before a big event, combined with tapering of your training, will promote optimal storage of carbohydrates in preparation for the big day.  Carbo-loading requirements are high and can be anywhere from 8 to 10 grams of carbohydrate/kg body weight/day.

Some studies have shown that eating a relatively low-carbohydrate diet during training combined with carbo-loading before an event might give you the best of both worlds when it comes to maximising adaptation of your muscles and achieving optimal performance.

Although it is likely that you will need to resort to more refined forms of carbohydrate like gels, energy bars and energy drinks, to meet your carbo-loading needs, it is important that you move back to a healthier way of eating after the event, when training normally, by including more whole-grains and minimally-processed forms of carbohydrate.

For a detailed race-day nutrition strategy, it might be worthwhile consulting with a registered dietitian, who will be able to ensure that all your requirements are being met before, during and after the event in order to ensure optimal performance and recovery.

Good luck and may 2018 be an epic year for you!

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