Fuelling your body with appropriate nutrients before, during and after endurance events like sporting events such as the Comrades Marathon is critical for optimal performance. In addition, most top athletes swear by the fact that proper nutrition makes a marked difference to recovery after such a grueling event.
It is important to get the basics right when preparing for a long-distance event. The key rule is to eat for optimum health: athletes should eat enough food for the amount of exercise they are doing, ensure there is quality protein in each meal, and aim for five portions of fruit and veggies per day.
But the five-a-day rule may not be enough; participating in an endurance event increases your body’s nutritional needs therefore it’s important to supplement your diet as part of a balanced nutritional plan. Optimal nutrition is vital for optimal performance.
A forty-year study in the USA reveals that since the 1950s there has been a major decline in the nutrient value of fruit and vegetables due to the steady depletion of soil nutrients. Another big culprit robbing our diets of nutrient value is the over-processing of foods.
Coupled with the effects of prolonged storage plus temperature and hormonal manipulation, the nutritional recommendation of five servings of fruit and vegetables per day is just not doing the job of providing the adequate amount of nutrients required by our bodies.
With the increased energy turnover during exercise, the body’s requirements for essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants naturally increase. Apart from a higher energy turnover, another factor that increases the body’s nutritional needs is the damage done to muscle cells and muscle tissues during intensive exercise.
Whether it’s your first time preparing for a major endurance event, or whether you regard yourself as a veteran, it is always a good idea to consult with a sports dietician before starting with any major training programme.
The right balance
There is definitely a science to getting the balance right between optimal nutrition and effective training. A dietician can give practical and realistic guidelines on how to supplement an athlete’s diet to improve experience and performance.
Since the body takes quite a beating during an endurance event, the following golden rules will support the body and help with effective recovery:
During exercise the body’s fluid requirements increase due to sweating and heavier breathing. When you sweat you lose electrolytes or salts like potassium and sodium which are important for energy and sport performance. Dehydration creates symptoms of fatigue, and it’s important to constantly re-hydrate during your training sessions and on race day. Studies show that water is absorbed at a slower rate than sports drinks containing electrolytes. Drinking concentrated carbohydrate sports drinks before the event should help boost your muscle glycogen stores through the process of carbo-loading. During an event, be careful not to overdo it - too much fluid can over-hydrate the body.
As you step up your training programme to prepare for a high intensity endurance event, your body needs to convert blood glucose into muscle energy to support a constantly higher energy output. To replenish your body, take Vitamin B complex which assists with energy conversion. A basic multivitamin also contains B-vitamins.
Don’t overdo it with supplements. Some athletes believe that the more they take, the better their performance – they’re wrong. You’ll only be wasting money if you take too many supplements since the body cannot absorb everything. Speak to a dietician or a sports nutritionist to identify the right products for your needs.
An endurance event like the Comrades Marathon, requires you to expend energy throughout hours of physical activity. Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy during exercise, so meals and snacks during the training programme should be based on carbohydrates. However, don’t neglect your protein intake. An eating strategy to maximise energy for an endurance event will include carbo-loading (eating a very high carbohydrate diet for three days prior to an event).
To avoid and ease muscle cramps, magnesium should be taken during and after the event.
Taking Vitamin C, which is an anti-oxidant, can reduce the risk of heat fatigue during the event.
It’s very important to help your body recover optimally after a major endurance event. Within the first half an hour of crossing the finishing line a combination of fluids, carbohydrates, electrolytes and amino acids (for muscle tissue damage) should be taken to speed up the body’s recovery process. If taken even an hour after the event, it can take the body up to 12 hours longer to recover properly. It’s crucial to not delay the recovery process. Inadequate recovery can lead to chronic fatigue, injury and a gradual decline in performance.
Practical tips for optimum recovery
The following guidelines are adapted from the Australian Institute of Sport, providing some general post-event recovery ideas:
Be organised and manage time well in order to have food ready to eat or requiring minimal preparation when you are most tired. Batch cook and store/freeze meals in convenient size portions. Prepare your meal before training. Eat out.
Bring suitable foods/drinks to the venue. Portable carbohydrate-rich snacks include sandwiches, sports bars and sports drinks, liquid meal supplements, breakfast cereal, fruit, flavoured yoghurt, dried fruit and rice cakes. Have a snack, and top up later with a more substantial meal when access to a better range of foods is possible.
If you lack an appetite after intense exercise, choose a snack or liquid supplement rather than a meal. When you are hot and sweaty, foods that are cool and high in liquid content may be most appealing. These may include juices, sports drinks, fruit smoothies and milk shakes, liquid meal supplements, or flavoured/frozen yoghurt. In cold weather, a hot soup, toasted sandwiches or pizza squares may be appetising. Offer food in 'bite-size' pieces rather than overbearing amounts. Fruit portions, sandwich fingers or small pizza squares may tempt a tired and meagre appetite.
It’s very common to not know how to start with a balanced nutrition strategy when preparing for an endurance event.
Athletes looking for sound supplementation advice from a qualified dietician can contact Vital Health Foods’ nutritional helpline on 0800 22 33 11.
This article was written by Andrea du Plessis, a registered dietician for Vital Health Foods and specialist in Sports and Exercise Science.
- (Health24, May 2010)