Nutrition for endurance races

A nutritionally balanced diet can help to boost your performance in sport, and optimal nutrition is essential for peak performance both during training and during a race. While it’s tempting to rely on existing commercial energy bars, gels and powders that promise a world of benefits, most of the time food can do just as good a job at providing you with the necessary fuel and nutrients to perform at your best.

What you eat today, will influence your performance tomorrow

Following a healthy diet has many advantages to an athlete. Benefits from eating well include getting the most from your training program, enhanced recovery after hard training sessions and races, achieving an ideal body weight as well as reducing your risk of injury and illness. Athletes are all different, and there is no single diet that meets the needs of all athletes at all times. Certain general principles underpin a healthy diet such as eating a diet rich in plant foods, but within this framework an individualised approach is key.

Food as fuel

The main goal of nutrition in sport is to ensure that fuel demands are met for optimal performance and health. Taking in too much energy will lead to an increase in body fat; too little and performance will be affected and illness or injury may result. Your daily energy needs will depend on numerous factors such as the intensity, duration and amount of exercise you do, your age, gender, weight and height. A registered dietitian with a special interest in sport will be able to help you determine your personal needs. For more information on foods as fuel before, during and after training and races, go to Optimal fuelling and refuelling

Have a nutrition action plan

Just as you plan and schedule your training sessions, plan what you will eat and drink before, during and after training and races. Being well prepared for any race means you’ve tried out your unique nutrition strategy and knowing what works best for you.

Timing is important

Whatever your nutrition goals may be leading up to your big race (such as shedding those last few kilo’s), never compromise on optimal nutrition before, during and after hard training bouts or races. Having a meal an hour or longer before will provide fuel and also give the gut time to process the meal to prevent stomach upset during exercise. Start your fueling strategy within an hour of your training session or race. Fuel and fluid stores get depleted after 60 - 90 minutes. Start eating and drinking within the first hour and every hour thereafter. And lastly, the sooner you eat and drink after training or a race, the better you will recover - within 30 minutes is the window period for optimal recovery.

Be practical

Ensure that the foods and fluids you choose during your race are easy to eat, easy to carry with you (portable) and easy to digest. This might mean carrying a hydration pack to ensure you get in sufficient fluids, or unwrapping bars or date balls before the start of the race to ensure easy access. Consider foods that are not too dry, easy to chew and swallow (such as fruit purees) and be mindful that higher protein and fat foods are not easy to digest during intense exercise bouts. Try all nutrition strategies during training and preparation races - don’t try anything new on race day!

Refuelling for optimal recovery

During long bouts of exercise, energy and fluid stores get depleted and replacing these stores are essential. How well you recover today will determine how well you perform tomorrow. To help the body adapt to the physiological stress from a recurring exercise load, stores need to be replaced within the window period for optimal recovery. Aim to eat and drink within 30 minutes after exercise, with a small meal within 2 hours after exercise and again after 4 hours. Your recovery meal and/or drink should include fluids to replace lost stores, carbohydrate and protein rich foods and electrolytes. For more information on foods as fuel before, during and after exercise and races, go to Optimal Fuelling and Refuelling