Amelia Watts of Longhaul Endurance explains why fuelling your long runs with the right food is so important, and how to incorporate natural foods into your sports nutrition strategy.
The importance of the right fuel
As every athlete, amateur or professional knows, preparing for an endurance event takes time and dedication. Sacrificing hours each day to our training programmes, often to the detriment of other areas of our life – just ask any endurance widow or widower.
And yet poor performance, or the dreaded DNF, is not usually because we haven’t put the blood, sweat or tears into our training, but because our fuelling strategy or lack of one has caused a digestional maelstrom!
Simply put our digestive systems are unable to breakdown and utilise the fuels we are putting into them. As Jason Koop, in his book Training Essentials for Ultrarunning, explains, ‘Ultrarunning is an eating contest on the go’. At shorter distances the body can cope with the unplanned, randomised fuelling strategy of an energy gel here and an electrolyte there, but at ultra events the ‘winging it’ fuelling strategy just leads to disaster.
Research clearly shows that optimal race-day nutrition leads to better performance, a quicker recovery, spiralling to yet another good performance. Yet very few athletes meet their nutritional needs during training or racing. There seems to be a wide range of reasons for this including:
- Poor nutrition education – not knowing what to eat or when to eat
- Poor fuelling planning
- Eating the wrong fuels
- Difficulties in ‘getting in’ enough energy
- Development of physical symptoms including gastrointestinal distress
- Suppression of appetite
- Logistical challenges of carrying enough energy
At Longhaul we believe that nature provides the answer to the majority of these fuelling difficulties.
The benefits of wholefoods
1. Sustained energy release
Fuelling for endurance is not simply about calorie intake. It is about giving the body the perfect mix of carbohydrates, protein and fat, to provide a steady stream of energy that the body can utilise.
Eating a product high in simple sugars causes a quick sugar surge into your blood stream. While it’s true that endurance athletes are better able to utilise sugar than the average sedentary individual, consuming the high amounts of it as found in many commercial gels and powders is still unwise.
When exercising, some excess sugar will be absorbed by the muscles to replenish depleted glycogen stores. But you’d have to be exercising at an extremely high intensity to use up all the sugar in many of the commercial gels and stop the spike in blood sugar.
As a response to this high blood sugar, the body will release a hormone called insulin. Insulin’s job is to take hold of any excess blood sugar and transport it to the fat cells to be stored away from where it can do harm. This process results in a sugar crash leading to fatigue, hunger, vicious cycles of sugar cravings and ultimately a decrease in performance.
By balancing simple sugars with fats, protein and fibre, nature has a clever way of steadying the release of energy providing you with a supply your body can make the most of.
Take dates for example, which we believe are arguably the original endurance fuel. They contain high levels of the fruit sugar fructose, but nature has combined this with protein and fat to slow the sugar release. Furthermore, dates contain high levels of iron, which is essential for delivering oxygen to the muscles.
When it comes to athletic performance, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants are vitally important for energy production, haemoglobin synthesis, bone health, optimal immune function, and protection of the body against oxidative damage. They also assist in important physiological processes related to recovery, and adaptation to exercise. Without them we can’t obtain optimal performance, no matter how hard we train!
However, supplementation of one or more nutrients just doesn’t hold up against natural ingredients. One of the many advantages of whole food over a powder or gel is that your body benefits from nature’s ‘nutrient synergy’.
Nutrient synergy is the way that two or more different nutrients work together to produce an effect that you can’t get from either nutrient alone. Sometimes they help each other do the same job; other times one nutrient helps you absorb more of the other. Even though supplementing with iron along with some vitamin C can help to prevent anaemia, they will never give you the same health and performance benefits as eating iron-rich foods such as red meat or kale.
The benefit in fuelling with wholefoods is that athletes are able to receive the same performance-enhancing energy and nutrients in a form the body can recognise, digest and absorb. Unlike synthetic, highly processed fuels, wholefoods don’t contain additives, preservatives, emulsifiers or other nasties that our detrimental to health and performance.
When we start to train to any level of intensity our body shunts blood away from the digestive system to the working muscular system. Reducing the digestive system to a hibernation mode and switching off our appetite. At times like these it is difficult to get fuel into you, therefore it is really important that what you’re eating tastes good. Nature, I believe, wins hands down on taste over any synthetic, sugary product!