Nutriion for athletes - Centurions Worldwide Community

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nutrition for athletes
There plenty of reasons to maintain  a healthy diet especially if you are walking and racing long distances.

A well-fuelled body will not only help you walk further and faster, but it will assist in the key recovery after exercise.
For any (race) walker, the key benefits of healthy eating are the ability to train well and to recover efficiently and quickly, so you can enjoy your next session, however hard it is.
This remains true whatever your standard – complete beginner or aspiring Olympian.
The harder you train, the more relevant healthy eating becomes  - especially to enable you to tackle the longer events - 50km, 100km, 100 miles and 24 hours. A good healthy diet will also -
  • give you vitality,
  • protect your immune system from infection and illness (whilst avoiding time lost from training and racing),
  • promote recovery from races, training and injury and
  • generally keep you in good shape for life and sport.

There has been a lot written and discussed about nutrition for ultra distance athletes over the decades. Diets and "fads" come and go: carbo loading, the F Plan, Keto and just about everything in between - they have all been tried.  But what is the answer?
Is it really a competition between carbohydrates vs protein?   
Whilst it is accepted that generally we all need both, but what about ultra racewalkers?  
So, which is it to be... and should we favour one over the other?

read more on how to maintain a healthy diet:

So is it just about carbs vs protein?
Much depends on our training regime: the intensity - how hard and how often we go out training. As endurance athletes, we probably need more of both than the average non-athlete.What about a balanced diet rather than the "extreme"?
Some  ultra race walkers often go for a low-carb approach which may well work for them.  However, what works for one athlete doesn't mean it works for the rest of us.
Carbohydrate as fuel: yes, we do need the carbohydrates for the energy to complete a multi hour race, a 100 miler/24 hour race, a multi day race.. and protein is equally necessary to help build and repair muscles - which do take a bit of a beating on very long distances.
or,  a bit of both?
It seems to be accepted that we need carbohydrates to sustain both those long, high-intensity training  sessions and ultra races and protein to help recover from all that.
And don't forget a bit of fat to ensure we get an adequate number of calories in our diet.  Carbs will definitely give you the fuel you need to compete, but  we also need protein to repair and help build our muscle mass.
So, with a combined protein, carbohydrate and evena bit of fat in our diet  - this should all help us endure!
train your gut
Sports nutritionists'  advice is to:
Train your gut!
Many ultra athletes suffer from gastrointestinal (GI) problems. Inevtiable when racing over 24 hours and nibbling, snacking (or not) food that you may not be used to.  So make sure that your gut is used to the food you are feeding it.
During a race, make sure that you have plenty of different foods, drinks with you. What you enjoyed and could get down your throat  4 or 6 hours ago may not be tolerated over the next 10-20 hours.
see also the training advice pages:
"What should I eat and drink? And, how often should I eat and drink during a race?"

A recent piece on the BBC Food website  "High-protein or high-carb: Will either boost your fitness? " discusses this very issue where the experts advocate that it’s preferable not cut out any macro-nutrients from our diet and to follow healthy eating guidelines – adapting them depending on our individual demands rather than re-writing them entirely.
food glorious food
check out what you should be eating
fruit and vegetables
The rule of thumb is to eat a wide variety of  5-10 portions daily of fruit and vegetables. Mix up the colours, as different coloured fruit and veg contain different vitamins and minerals, and make their own different contributions to your health.
Broccoli and all types of cabbage, red, green and yellow peppers, and carrots and other root veg are all very good.
Apples and oranges are traditional health favourites, and bananas are a particularly good source of potassium (to counteract the effect of sodium and help prevent high blood pressure.) Dark fruits, which are common in autumn, are thought to help to fortify the immune system for winter.
Dried fruits (dates, figs, prunes, apricots, raisins, bananas etc) are rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre, and easy to carry around as races snacks.
Ultra distance athletes need more protein than  normal recommended amounts - notably for general well-being, muscle maintenance and repair, injury prevention and recovery.  Fish of all kinds is excellent. Eat plenty of low fat yoghurt, fromage frais, cottage cheese, for their calcium content as well as protein. Enjoy a few mixed nuts each day. Lean meat is also fine. Eggs and cheese are very nutritious, and especially useful after races.
Soya is a source of protein and good for its antioxidant and health-giving properties. Plain tofu is quick and versatile. Soya and other bean dishes are useful, tasty and health-boosting for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike.
Vegetarians especially can help to ensure they get sufficient iron by eating iron-rich fruits and veg (including broccoli and green, leafy veg,) wholemeal bread and cereal snacks.
The main fuel our body uses comes from carbohydrate. It is  stored in our muscles and liver as glycogen. We can only store a limited amount of glycogen so it's crucial to keep supplies topped up. As a rough guide, before walking you should leave 3 to 4 hours after a large meal and half an hour to two hours after a snack. When you leave too long between eating and walking,  the body will run down muscle, and the immune system will suffer and you risk low blood sugar (glucose) levels causing light-headedness or fatigue. Ensuring you have steady blood glucose levels means you can complete your session feeling strong. See below for tips on race day food.

So, athletes need carbohydrates:  bread, cereals, potatoes, rice, pasta - for energy, to keep muscles fuelled, to support muscle maintenance and repair and also to support the immune system especially after hard training and long races.
A good intake of fruits/veg and of protein are both also important to your health - both will provide energy. Too many carbs can mean too little of important nutrients, and can lead to unwelcome weight gain if you eat too much for your training/racing energy needs. Too many refined carbs, sugary foods and foods with a high glaecemic value, can lead to energy peaks and troughs, and even contribute to borderline diabetes, so choose non-sugary and unrefined carbs, don’t eat too much at once, and combine carbs with fats, protein, fruit and veg.
fats & salt
Some fat in the diet is important to health and to the absorption of vitamins; choose monounsaturated fats like olive oil and peanut butter for preference. Try to avoid saturated and hydrogenated fats in food and cooking (visible meat fat, butter, margarine, cream and most fats sold for cooking. Substitute vegetable oils especially olive oil, as in the Mediterranean diet or sunflower oil.

Salt is a major contributory factor to raised blood pressure and hypertension. Avoid salty snacks, which are often also fatty.
Training and racing will lower your resting pulse rate and blood pressure; for most people this is good news. Reducing salt intake will help in this.
However, in a race scenario, it is sometimes tempting to snack on salty foods - TUC, pretzels etc.  But when the weather is very warm, a few Tuc biscuits, for example, are sometimes welcome - in moderation.

it's race day!
race day food and drink....

race day food and drink....
during an ultra race, you need to eat and drink
this is especially necessary in distances of  50km and longer.

Find out what works for you before the race!
Race organisers may put out food at the feeding station that some experienced athletes would not eat, so don’t assume that if something is provided, that you should eat it!

  • What you do need in a 100 mile /24 hour race are  carbs which will go down easily and not cause digestive problems, as well as some protein especially if it's a 24 hour race or longer.  Usually you will find small pieces of cheese on the feeding station  Not all athletes will eat protein during 24 hours/100miles races but that is their choice. Follow the science!

  • What you can eat may depend on your pace. If you are pushing hard, you may be more restricted in what food you can tolerate than if you are going steadily. Be careful about pushing too hard in long races - it is very easy to get carried away and go too fast in the early stages, then regret it when you feel tired and rough later on!

  • Whilst carbohydrate is the main body fuel, (along with protein and fat), but eating too many carbs and nothing else in a race can make you feel bloated and very uncomfortable. The key to re-fuelling efficiently on the go is to take food and drink on a  little and often basis, rather than overload the system with larger, less frequent amounts.

  • Some organisers provide "sit down"  meals three times a day. This is OK in a  multiday race - whether walking round the course  slowly while you eat a meal, or taking a break to eat may provide a valuable rest and do you good. In a 24 hour race, however, it's best to snack on small portions (eg a bit of potato and cheese, or pasta).  Leave full meals to the supporters.

  • The "rush" of competition adrelinin along with your race pace during the first few hours of a 24 hour race may lead you to think that you aren't hungry and don't need to eat. In a 24 hour race you really need to start drinking early and keep drinking at sensible intervals until the end. Also you need to start eating small amounts regularly after the first hour or so - snacky foods  such as biscuits, fruit, etc.  If you have not had a meal for some hours you will feel the need to eat something.  How often you eat is up to you and will depend on the the length  of the lap - a mouthful every 20 mins or a sandwich every 30-40 mins.   On a longer lap over 2 miles or so, you may not get the chance to eat and drink often, so be ready to take something every time you pass the feeding station.

  • During the last 12 hours, you may not feel you cannot eat very much - this is quite natural with many athletes.  If you forget or cannot eat during the night time and begin to feel low on energy, slow, shivery and weak, take action quickly- take additional meaures:  put on some  warm clothes, take warm, sweet drinks and  food which is tempting and digestible which will give you a boost. Keep moving to keep warm and to keep your circulation going, but slowly enough to digest the food and to rebuild your energy levels and confidence.  A steady walk for a few minutes may be ideal and sort you out. In the early hours, try to eat a little regularly - a little and often. A biscuit,  piece of fruit or cheese.... you will be glad later, and be at less risk of suffering the physical and mental lows which come from depleted energy reserves which which can creep up on you.

  • If you you have a supporter, they should be on the lookout for the danger signs, such as refusal to eat when a snack is offered.

  • Learn from experience what you can tolerate, and what feeding strategy gives you the best results. If you have a bad race -  stomach problems, cramp or muscle pain, low energy, feeling cold or faint - analyse carefully afterwards what might have caused the problem. What did you eat and drink during the 1-2 days before the event, in the hours before the start, and during the race? Could something have upset you? Did you go into the race dehydrated, or get dehydrated during the race. We are all different. Many race walkers thrive on a mixture of easy carbs (eg sandwiches, malt loaf, mashed potato, rice pudding, porridge/cereal) and some protein (eg small cubes of cheese, nuts, peanut butter) in small quantities as needed, which may vary from every 30-60 mins, usually more frequently in the second half of a race.
    TIP:   keep a record of your food and drink intake  to learn for the next race.

  • Sports drinks - they don’t suit everyone.   Check what works well for you on training walks. Just because something is called a sports drink and is provided at races, and even if it used successfully and endorsed by other athletes, don’t assume it will work for you. The salty nature of some electrolytic drinks can cause stomach upsets and cramps; and even long-chain, complex carbohydrates (eg maltodextrins) can challenge the digestion and cause sickness.  Some people can use such preparations only if they are well diluted and indeed more dilute than the manufacturers’ recommendations.  Always test these drinks out on your long training sessions.  

    Alternatives:  coke (regular, not -diet- nor defizzed - the fizz can help sort out the stomach.)  Lucozade (original, not the sports variety which is full of sugar) and ordinary orange squash, well diluted. Check ingredients and even reviews by ultra athletes before investng. They are not cheap.

  • Dehydration is dangerous: during a 24 hour race this can be difficult to judge - you may feel Ok....but don’t wait until you are thirsty - drink at regular intervals, depending on your pace and the weather conditions. So aim to drink at  30 minute intervals - on the hour and half hour keeps it simple to regulate. Judge carefully how much to drink to keep yourself in balance. When the temperature cools down at night, or if your pace slackens, consider reducing the liquid intake  Watch out for signs of overdrinking - needing to urinate too often (it does waste time!), bloating and sometimes sickness. But never deny thirst: if you need it, drink!

  • After a long training session or an ultra race, it is really vital to take in carbohydrates and protein to replace energy, to support the immune system, kick-start the repair and build up of muscle. Recovery starts as soon as you have crossed teh finish line.
    It's a good idea to take food and drink on a  little and often basis, rather than overload the system with larger, less frequent amounts. So try to have some carbs and some protein (eg cereal with banana, milk and yoghurt, sandwiches with cheese, egg or other protein) within 15-20 minutes of finishing a race or training session. Organisers do not always provide for such nutritious snacks at the finish of a race so try to have something in your kit bag, such as a sliced malt loaf or sandwich, cheese or a hard-boiled egg,  apple or dried fruit, and a bottle of water in case organisers’ supplies dry up.

  • After a long race, your muscles will have suffered a lot of damage, and your system will be flushed with debris resulting from muscle and tissue breakdown. You need additional protein for several days to help the repair and building process. You also need plenty to drink, again for several days after a long race, to help the body to flush out debris and waste, and to carry nutrients to areas needing repair. Good sleep at night promotes repair. The quicker the repairs are carried out, the sooner you can train effectively and compete safely and successfully again.

a healthy diet will not in itself make you walk faster - you do need to  train as well = see the Training for the  100   page

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