Fitness & exercise Food and nutrition Netdoctor & Patient Info

The foods that could make you run faster

A different kind of fast food

If you run, you’re doubtless aware of the ways that diet can affect your performance. Underfuel, and you’re likely to run out of steam, registering a slower time than usual and feeling lethargic to boot. Overindulge, on the other hand, and last night’s curry could end up wreaking havoc on your guts.

However, there is more to the equation than simply getting the calorie balance right. For runners who want to log their best times yet, the types of food you eat – and when you eat it – can make a tremendous difference. Here are some dietary strategies to help you nail your next PB. 

Blame it on the beetroot

Over the last few years, one surprising candidate has come to the fore as a running superfood – and it may sound more congruent with your granny’s allotment than with a sports nutrition lab.

According to a number of studies, the humble beetroot can boost athletic performance, improving both speed and endurance. In one 2010 study, from the University of Exeter, cyclists who consumed 500ml of beetroot juice were able to ride for up to 20% longer than those who drank blackcurrant juice. Another study, from St Louis University in Missouri, tested participants running a 5K. Those who’d eaten baked beetroot were 0.3mph faster, on average, than those who’d eaten cranberry relish.

Andrew Jones, professor of applied physiology at the University of Exeter, is perhaps the best-known researcher in the field. He has published numerous papers on the subject, and even goes by the Twitter handle AndyBeetroot. As he explains:

“The nitrate in beetroot can be converted in the body to nitric oxide – which can dilate blood vessels, allowing more oxygen to reach muscles and improve the efficiency of muscle in producing energy. One concentrated beetroot juice shot taken 2-3 hours before exercise can improve performance by 1-3%.”

While this benefit is only small, it is enough to make a difference in a sport where every second counts. And if you can’t stomach the purple wonder veg? A number of leafy green vegetables appear to have similar properties.

“Increasing the daily consumption of nitrate-containing foods like beetroot, spinach and rocket can be useful for general health and for supporting an active lifestyle,” Jones says. 

Carbs – Before, during and after

Carb-loading is a well-known strategy in the days immediately prior to a race. As Jones puts it:

“Carbohydrate is an essential fuel for exercise performance. Tapering training and consuming high carbohydrate foods (rice, pasta, bread, potatoes) over the last 2-3 days before a big race can ensure that muscle glycogen (carbohydrate) stores are topped up.”

In general, runners should aim to eat complex carbs, such as whole grains and legumes, rather than simple carbs such as sweets and white bread. Aside from their other nutritional benefits, this will help you feel full for longer, and ensure you don’t overeat.

The exception to the rule is during your run itself, when you need a quick burst of energy. Although this is unlikely to be necessary during shorter runs, if you’re on the go for much longer than an hour, it may be worth consuming a sports drink or energy gel. The sugar hit will help top up your glycogen stores and prevent you from ‘hitting the wall’.

You should also take on some carbs in the hour after a race or hard training run, when your muscles are particularly good at absorbing them. Some runners swear by a banana smoothie (which also replenishes the potassium lost during exercise), a piece of malt loaf with peanut butter, or a glass of chocolate milk.

“It is important to consume carbohydrate (to restore muscle glycogen levels) and protein (to help repair and build muscle) as soon as possible following a hard training session. Sports drinks can be useful early in the recovery process,” says Jones.

 The performance enhancer on your breakfast table

Although it’s not currently banned by doping committees, caffeine is a true performance enhancing drug. A rapidly absorbed stimulant, it improves reaction times, lowers perception of effort and encourages the body to use more fat as fuel, slowing down the depletion of glycogen.

In one study, cyclists’ time to exhaustion was nearly 15 minutes longer when given 330mg caffeine one hour before exercise. (Three to 6mg of caffeine per kg of bodyweight is recommended for endurance exercise, which works out about the same as two or three strong cups of coffee.) There is also evidence to suggest that caffeine can be helpful for mid-race fuelling, most likely in the form of a special energy gel.

Be careful though – too much caffeine can have a laxative effect, contributing to the infamous runner’s trots. It probably won’t be your fastest race if you spend most of it in the Portaloo.

Getting the balance right

Overall, healthy eating for runners looks much like healthy eating for the rest of the population – albeit with the occasional tactical tweak. And while you will probably require more calories than your sedentary friends (around 300kcal extra a day for a person who runs 20 miles a week), gorging yourself won’t do much good for your speed or your waistline.

“Just remember that while running burns calories and this should be balanced by increased energy intake, this is not a free license to over-indulge all the time!” points out Jones. (As someone who set the British junior half marathon record, he would know!)

This article appears on Netdoctor

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