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Real Food Running: Part 1

12‐10‐16

I'm obsessive about two things; 1. simple, wholefood nutrition, and 2. endurance running.

Over the past 5 years I've combined these two obsessions such that all my running nutrition is now made from wholefoods.

I haven't used a gel for over 7 years and I haven't used a heavily processed sports bar or drink powder for more than 4 years. Not only has this forced me to develop a bunch of convenient wholefood recipes during this time, more importantly I've had to develop my thinking.

energy drinkWe've been lead to believe over the years that its not possible to undertake any sort of sports activity without a brightly coloured energy drink or a gel concoction straight out of a science lab. This is simply not true, it just requires some lateral thinking and experimentation to find out what will work for you. And best of all, as you'll be eating wholefoods and nothing heavily processed or artificial, it will be easily digestible and won't mess with your stomach, or god forbid, your bowels!!

Ditching the Gels

My ultra-running adventures began 8 years ago in Hong Kong where I attempted the first of four Hong Kong Trailwalker events that I’ve competed in. I returned to HK last month and whilst there, I was asked to speak to a group of endurance athletes at the sports store chain Escapade Sports. The talk was titled ‘Ditching the Gels’ and I spoke about my Real Food Running strategies from a Pre-Race, During and Post-Race perspective. This blog is based on the content that I discussed that night.

So why ditch the gels (and sports drinks)? Don't get me wrong, these products will give you energy when you need it. But there are two key reasons why I don't use these products:

  1. The two main ingredients in these products are water and sugar. Simple sugars will provide you with a short term energy boost that is easily and quickly absorbed by the body. But I don’t need an expensive, heavily marketed sports drink or gel to get that. I can get that from a handful of jelly beans for a fraction of the price! Better still, I use fruits that have a high water content, like watermelon, grapes and mandarin. These have the simple sugars for energy, as well as the added bonus of nutrients that your body is looking for. Again they are much cheaper than the sports drinks and gels, they're just as effective for energy, and being completely natural and unprocessed, are easy to digest and are nutritionally superior. fruit platter
  2.  Sports gels and drinks usually contain added colours, flavours and preservatives. And any of the electrolytes or vitamins added are usually manufactured in a lab, so depending on the ingredient it is possible that the body will not be able to absorb this as readily as the natural form. In an endurance event, your body is being put under enough strain, it doesn't need the added stress of trying to process ingredients that its simply not designed to digest.

Pre-Race Nutrition

While nutrition the day before an event is important, there is much more to it than that. You wouldn't attempt a marathon having done no training until the day before the event would you? Nutrition is much the same. What you eat and drink on an on-going basis for months before the event will have an overall bearing on your body's readiness to undertake a big endurance challenge. There's no magic pill that you can take the day before, you need to be eating a balanced, wholesome diet day-to-day.

There are of course lots of different diets that people swear by, from Paleo, to Mediterranean diets, to vegan. Personally, I take guidance from all of these diets and more. But what I have found to be really effective is to be aware of inflammatory versus anti-inflammatory foods.

I've spoken about the role of inflammation before in another blog here. The key concept is that certain foods encourage chronic inflammation in the body, which is likely to lead to long-term serious health issues. On the flip side, certain foods are anti-inflammatory in nature, thus fighting to stave off chronic inflammation and the long-term health issues that can accompany that.

This is particularly relevant to people undertaking high-intensity or endurance exercise as the body has a natural inflammatory response to this exercise. We should definitely not be encouraging further inflammation through our diets. Some of the foods to seek out and to avoid are:

Anti-inflammatory foods

green vegetables Fresh fruit and vegetables

Nuts and seeds

Fresh seafood and meats

Turmeric (well known for its active anti-inflammatory compounds)

Inflammatory foods

✘ Refined sugar, trans fats, vegetable oils

✘ Dairy and gluten

✘ Processed meats

✘ Alcohol

Race Day -1

This is not to say that there are not certain things you can do in the days leading up to an event in order to enhance your performance. You should:

  1. ensure you’re adequately hydrated, particularly if competing in a hot climate.
  2. consume carbohydrates (fruit, rice and oats are some popular options) to ensure your muscle glycogen stores are full. Carb-loading has been a popular concept over the years, but the idea has lost favour in recent times. In the 2-days before an event, I don’t carb-load as such, but I do tend to increase my food consumption to ensure that my energy stores are maximized.
  3. have your last meal no less than 2 hours before the event start time. This should be a light meal that can be easily digested.
  4. consider consuming nitrate rich foods such as beetroot juice in the lead-up to an event. There is some evidence that the nitrates in beetroot juice act to open the blood vessels to allow more blood and oxygen to be delivered to the muscles. Keep an eye out for more research on this (I am experimenting with this myself at the moment).

Recap

To conclude, Pre-Exercise nutrition should be based on a sound, long-term healthy diet. Like an on-going training plan, your nutrition plan is not something that can be developed the day before an event. A focus on fresh, quality produce, excluding heavily processed foods that can encourage chronic inflammation, will stand you in good stead come race day. With a quality diet such as this, all you need to do in the days and hours before a race is ensure that you’ve eaten easily digestible foods that will top up your energy stores, and you’ll be ready to chase that PB!

I’ll continue my Real Food Running blog next month, when I go through my During Exercise Real Food Nutrition tips. See you then!

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