What [and when] should you eat while training for an endurance event?

What [and when] should you eat while training for an endurance event?

Spend a few minutes online searching for ‘best foods for endurance sports’ and it’s easy to find yourself with Alice in Wonderland down a rabbit-hole of mixed information. Yet the reality and latest research highlights that what [and when] you eat while you’re preparing for an endurance event isn’t as complicated as it’s often made out to be.

 

Focus on a Super Plate, not a Superfood

There are no superfoods - it’s an advertising term, not a scientific one.  In fact, the marketing of products as “superfoods” is prohibited across the European Union unless supported by credible scientific research. The result has been that since 2010 all 149 claims have been rejected. [1]

The term superfood gives the impression that other foods are not as healthy, when there is no evidence to support this. The key is balance and increasing the range of nutritious foods in our diet. Variety allows for a wide array of essential vitamins and minerals, and also helps to prevent us from eating too much or too little of a particular nutrient. [2]

Is there a recovery window? 

You may have heard about the importance of refueling with protein and carbohydrate immediately after a workout; an old wives’ tale implying some sort of net-loss in fitness if not undertaken.

Protein will indeed help with recovery, but the timing is close to irrelevant. It doesn’t matter when you have it, the benefits come from the protein itself - not the precise timing of when you have it. Similarly, as long as you take in some carbohydrates, your glycogen stores will be replenished whether you consume them 20 minutes after your workout or 3 or 6 hours later. [3]

The exception to this rule is if you plan on training again in a few hours, in which case you should focus on sufficient refueling. However, don’t worry if you have to get to a meeting immediately after a lunch time workout and aren’t able to eat properly – get something when you can and you’ll recover just fine.

McRecovery

In 2014 I had returned to running post-surgery and was trying to do everything I could to get the most out of my training. I started buying expensive protein powders and recovery drinks that proclaimed all manner of benefits. I then came across this study when trying to figure out if there was a cheaper and easier way to refuel. The researchers compared the effects of sports supplements (like my expensive shakes) versus fast-food on glycogen recovery and sports performance.

The study found no differences in blood glucose or insulin responses, while glycogen resynthesis was also no different. Given that there was also no difference in time-trial performance, the conclusion was that Macca’s worked just fine compared to the products marketed specifically as sports nutrition.

So, what should you be eating?

The above study doesn’t mean you need to go and have a McMuffin after every hard effort, (although this is one of my favourite post-workout meals when I'm training in Australia) it just means that you don’t need to feel guilty if that’s all you had time for - or if it’s what you really felt like.

In fact, after exercising you should eat whatever your body is hungry for [4]. LeBron James and Stephen Curry have PB&J sandwiches before games, Roger Federer likes to start his day with waffles and syrup, and Usain Bolt is mad for McNuggets [5].

Progress, not perfection

There is no perfect diet. Rather, focus on variety and eating mostly well, most of the time. Don’t feel guilty if you indulge once in a while - just try to ensure it’s the exception and not the rule. It’s healthier for your mind and body long-term if you maintain a balance, and endurance sport is all about putting in work over a long period of time.   

 

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References: 

[1] Parker, Christine, et al. “False Labelling Hides the Truth about Superfoods.” Pursuit, The University of Melbourne, 2 Sept. 2019, pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/false-labelling-hides-the-truth-about-superfoods.

[2] “Superfoods or Superhype?” The Nutrition Source, 1 July 2019, www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/superfoods/.

[3] Aschwanden, Christie. Good to Go. WW NORTON & CO, 2019.

[4] Aschwanden, Christie. Good to Go. WW NORTON & CO, 2019.

[5] Merle, Andrew. “The Eating Habits Of The Best Athletes In The World.” Medium, Medium, 16 Dec. 2018, medium.com/@andrewmerle/the-eating-habits-of-the-best-athletes-in-the-world-20fa1462ea1.