Choosing the right food for your body

Make sure you are eating the right food to keep up with your training, particularly if you’re new to exercise

If you run first thing in the morning, you may need some water or something small like a banana or a yoghurt to provide some energy for your run. Photograph: Getty Images

If you run first thing in the morning, you may need some water or something small like a banana or a yoghurt to provide some energy for your run. Photograph: Getty Images


It’s fantastic to see so many out running this month. Several are jogging at my pace, dead slow. Not a bad speed if you’ve just taken on The Irish Times Get Running course.

Whether your objective is to improve your fitness or trim your waistline, the quality and the quantity of your fuel counts too. And thinking about your nutrition is best not left to the days or hours before your first 5km. It should start now in the weeks ahead.

It’s not just what you eat, but when you eat in relation to your training that makes a big difference to your energy levels, your performance and how much body fat you burn.

Many speed walkers and gentle joggers will lose weight as Get Running progresses and their calorie expenditure increases. However, some new runners may find they don’t lose weight or, if they do, it falls short of their expectations.

This is usually because they overestimate the number of calories they burn in a training session and, as one client put it, he felt he “could pig out a bit more” on his new exercise routine.

Food rewards
Some new runners feel hungrier than they used to and reward themselves with additional food. Spreading your calories out over the day so you don’t get ravenous and overeat at night time is worth trying.

By having a larger breakfast and lunch and a smaller dinner in the evening, you can fuel yourself during the day and have energy for your training, especially if you plan to fit in your runs after work.

Food diaries or apps can be useful for tracking your daily calorie intake. But learn to listen to your hunger cues and respond by eating appropriately sized meals and snacks. Once we begin to eat more intuitively, calorie counting becomes less of an issue.

Despite what you may have heard, carbohydrates are not evil, but rather the preferred source of fuel for your muscles and brain.

By fuelling up with portion-controlled carb-based meals, your muscles will have the energy they need to support your training.

The problem is, however, we don’t always focus on the right type of carbohydrates. Most of us need to cut down on the highly processed carbohydrates such as cakes, biscuits, pastry, sweets, chocolate, etc.

Instead fill up on wholegrain cereals and breads, oats, potatoes, sweet potatoes, wholegrain pasta and rice, etc. For weight loss, aim to fill half your plate with vegetables or salad, a quarter with wholegrain carbohydrates and a quarter with lean protein.

Vital protein

Protein is critical for recovery and repair after exercise. It helps us to optimise muscle adaptations as we train. But does this mean that you need to start taking a protein supplement or expensive shake now that you are training for a 5km? No.

Active people have higher protein needs than their sedentary counterparts, but the majority of people who engage in recreational sport like a 5km challenge can get enough protein from the diet and should aim to eat about 1g/kg body weight per day.

Focus on the type of protein you eat and include a source of lean protein at all meals and snacks to help meet your individual needs.

When you begin to run, you should feel neither starved nor stuffed. At beginner level, you don’t want to eat immediately before running because it may lead to a stitch or a cramp.

On the other hand, eating nothing at all for hours beforehand can leave you lacking in energy and unable to run at your best.

If you run first thing in the morning, you may need some water or something small like a banana or a yoghurt to provide some energy for your run.

Then save your breakfast until afterwards and use it as your recovery meal to help control your calories. Do what works best for you.

Before running
As a general rule of thumb before exercise, allow:

four hours for a large meal to digest.

n Two-three hours for a smaller meal.

n One-two hours for a small snack.

In the hour or two before a run choose something high in carbs and lower in fat, fibre and protein.

Too much fat will slow digestion, which may cause that weighed-down feeling during your run. To avoid tummy troubles, avoid very high fibre foods.

As well as the quantity of protein consumed, the timing of protein intake over the day is equally important. Including small amounts of protein-rich foods at each meal and snack will result in enhanced muscle recovery and help build muscle more effectively.

After running

A mix of carbohydrate and protein promotes a faster recovery of glycogen stores and muscle, compared with a carbohydrate-only snack or meal.

The sooner you eat after training, the quicker the muscles begin to replenish their glycogen stores. Ideally, aim to eat a carbohydrate- and protein-rich snack within 30 minutes of exercise, and no later than two hours afterwards.

A build-up of free radicals, which are normally generated during exercise, can leave your muscles sore and tired. Although regular running improves the body’s defences against free radicals, you can also boost them further by eating antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables.

Recovery snacks contribute to your overall calorie intake for the day. For anyone trying to lose weight, you may be better skipping the recovery snack and timing a suitable meal as soon as you can after exercise to avoid overdoing it on the calories.

It all comes back to planning. Planning the shopping, meals and snacks can help fuel you for the best possible runs, three times each week. Just think how incredible you will feel as you smash your first running challenge.

Paula Mee is lead dietitian at Medfit Proactive Healthcare.; Twitter @paula_mee

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