Comrades runners are often bombarded with very specific nutrition information to prepare for big races, but what about after the big race?
Is good nutrition still important?
Being an athlete these days means pushing yourself hard and for long periods, striving to go beyond your best and holding it together till the end. Running is an aerobic activity, which uses mainly carbohydrates and fats as a fuel mix for your muscles. When the demands of your body overtake the fuel stored in your muscles, you ’hit the wall’. Hitting the wall is a term to describe muscle fatigue, heaviness and cramping in the muscles, causing an athlete to slow down or stop. Eating the right types and combinations of carbohydrates pre-event and during an event helps to combat this fatigue. Eating the correct foods post-race can also help the body repair itself.
Running involves abnormal muscle contractions and a single hard, lengthy running session may cause significant muscle damage. This has the potential to damage muscle fibres. The major effect on muscle fuel stores appears to occur in the second 24-hour period of recovery after the exercise session, and can be combated by taking in more carbohydrates.
Most runners will finish their race with depleted glycogen stores. Consumption of carbohydrates within 30 minutes of exercise results in higher uptake of glycogen into the muscles after exercise than when ingestion is delayed for two hours. The amount of carbohydrates recommended is 1g to 1.5g of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight, ingested at two hour intervals, up to six hours after the race.
Research shows that combining proteins (0.2 to 0.4g protein per kilogram body weight) with carbohydrates in the two hours after exercise nearly doubles the insulin response, which results in more stored glycogen, or more fuel for the body. The optimal carbohydrate to protein ratio for this effect is 4:1 (four grams of carbohydrate to every one gram of protein). Eating more protein than that, however, has a negative impact because it slows rehydration and glycogen replenishment. Proteins also contain amino acids that assist in repairing the muscles.
Most athletes are not fully aware of the degree of dehydration that occurs during a race, but sweating causes a loss of water and vital salts, which can cause a runner to slow down. The amount of fluid that is required to restore fluid levels can vary from 550ml to 3 litres, depending on how much sweat you have lost and how much fl uid you have replaced during the event.
A quick guide to your dehydration state is to weigh yourself before and after the event, minus sweaty clothes. A kilogram of lost weight is roughly equal to a litre of fluid that needs to be replaced. If you have carbo-loaded pre-event, minus 1kg to 1.5kg from your pre-event weight to account for the extra glycogen and water that is stored with it, leaving you with true fluid losses.
Rapid and complete recovery from excessive dehydration can be accomplished by drinking 450ml to 675ml of fluid for every 0.5kg of body weight lost during exercise. However, for most athletes, Comrades is the last race of their running season and they expect to rest for at least a few days, making immediate rehydration less critical. Consuming rehydration beverages and salty foods at meals and snacks over the next 24 hours will help replace fluid and electrolyte losses.
DEPRESSION OF THE IMMUNE SYSTEM
Athletes who train for prolonged bouts (more than 90 minutes) and who participate in ultra-endurance events, are at increased risk of picking up minor illnesses or infections – most commonly upper respiratory tract infections. Most at risk are those athletes who a) restrict their energy intake, b) have low body weights, c) eat restricted varieties of foods (e.g. vegetarians), and d) have poor or unbalanced diets (low in micronutrients or high in carbohydrate intakes at the expense of protein).
PRACTICAL STRATEGIES TO COUNTER ILLNESS RISK IN ATHLETES
Avoid getting a dry mouth, both during competition and rest.
Never share drink bottles, cutlery or towels.
Travelling athletes should use bottled water.
Ensure good hygiene at all time (i.e. washing hands etc).
Avoid putting hands to eyes and mouth.
Keep social stresses to a minimum.
Avoid rapid weight loss.
Ensure adequate recovery between exercise sessions.
NUTRITIONAL STRATEGIES TO COUNTER ILLNESS RISK IN ATHLETES
Avoid deficiencies and ensure adequate intake of carbohydrates, proteins, fluids and micronutrients (iron, zinc, Vitamin B6, B12, Vitamin C, Vitamin E).
Ensure adequate carbohydrate intake (30-60g/hr) during prolonged or high-intensity sessions.
Take a broad range multivitamin/mineral supplement to support restricted intake/travelling athlete/availability or if variety (fresh fruit and vegetables) is limited.
Take Vitamin C and probiotic supplements during periods of intense training and prior to ultra-endurance events.
Iron supplements should not be taken during periods of infection.
Fluid and alcohol guidelines
Drink what you are used to drinking
Drink according to thirst (not as much as tolerable)
Do NOT drink at rates that are greater than sweat losses i.e. do not gain weight
Drinks with carbohydrates in them (4-8%) may be an easier way to replenish carbohydrates after a race, as often hunger may be delayed
Encourage personally labelled bottles
Ideally avoid alcohol 24hrs after a race
If you must drink alcohol, make sure you first refuel with carbohydrates and protein