The phrase ’I am so tired’ is common in the vocabulary of many runners this time of year as they step up their training ahead of the big ultras. The early waking hours, increased weekly mileage and general muscle stiffness and soreness all add up to the exhaustion they feel, but many runners don’t realise that a simple change in eating habits can eliminate some of this fatigue.Next time you sit down for a meal, consider the following factors:
1. Fuelling your engine adequately
Waking up early and increasing your training runs means limited time in the morning to prepare for the day. You don’t expect your car to go from Pretoria to Johannesburg on R5 worth of petrol, so how can you expect your body to power you through a three-hour run without the correct fuel? Without fuelling up, you won’t get through a run, let alone the rest of your day. Many of us skip breakfast, go hours without eating until we are absolutely starving and then gobble down a double helping of convenient, often non-nutritious food. Or we get so busy that we forget about eating altogether and rely on caffeinated drinks to power us through the day. These habits lead to fatigue and body breakdown.
2. Eating regularly
In some individuals, failure to eat can cause precipitous drops in blood sugar that can cause flagging energy. Eating three meals a day regularly, with healthy snacks such as fresh fruit and nuts in between, will ensure a ready supply of fuel.
3. Loading up on caffeine
While caffeine can lift your energy, what goes up must come down. Regular users of caffeine may suffer from problems associated with caffeine withdrawal, notably fatigue. And take note of hidden caffeine in tea, chocolate, fizzy drinks, diet fizzy drinks, fat burners and energy supplements.
4. Getting enough vitamins and minerals
A balanced diet with plenty of nutritious fruits, vegetables and whole grains will supply vital vitamins, minerals and antioxidants needed daily. When it comes to fatigue, lack of iron and the group of B vitamins can often be the culprit.
• Iron is an essential blood-building nutrient that is required to prevent anaemia. However, even in the absence of anaemia, low iron levels can cause fatigue and low mood. The best blood test to determine iron level is the ferritin level test (the accuracy of the haemoglobin test can be thrown off by a runner’s greater blood volume). You might want to talk to your doctor about getting your ferritin level checked if you think you’re a prime candidate for low iron. Higher risk individuals include women with heavy menstrual cycles, people with gastric bleeding or those on many prescription medications, runners with eating disorders or those who simply have a bad diet. Your diet should include lean meats and/or vegetarian sources of iron, such as whole grains, dried fruits, deep green vegetables and foods fortified with iron. Eat a vitamin C source (tomatoes, strawberries and citrus) with any non-meat iron sources to enhance the iron absorption. Only take an iron supplement with a doctor’s recommendation as there are risks associated with them.
• B vitamins drive energy production, so the lack of them can contribute to training fatigue. A variety of foods provide B vitamins, including great carb-containing foods like whole grains and low-fat dairy. A multivitamin/mineral supplement typically provides enough extra B vitamins for a runner, so you don’t need to take separate forms of the Bs to combat fatigue. Vitamin B12 or complex injections can only benefit individuals with a deficit, but vitamin B12 may be harmful if taken too often, or may mask other problems.
5. Eating the best and right amount of carbohydrates
We should all be consuming about 50-60% of our diets as carbs. Many of us eat less than this, hoping to lose some weight and this can be detrimental to runners. Carbs fuel muscles and help with muscle recovery. Depending on your training and body weight, make sure to include one/two servings of healthy carbs per meal. Try slower energy release carbs throughout the day (low-GI carbs e.g. sweet potato, basmati rice, whole oats, oat bran, seed bread, Ryvita) and only ingest quick energy releasing ones around or during training (high-GI carbs e.g. litchi juice, rice cakes, white bread, energy drinks, gels, energy bars, gums).
6. Starting your recovery quickly enough
You should eat or drink a recovery beverage or snack soon after your longer runs. Remember that you get the greatest refuelling benefit if you consume some form of carbohydrate and protein (e.g. low-fat smoothie) within 30 minutes of a run. The longer you wait, the less benefit.
7. Staying hydrated
Every 1% loss in body weight through dehydration reduces your running performance. Dehydration is not only dangerous due to the increase in body temperature, but it is also an unnecessary cause of training fatigue (linked to changes in blood volume). Stay hydrated all week; it is easier to keep up with hydration than to play catch up.
8. Rest is best!
Most athletes’ fatigue is mainly due to overtraining and not enough rest. No matter how good your nutrition is, if you don’t get enough rest you will never combat fatigue!