Go into any grocery these days, and you’ll find a dizzying number of engineered sports bars, drinks, meals, and gels promising to help you run faster, go longer, and get leaner. With all those bold promises, it’s easy to end up with GI distress, or piling on the pounds on the way to the starting line, instead of shedding them—not to mention derailing the race that you put in so much training to prepare for.
And as you’ve probably already discovered, you can have the legs and lungs of an Olympian, but if you’re not properly fueled, your performance is at risk.
“Now more people than ever realize that how you fuel your body makes a huge difference in how you perform,” said registered dietitian Matt Kadey, author of Rocket Fuel: Power-Packed Food for Sports and Adventure (velopress, April 2016).
Fueling up with whole foods is an ideal way to make sure that you get the nutrients you need to run strong, without the artificial additives that can leave you with unwanted pounds, and unplanned pit stops when you’re on the road.
You spend so much time and energy conditioning your body into shape—it only makes sense to ensure that you’re fueling with the highest-quality food you can find. If you’re consuming lots of snacks and drinks with ingredients that you can’t pronounce, much less find in your own pantry, then you lose that control. “If you don’t have it in your house, or don’t even know how to buy it, maybe it’s not the ultimate fuel for your body,” Kadey said.
Here are some tips from Kadey on how to fuel up with whole foods to make the most of your training, and reach your fitness goals.
Spend Some Quality Time in the Kitchen
Making your own fuel is one way to make sure that you get the nutrients you need to run strong, without taking in the additives and preservatives that can drag you down. “A lot more people are considering using their own kitchen to fuel, instead of packaged goods that they find in stores,” Kadey said.
Don’t be Daunted by DIY
If you don’t regularly cook or bake, the idea of whipping up your own energy bar—or even figuring out how to use the oven—can be daunting. But you don’t have to be a whiz in the kitchen, or spend hours slaving over a hot stove. Many recipes can be whipped up in 20 minutes, and just like any other task, cooking will feel easier, with time and repetition. “With practice, you’ll feel more at ease in the kitchen, and become more efficient at using your time,” Kadey said. And chances are, you’ll gain enjoyment and confidence from the experience of successfully making your own fuel. “And if you enjoy it, it doesn’t feel like such a chore,” Kadey said.
If you’re going out for a long workout, don’t wait until you’re hungry or tired to begin refueling. By then, you won’t be able to regain your energy or your motivation, Kadey said. “If you wait too long to eat, it’s going to be too late,” he added. Eating at regular intervals during a long bout of exercise, can help you avoid hitting the dreaded wall. Aim for 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour for each hour that you’re on the road. This will help you keep your energy levels stable.
Take Your Fuel on a Test Run
Before a key workout or a race, be sure to test out different snacks to see if they sit well with your stomach, and find out how long you need to digest them. Each person is unique. “Test out your fuel and figure out what works for you and go with that,” Kadey said.
Get the Essentials
When fueling up with whole foods, be sure to focus on getting critical nutrients that you’ll need to run strong. The body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium and maintain strong and healthy bones, Kadey said. Vitamin D can be found in fortified dairy products, breads, orange juice and canned salmon. Iron is one of the most prevalent deficiencies in athletes, especially among females. Iron plays a vital role in forming oxygen-carrying proteins, hemoglobin, and myoglobin. Without enough iron, you’re likely to fatigue easily and feel winded before you finish your run. It’s easiest for the body to absorb heme iron—which comes from animal products, such as beef, pork, poultry, and liver. If you don’t eat meat, black beans, kidney beans, fortified grains, and breakfast cereals can provide iron. Foods that are high in vitamin C—like leafy greens, peppers, and citrus fruits—can help the body absorb iron-rich foods. Magnesium, plays a huge role in building strong bones, and ensuring proper muscle function, Kadey said. You can find Magnesium in leafy green veggies such as spinach as well as many whole grains, seeds, and nuts. Seafood, beans, and dairy products also contain some magnesium.