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Giving You the Edge – Whole Food Nutrition for Long Distance Athletes

Posted Feb 14 2014 10:08pm

Fueling your training and races with real, whole and natural foods helps your body derive its energy from sources that it can best process, and ingredients that your body effectively handles. It’s time to get away from processed, refined and commercial foods that are specifically marketed for you to buy, thinking that you’ll be doing your body “good”.  Instead let’s go back to the basics, and focus on whole foods that hardly contain ingredients, because they are ingredients themselves.

Along with a balanced, healthful diet, your training and racing fuel should be derived from staple foods that can be used therapeutically to increase your performance as an athlete. 

Some of these include:

chia seeds, bananas, raw honey, pure maple syrup or raw cane juice, agave nectar, lemons or limes, coconut water, hempseeds, sea salt, seaweeds, beetroot, carrots, apples, ginger, flaxseeds, quinoa, buckwheat, goji berries, raw cacao, spirulina and chlorella, amaranth, watermelon, oranges, dried fruit (dates, bananas, apricots, prunes, etc.), ground provisions, papaya, pineapple, oats, brown rice, beans, legumes, raw nuts and seeds as well as plant-based protein powder derived from brown rice, hemp, split pea or pumpkin seed. Stay away from soy in excess.


You should be consuming different types of food at specific times during your training or races, based on their content of slow- or fast-release carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats. Using the proper foods at the right time gives you a great advantage. Timing is key! Build up and nourish your body on raw, wholesome plant-based energy. You can still consume animal based products but the foods you use as performance enhancers will be those that are plant-based.

Plant-based nutrition offers energy and nutrient absorption that cannot even compare to meat, and some of the damages animal products do to your body. Animal products cause a lot of oxidative stress and require a lot of your body’s energy to be digested, leaving you feeling sluggish. This is precious energy you could be using towards training or competing! Either way, you will be able to provide your body with foods that encourage growth, increased performance, and proper recovery after the extreme activity your body endures.

Take care of your home, also known as your body, because you only have one!

Whole Food Sports Nutrition

Photo credits: Travels With The Post

As a long distance athlete, an unfit diet can drastically affect your performance. What you eat the week before your race is just as important as what you eat the day of the race. 


So what should you be eating to maximize the energy you'll have available on the big day?  According to most successful long distance athletes, carbohydrates are the most important, along with quality plant-based protein, with a small amount of healthy fat, which is useful before races. 

Stay away from fried foods, as well as trans and hydrogenated oils. Consume only healthy essential fatty acids in moderation, from cold-pressed oils such as extra virgin olive oil, virgin coconut oil, avocados, raw nuts and seeds, natural nut butters, whole eggs and some oily fish in moderation. Unless you are looking to lose weight, as an endurance athlete, aim to consume 65 percent of your total calories from a variety of complex carbohydrates, and avoid refined, processed white flour products.

You need to replace your electrolytes, especially when being active in hot humid conditions. So yes, you can overdose on water! Valuable minerals, known as electrolytes, are lost through your sweat; therefore you should replenish your electrolytes during any activity longer than an hour. Refreshing and naturally sweet coconut water is a powerful antioxidant and can be considered as nature's isotonic beverage. It contains the best source of natural electrolytes; most sports drinks and gels contain some as well, but watch all those unnecessary artificial ingredients. You can get a head start on electrolyte replacement by drinking coconut water throughout the day or adding unrefined sea salt to diluted fruit juice with water. You can also consume an electrolyte rich soup containing sea salt and plenty of seaweeds, such as kelp, nori, dulse or seamoss, which are great sources of natural electrolytes coming from the sea. Raw fruits and vegetables are also good sources of electrolytes to be consumed throughout the day before your training and races. Let’s talk about pre-race loading. In the days leading up to the race, you'll be tapering your training, but keep eating the same amount of carbohydrates or slightly more, so that your body will store them. Start topping off your body's energy stores by eating a few extra calories in the days leading up to your race.  Don't wait until the night before to carb-load! There's some truth to the "pasta party" idea, just not the night before the big day. A lot of people make the same mistake in how they eat before a race. They wait until the night before the race to eat their big meal.

Carbohydrate loading begins about three days before the event. Choose foods for lunch and dinner that are high in complex carbohydrates such as quinoa, buckwheat, whole grain breads and muffins, ground provisions, brown rice, whole grain pasta, etc. However, don't neglect fruits, vegetables, and some protein sources.

Since you'll be eating more food during this time, your protein levels will naturally increase as you increase portion sizes, but the emphasis is not on protein.  So no need to go out and catch some extra chickens before the race! Keep consuming fibre as you do not want to get constipated. The few meals before your race can be in form of liquid nutrition, such as whole food smoothies, plant-based protein shakes, sport optimizer drinks, etc. Starting a race with full stores of carbs has been shown to improve performance and endurance. The nutrient you need least in the week prior to the race is fat. Try to really scale back on it during this time. Fat just doesn't do much to help you on race day, so it's not worth filling up on fat calories. True, your goal in training is to get your body to burn fat stores before it has to burn carbohydrates, but you have plenty of fat for this in your body, regardless of how lean you are.  I sincerely hope you're not still stuck in the low-fat diet craze, but this is one time when slightly reducing intake of even healthy fats is beneficial. Stick to 1-2 tablespoons per day, maximum. Virgin coconut oil is a great fat that your body can use as energy. Hydrate well, the week before the race and in particular, during the carbohydrate loading period, which is three days prior to the race. Research indicates that carbohydrates convert to glycogen more effectively when accompanied with the consumption of water. This is the time when you may gain a couple of pounds, but don't worry about it. This will be your energy fuel during the race! If you are traveling out of town, be sure to pack healthy snack foods you may wish to eat the weekend of the race. Eliminate the need to excessively eat out or search for a grocery store that stocks your favorite foods. Avoid trying new foods.  If traveling by plane to your race destination, carry bottled water with you. Flying at high altitudes causes dehydration.


What you consume and drink the day before your race has tremendous effects on your performance.  Be smart!  Begin your conscious hydration the day before your race; even though you should still have been drinking plenty of fluids the week before.  In the morning, drink a glass of warm water with lemon. This will help re-hydrate your body after a long night’s sleep, alkalize your blood and remove any accumulated toxins. Half an hour before each meal, drink another glass of water; doing this will aid to thin your blood, which will enable nutrients to reach your cells and oxygen to circulate more. The lemon will help secrete digestive juices. Do not drink too much water with your meal because it will dilute the digestive juices, which will prevent healthy digestion. Simply sip. After each meal, drink another glass or so, two hours afterwards. Be sure to eat carbohydrate products that have been "tried and proven" during your training period.  Avoid eating anything new that could be troublesome on race day or could cause digestive problems. Eat meals high in carbohydrates for lunch and dinner. Selecting the "right" foods is an important area of experimentation. If you're only going to eat one big meal before the race, make it lunch instead of dinner.  This gives your body more time to process the nutrients, lowers the chance of stomach troubles, and might help you sleep more soundly. Avoid foods with excessive protein and fat content all day. Some fibre will ensure a proper bowel movement before the race, but avoid too much fibre, especially fibre supplements, before the race. Stick to water or coconut water during the evening meal. Coffee and tea contain caffeine, which may make it difficult for you to fall asleep easily. Also keep in mind that caffeine and alcohol are diuretics, which contribute to dehydration. After your last evening meal, try not to think about the event anymore. If you’re hungry before bed, have a light snack like a banana, which is a good carbohydrate and will increase relaxation and sleep quality due to its rich magnesium content.


Now let’s cover your nutrition immediately before and during the race. What you eat the day of the race can determine the outcome of your race! Eat least two to three hours before, make several visits to the bathroom, and take care of anything you feel the need to do so as not to feel rushed. The idea in the few hours before the race is to relax as much as possible and stay off your feet. In the hours before your race, fill up on simple carbohydrates and some protein, preferably plant-based. Avoid dairy of all sorts, such as cheese, milk, yogurt, whey protein powder, etc. as these are mucus forming and will inhibit proper breathing. The more time until the race, the larger your meal should be. Avoid fibre and fats, since they can cause digestion issues. Drink plenty of water and electrolyte replacements. Again, do not try anything new on race day! Avoid consuming anything from the race organizers or spectators, unless its pure water or something you’re accustomed to.

Some good pre-race foods include:

whole grain bread, cereal or muesli with almond milk, fresh fruit like bananas or watermelon, dried fruit, whole food smoothies, plant-based protein shakes, almond, hemp or coconut milk and natural nut butters in moderation.  The more liquid and easier-to-digest these foods are, the better.


In the hour before the race, don't eat very much. Sip some water, your natural electrolyte or sports optimizer drink, or natural energy gel or gummies.  You should already be hydrated and shouldn’t need to drink much water at this stage, to avoid having to use the bathroom during the race. You can take vitamin C before the race to fight free-radical damage from the oxidative stress of physical activity on the body. Fueling your runs comes with few but important guidelines.  We are all unique, so you may tweak whatever works best for your specific body and event. During a race, you need 30-60 grams of carbs per hour and some water every fifteen minutes. But always sip liquids throughout the race; never “shug” all at once. Drinking on the run requires careful planning of the route and making sure there is water frequently available along with places to stash electrolyte replacements. Do not pass up any fluid stations on the race course, unless you have your own special concoction. While it's acceptable to drink just water in the early miles, you must consume electrolytes no later than after an hour of running, and even sooner in hot humid weather. Find out what works best for you in long practice runs. Some runners will stop and eat a power bar, orange slices, dates, etc. to provide needed energy. These products are seldom offered at "official" race aid stations. Ask a family member or friend to position themselves at points along the course if you wish to consume any special fluids or foods during the event. Consume mostly liquid or easily digesting food. Solid food takes more energy and blood to digest than liquid, leaving you with less for competing. It's also more likely to cause intestinal distress, which can ruin a race.  Except for the longest events, skip the solids. Many runners take advantage of gel or gummy energy supplements, as these provide a fairly quick source of carbohydrates. Look for some with natural ingredients and be sure to chase these down with water to avoid stomach cramps and malabsorption. There are great natural and organic brands, and you also have the option of making your own at home. While some sports fueling products are truly designed for athletes, many of the more popular ones must also cater to the masses of non-athletes who buy them as soda alternatives, and for the lack of energy they experience from being out of shape and unhealthy. Get off the “food-like substances”! Or at least check them out to make sure they don't contain artificial colors, sweeteners and chemicals. The best food for fueling and increased athletic performance was created in nature, and not by scientists! 

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