Quality Sleep, Nutrition Build Foundation for Better Running

A woman sleeps in a bed

The other day I overheard a conversation between two runners discussing training plans and weekly mileage as it related to their performance in an upcoming race. I’m not one to eavesdrop, but the conversation was eerily similar to a discussion I had recently with one of the athletes I coach. Both conversations circled around cutting-edge run workouts alongside becoming leaner to reach optimal race weight.

Where do I start debunking? I’ll begin with the foundation.

There is no magic approach, training plan hack, sprinkle of fairy dust, cushy running shoe or recovery cocktail that will be the differentiator in your performance and physical ability. This is where we want to complicate the situation because there must be a secret that we aren’t privy to. I’ll let you in on the mystery; the answer is not sexy or shiny, and you won’t pay tons of money for it. More importantly, it’s crucial for longevity in the sport while balancing life and improving and maintaining health.

The secret is nailing the basics.

Master the foundational habits of your life and training with consistent quality, not quantity, and you are well on your way to shattering the glass ceiling. This is not a charge to be obsessive in your habits or routine, but instead to anchor them in a solid foundation. Here are the building blocks to support both life and sports performance.

An assortment of healthy foods for runners

Daily Nutrition

Consistently nourishing your body with healthy food is the foundation of health; therefore, a healthy diet is the foundation of performance. Without nailing basic healthy eating habits, your labor is built on quicksand. In this article, healthy, good food simply means fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean meats and healthy fats. Meals serve as the main pillars of your nutritional foundation. Snacks are designed to bridge the gap between meals that are more than four hours apart or pre/post-workout.

Here are a few rules to chew on:

  • Never skip breakfast; it sets the nutritional tone for the day.
  • Include 20+ grams of protein at breakfast with whole grains and/or fruit.
  • Carbs are essential for runners, so don't skimp on them, especially around a workout.
  • Create a colorful plate at meals—think fruit and veggies.
  • Lean meat or complete protein is essential for muscle repair, quality and strength.
  • Fat-free is a thing of the past. Fat in and of itself will not lead to being fat. Aim for at least 1g of fat per kg of body weight/day.
  • If dinner is three to four hours before bedtime, include a small bedtime snack, ideally dairy because of casein (slow-releasing) protein to support muscle anabolism, blood sugar stability and repair/recovery while you sleep.
  • Reducing food intake to the point of low energy availability will lead to injury, illness, burnout and increased fat stores due to muscle breakdown and elevated cortisol levels. Ironically it results in the opposite outcome of the intended goal.

Sports Fueling/Hydration:

We don’t need to consume supplemental fuel during a workout year-round, but it’s crucial in the race-specific training phase.

First, by training under-fueled, we are unable to dig deep and hit the effort for which we are shooting and of which we are capable. So, that begs the question, what are you getting out of the long tempo or 20-plus mile run if you are running on empty? In short, you are in the red. The body will be in a catabolic state where you are unable to repair and recover, and you’ll feel worn and depleted. As a result, the upcoming workouts may feel like torture and resemble a death march. It’s a rookie mistake. So fuel right to avoid it.

Second, by developing a fuel plan in training, you are also training your GI system to process sports fuel at race-like efforts and conditions. Don’t wait until race day to find out your fuel plan wreaks havoc on the GI system. Just as you are training your body to go the distance, you are also training your body to digest specific sports nutrition at specific outputs and environmental conditions.

Did you know that dehydration is the primary reason for early fatigue? When we run in a dehydrated state, heart rate and perceived exertion are elevated. Sweat rates will decrease, and we are at risk of overheating. Recovery is inefficient when you’re dehydrated, and it will take much longer than if you had hydrated appropriately.

As a starting point, drink four to six ounces every 15 minutes of exercise; if you are a heavy sweater or it’s hot and humid, increase the amount. When running more than 60 minutes, water is not sufficient—you need electrolytes to keep the body adequately hydrated for optimal performance, adaptation and recovery. And remember: Hydration isn’t just for training; hydration is also necessary in daily life to support training.

A runner uses an addaday recovery tool to massage her leg

Recover Properly

After an intense track session, tempo run or long endurance run, recovery fuel is non-negotiable. The post-workout recovery fuel is designed to speed up the repair of damaged muscle tissue, replace glycogen and energy stores, and promote physical adaptation. Muscle cells are open, insulin sensitivity elevated and the body is primed to absorb simple sugar and protein immediately following a training session, so the quicker you refuel, the better.

The optimal recovery window to jumpstart the process is within 30 minutes after finishing a workout. As time ticks on, insulin sensitivity declines, and muscles take longer to absorb glucose from the bloodstream. When glycogen storage is less than optimal, the body is under unnecessary stress.

By consuming a recovery snack within 30 minutes, you can extend your body’s ability to effectively refill glycogen stores for up to eight hours by continuing to snack on carbs every couple of hours. If you skip these snacks, your glycogen stores fall to 50 percent 2 ½ hours post-workout. This doesn’t bode well for recovery, performing well in tomorrow’s training session, or for the tidal wave of cravings that will hit you later.

To be clear, it’s not essential to fuel after an easy-recovery workout or a walk with the dogs around the neighborhood. Consuming regular, well-balanced meals will suffice on easy or rest days. The recovery fuel is intended for intense, long or tough workouts where you are left feeling depleted and wrung out.

Ideally, take in 20 to 30g of protein, 40 to 60g of carbs, and sip 16 to 24oz fluids gradually. For women, a 2:1 (carbs:protein) ratio is better, while men can go with a 3:1 ratio. Choose carbs that are low in fiber and fat, because they don’t slow digestion and will enter your system quickly.

Train Smart

An essential basic in your arsenal is learning to execute and dial in the intent and rhythm of your training. Each run or workout should have an intention or mission behind it. Your fitness arsenal should hold a plethora of tools, such as Zone 2 steady-state endurance, strength endurance, tempo, speed, strength and mobility work to support a strong, balanced body. Ultimately, the key to success is the execution and mindset in your workouts.

A few tips to lean on:

  • Keep the efforts easy, such as during rest intervals and Zone 1 and 2 steady state runs.
  • Do not “leave your race on the track.” Training sessions are not race day; there are no medals for winning in a training session. So, save your best efforts for race day when it counts.
  • Scale workouts when time is limited and don’t feel bad about cutting it short. Let it go. Life balance is vital, and sometimes life calls.
  • Skip your workouts when you’re sick. You won’t start losing fitness for five to 10 days. Focus on getting well and start back easily when your body is recovered.
  • Those missed workouts due to life or work commitments and illness are gone. Don’t drag and drop them to the weekend when you think you have time to do the whole week’s worth. Workouts are spaced appropriately to allow for recovery, so making up for lost sessions is a no-go. Once you missed them, let them go. Most coaches will re-integrate those workouts if they feel it’s an essential session for you.
A photo of a sunset over a running trail

Get Enough Sleep

You’ve heard this 1,000 times, but it’s worth repeating: Do not chisel away at your sleep time to be more productive. With only 24 hours in a day, it’s tough to strike a healthy balance between your waking hours and sleeping ones. But sleep is the best and most impactful performance enhancer at your disposal—and it’s free. Sure, sitting on the couch is resting, but the magic happens during sleep.

Both the quality and duration of sleep are vital, and the goal should be six to eight-plus hours, or until you wake up without an alarm clock, especially during heavy training phases. Just two to three nights of restricted sleep reduces muscle repair (synthesis), cognitive function, and immunity, according to Chris Winter’s book, “The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It.”. If you are living on less than six hours of sleep, trim the workout duration, scale the effort or skip it. There is no sense in digging a deeper recovery hole out of which you’ll have to climb.

Prioritize sleep, and you’ll start to see positive changes.

Everything in Moderation, Including Excess

Don’t become obsessive and lose your focus when trying to nail the basics. Rather than fretting over the number of miles per week, focus on the quality of miles and stringing together consistent runs. Enjoy dessert, just not every night. If you have a mishap either in the food or training department, don’t throw the whole day or week out. Be kind to yourself, focus on the process and the intention of each workout, and remember there is no magic bullet.

The choices we make, the rhythm and mindset we adopt and consistently apply 80 percent of the time is where the real magic happens.

By Susan Kitchen. Susan is a Sports Certified Registered Dietitian, USA Triathlon Level II Endurance Coach, IRONMAN Certified Coach, published author and founder of Race Smart, a sports nutrition and coaching company.

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