Eating a healthy, balanced diet will help you maintain a healthy heart and get you fit and ready for your challenge.
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Carbohydrate foods are the most important source of energy when exercising. The best types to provide you with sustained energy are those which release their energy slowly, such as:
- Sweet potatoes
- Fruit and vegetables.
You should include these carbohydrates in each meal as they help to keep your muscle energy (glycogen) levels topped up. Three to four hours before a long ride or race, you should choose meals which have good amounts of these slow releasing carbohydrates, some protein and be low in fat. Good examples include:
- Stir fry chicken and noodles
- Meat or fish pasta with a sauce (not cheese)
- Pita with meat/fish and salad filling
- Lean meat, chicken or fish with vegetables and sweet potato.
Avoid choosing carbohydrates that are made with simple sugars and refined flours such as white bread and cereals, biscuits and cakes, as they will give you short term energy which won’t be there when you need it at the beginning of a training session or race. These types of carbohydrates are useful during activities longer than 90 minutes. Their quicker release of energy can help to spare your muscle glycogen and keep you going longer.
Protein is not used as an energy source for exercise, but it is needed to help repair and grow muscle that is broken down during exercise. Although your protein requirements will be slighter higher when you exercise regularly, most people already eat more protein than they require. There shouldn't be a need to increase your protein portion sizes or rely on special high protein diets or protein supplements.
The best way to ensure you are getting enough protein for muscle repair and growth is by choosing meals that includes good amounts of carbohydrate, which will be used for energy and a good mix of protein choices. Go for lean cuts of meat and try to have one to two portions of fish a week. Low fat diary, beans, pulses and lentils are also good choices.
Keeping well hydrated is important when training, especially if you are exercising for more than two hours, even at moderate pace. Becoming dehydrated can affect your performance as well as your concentration or judgement. Aim to have 400 - 600 ml water two to three hours before a training session and then 200 - 250ml, ten minutes before you start.
When training for over an hour it will be important to carry fluid with you to drink while you train. Drink before you feel thirsty and little and often is the best way. Recommendations are to drink five to six sips (150 - 350mls) within the first 15 minutes and to continue this every 15 - 20 minutes throughout your session.
You will also need to replenish lost fluids after you exercise. The best strategy to estimate your fluid losses is by weighing yourself before and after training. This will help you understand how much you need to drink during and after training. Aim to have 1 - 1.5 litres of fluid for every kilogram of weight lost.
For training sessions under an hour, plain water is fine to drink. If your session lasts over 90 minutes you should have fluid that includes some carbohydrate and electrolytes. Commercial isotonic sports drinks include 5 to 7% of carbohydrate, but you can also make your own – mix 200ml concentrated orange squash with 1000ml of water and a pinch of salt (1g).
Our body can only store around 90 minutes worth of glycogen (muscle energy) so if you are exercising longer than this, you’ll need to refuel or you may ‘hit the wall’ by running out of energy.
The goal is to maintain a steady supply of carbohydrate. You need to have available some carbohydrate food, as well as fluid, whist you are exercising. Choose carbohydrate foods that release their energy quickly. As a general rule, have something bite sized every 30 minutes. Examples of carbohydrates that are good to use include:
- Two fig rolls
- Half a banana
- Half a tea cake
- 500ml isotonic sports drink
- 30g or a handful of dried fruit
- Half an energy or cereal bar
- Half an energy gel packet.
The 30 minutes after finishing exercise is known as the ‘recovery window’. It’s the ideal time for your body to take nutrients onboard which help to repair muscles and replace muscle glycogen stores. The ideal post exercise snack should contain carbohydrate and a little protein such as:
- A bread roll with meat/chicken filling and a large banana
- A large bowl wholegrain cereal or porridge with low fat milk
- Homemade milk shake or fruit smoothie
- A couple of pieces of fruit plus 250ml low fat milk
Don’t forget your next normal meals should have good amounts of slow releasing carbohydrates, some protein and be low in fat to keep your energy levels topped up for your next training session.