To eat or not to eat (when training)? That is the question. Armed with absolutely no medical knowledge but a fairly substantial chunk of experience and the anecdotes of a handful of friends, Katie Palmer provides some (sorry) ‘food for thought’.
I realised how preoccupied with exercise fuelling I had become when recently scrolling through my Strava feed, searching for a route, and discovering just how many of my activities were named after the food I had eaten during them. From the ‘Needed a Cheese Bun to Fuel This One’ (a big day out) to the ill-advised ‘2.5 Wine Gums’ (a reference to the full extent of my pitiful nourishment for a 4-hour fell run), what I had consumed and when was clearly taking up a lot of brain space.
After many years of under-fuelling my training, I have come to accept the fact that for most people, there is a startlingly obvious correlation between what you put in your body and how good you feel when out on the trails. ‘Cheese bun’ day was a tough one but, thanks to eating enough, I was moving at a decent pace throughout and didn’t suffer unduly either during or after. ‘Wine gum’ day on the other hand saw me reduced to a sorry, sorry state by the end of the run and pretty sore and tired for the following few days.
Over the years I have tried many nutritional ‘strategies’. The early days approach was to eat nothing, quite simply because eating whilst exercising made me feel queasy. My husband (Alpkiteer Ian Palmer) on the other hand, religiously ate a bar every hour on his long bike rides, filled his bottle with energy drink and knocked back a bottle of chocolate milk for recovery as soon as he was home. He badgered me constantly to eat more but it took years for me to appreciate the difference eating makes to your performance both on the day and over time.
Ian was lucky enough to train under the guidance of British Cycling coach Pete Read for much of his racing career. Pete (who sadly passed away last year) was one of the most informed and experienced coaches you could hope for and when it came to nutrition, he had one simple piece of advice; EAT MORE! Ian was often scolded for not weighing enough during his twice-yearly tests with Pete and was always sent away with clear instructions to ‘just eat’! Pete said it was an exact science – when Ian’s weight went up, so did his power output. Pete had tried clean eating but said it made him feel weak so advised his clients to eat whatever took their fancy but to make sure there was enough going in to fuel the outgoing efforts.
I know athletes who follow clean (and even time-restricted) eating regimes. Some, such as Salomon athlete and former trail-running world champ Ricky Lightfoot, swear by eating nothing on training runs so that when it comes to racing, the food he does consume has a greater impact. But the vast majority of athletes I spoke to do eat regularly during training. Plus, when their bodies are haemorrhaging calories, most are not overly fussy about how those calories are replaced. I know an elite-level mountain biker who can stomach pretty much anything when riding, from scotch eggs to frosted doughnuts. Looking at his lightning-fast race times and super-lean physique, you’d never guess but for him, it’s a legitimate opportunity to indulge in the foods he really fancies, safe in the knowledge that it’ll all be burned off by the end of the ride (although this is obviously not a strategy to follow if you’re exercising for weight control).
These days, my philosophy is to bring food on any run longer than 2 hours and then to eat really regularly. At the moment, my nourishment of choice is fig rolls and I aim to eat 2 every 45-60 minutes. When I forget, my legs pay a really heavy price and I find my pace getting slower and slower and any aches and pains really intensifying. Sometimes, if I’m trying to lose a pound or two, it’s tempting to go without in order to give myself a big calorie deficit but for me, it’s just not sustainable and would make my runs miserable. Regular under-fuelling can also cause fatigue, illness and injury in many people.
As for what to eat, I really think it’s down to the individual. Gels, sports bars and enhanced drinks made by companies with expertise in this area are usually going to be the best choice for racing, especially events at the shorter, sharper end of the spectrum. But for training, especially slower-paced endurance efforts, there’s probably no need for anything so specific (or expensive). Whether or not you like it enough to want to eat it when working your body is probably the biggest consideration.
Saying that, you should pay at least some attention to the food type. It sounds obvious, but foods need to be predominantly carb-based if they are actually going to fuel your body. I once did an 80-mile sportive with only chunks of Applewood cheddar in my pockets! I figured that as I loved this calorie-laden cheese, I would want to eat it during the ride. Whilst the protein likely helped my muscles recover afterwards, the startling lack of carbohydrate would have done little to enhance my performance during the event.
I also once worked out that to keep my carb levels optimally topped up, all I needed to do was eat 4 jelly babies every 20 minutes. In theory this should have worked but somehow my body seemed to need a little more; something less artificial or with slower-release sugars perhaps? It’s definitely a case of individual trial and error but remember that for most people, the biggest error of all is simply not eating enough.
But don’t just take my word for it. Here are some nuggets of culinary wisdom from some of the UK’s strongest and swiftest runners and cyclists…
I’ll have a proper breakfast, iso in the bottles, smashing through plenty of bars and even pulling over for cans of coke and packets of sweets to keep me topped up. I’ll have 60g of carbs per hour. You can aim for more but it’s usually unpleasant eating that much. If it was just a steady ride with no efforts required, I might just take water but I’d stop at a café halfway round and get coffee and a sandwich – I can get home on that. It’s a bit different with the team, on camps etc. Then, it’s always bars, gels, bottles and generally eating a lot more. James Knox, pro road racing cyclist for UCI WorldTeam Deceuninck- Quickstep.
I tend to eat lots of bars and aim for something every hour. Favourites include Eccles cakes and malt loaf. For really long rides, I mix in savoury e.g. wraps. I drink coke or water. There’s no science, just whatever I fancy. Chris Hope, fastest known time on The Peak 200.
For 3-4 hours, I’ll eat a few sweets or Mars bars. Gels for racing. I’ll drink out of a stream or carry a half-full folding flask. Rob Jebb, 12 times winner of the 3 Peaks Cyclo-Cross and 3 times British fell-running champion.
On runs under 3-4 hours, I’ll eat a paleo, nut or chocolate bar when I feel hungry. Anything longer than 3-4 hours, I try to eat every 30-60 minutes and both sweet and savoury (which would be bread-based, nuts etc). Ben Abdelnoor, inov-8 ambassador and fastest known time for the Frog Graham round.
I try to stay away from gels and energy bars and eat normal food e.g. bananas and cereal bars. I usually have a bit of protein for breakfast on a long ride (as well as carbs) then I don’t eat for the first 2 hours but every 45 minutes after that. Stuart Reid, British elite cyclist and Fred Whitton winner.
When biking I aim to eat every hour, my go-to being a home brew flapjack made with soaked dates. For running, I tend to only eat if I’m out for more than 90 mins and then every hour. Pitta bread ham sandwiches can be a winner for big days out plus homemade bars/flapjack, the odd banana and Nairn fruit oatcakes are my trusty favourites. Jane Reedy, Ambleside AC runner, long-distance cyclist and charity fundraiser extraordinaire.
I end up surviving on Haribo and the odd flapjack, sometimes Naked bars as they’re quite moist. I aim to eat at least every hour. When I was doing multi-day adventure racing, I tried to get more savoury food in as you get sick of the sweet stuff. Astrid Gibbs, Ambleside AC runner and adventure racer.
Up to 4 hours, just an occasional gel or bar. Anything longer, then something savoury, maybe nuts. Up to 2 hours, I won’t eat anything. Steve Birkenshaw, former record holder for the fastest time round the 214 Wainwright summits.
On a long ride, I’d have one energy drink to start and then another water along the way (maybe coke if I’m struggling). Then for food, I’ll have a few cereal bars with nuts/seeds and a gel if needed. Oli Beckingsale, pro mountain biker-turned-coach with multiple Olympic credentials.
I’ll have overnight oats/yoghurt/fruit for breakfast before a long day. I’ll try to take a bar (OTE duo/anytime bars) every 1-1.5 hours. I also use OTE gels every 45 mins and one with a caffeine hit for the final hour. If I get the opportunity, then I’ll have a banana or rice pudding pot (my secret weapon). Gary MacDonald, fastest known time mountain biking the West Highland Way.