Endurance Season: nutritional tips

It is endurance season! Many of you will have started your training for half marathons, marathons, ironman, half ironman… and we at Honest Fitness would like to share some nutritional tips that may help improve your performance. The word supplement gets bounded around, and people automatically think of a protein shake, or similar. However, a supplement is essentially something that we add to our diet to aid us, whether making up for a deficiency (vitamin C, D, fish oils) or to help us (Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs), beetroot juice, cherry juice and even milk!). Let’s kick things off with Branch Chain Amino Acids.

Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
Why are BCAAs are beneficial for endurance performers?

BCAAs are used as a fuel during endurance exercise, especially when your muscle glycogen* is depleted (Bean, 2011). Research also shows people taking BCAAs report ‘lesser degree of pain and muscle damage, less perceived exertion and mental fatigue, greater anabolic response in recovery period and improved immune system response’ (Salinas-Garcia et al. 2014).

If you are currently taking a protein shake or meal replacement it is unlikely that you will need a BCAA supplement, as they are generally found in good amounts in these products already. If you are currently not taking protein shakes or a meal replacement, BCAAs can be brought on their own, and you want to look for one with a ratio of 2-3:1:1 of Leucine: Isoleucine :Valine.

BCAAs will not improve your performance, but they will help with the recovery side of things. The review by Salinas-Garcia et al (2014) reported that no consensus was found with the dose and timing of taking the supplement.

*Glycogen – stored in the liver and muscles, when we exercise this broken into glucose to provide energy for the body.

Beetroot Juice
This is a simple organic and natural food that can aid performance. By simply drinking beetroot juice, you could improve your endurance, running performance and increase muscular efficiency during moderate intensity (Ormsbee et al. 2013).  The effective component of beetroot is the nitrate it contains. Interestingly, a study by Murphy et al. (2012) used baked beetroot, 200g with >500 mg nitrate 75 minutes before exercise and they found that subjects ran around 5% faster and at a lower rate of perceived exertion, when compared to those taking a placebo.

Milk has had resurgence in the past few years. It seemed a few years ago the market was saturated with expensive carbohydrate recovery drinks (Lucozade, Gatorade, Powerade and their ilk), when in fact all we need is milk to aid our recovery. Shirreffs et al. (2007) report the effectiveness of low-fat milk as a recovery drink. Subjects drank 150% of their sweat loss and Shirreffs et al (2007) report subjects remained in a net positive fluid balance/rehydrated throughout the recovery period (5h) compared to net negative fluid balance after 1h after they consumed water a carbohydrate sports drink. Thomas et al (2009) reported that chocolate milk, when compared to a carbohydrate replacement drink and a fluid replacement drink, participants cycled 51% and 43% longer after a glycogen depletion trial and consuming a drink 0 and 2 hours post exercise before cycling again after 4 hours.

Milk and chocolate milk are a cheaper, natural alternative to carbohydrate recovery drinks and cause less gastrointestinal distress – 3/10 reported distress for the carb drink, compared to 0/10 for the chocolate milk (Pritchett et al. (2009).

Carb loading
Do you need to do it? How much is enough?

The body can only store enough glycogen (energy) to sustain around 90 minutes of exercise, this is why it is important to practice your fuelling strategies during training, as you are more than likely to need to take on some carbohydrate during your event to replace the used glycogen. Throughout your training it is important to keep your glycogen levels topped up by taking on board carbohydrates.

The theory of carb loading is that you had to deplete your glycogen stores before ‘loading’ to get the benefit of an increased glycogen store prior to racing. It is now reported that a well trained athlete does not need to be deplete their glycogen stores in order for the super compensation to happen.  If your endurance event is less than 90 minutes you do not need to super compensate your glycogen stores at all. If you choose to try carb loading, beware that weight gain could occur, due to water retention.

As always with endurance events, the important thing is to never try something new on race day and my view for carb loading is the same. Why load up three days prior to your race if you have not done this is training? If you‘re keeping your glycogen stores topped up with adequate nutrition is there no need to carb load, especially when some studies report no performance benefits from increased muscle glycogen (Jeukendrup, 2011).

In order to keep your glycogen stores at an appropriate level, periodise your carbohydrate intake based on your activity – if it is a heavy training day, increase your carb intake (mixed with some protein) to bring your glycogen levels back up.

Cherry Juice
Training for an endurance event can be damaging to the muscles and cause inflammation. Research suggests drinking cherry juice, in particular montmorency cherry juice, to aid your recovery. Howatson et al. (2009) report positive findings in their study on taking cherry juice in the build up to the race, on race day, and several days after. Howatson et al. (2009) study looked at taking cherry juice 5 days before race day, race day and 2 days post race (2x 227 ml (8fl oz)). Howatson et al. (2009) did not let their participants know whether they were taking the cherry juice or a placebo. All markers of muscle damage and inflammation were reported to be significantly lower in the cherry juice group, whilst the total antioxidant status was higher (which would be expected due to the antioxidants in cherries).

Good luck with your training, and good luck on race day. Be Honest with yourself with your effort and food, and go after your goals. Take it easy when you are feeling tired, don’t push through. Easy days are a way of allowing the body to recover so it can push on again. It is not a step backwards, the idea is to get to the start line in as good a shape as you can be with all your other commitments. Don’t be hard on yourself if something slips, allow yourself 1-2 days (food/training days) every now and then.


Bean, A. (2011). Sports Supplements: which nutritional supplements really work. A & C Black; London.

Howatson, G., McHugh, M.P., Hill, J.A., Brouner, J., Jewell, A.P., van Someren, K.A., Shave, R.E. and Howatson, S.A. (2009). Influence of tart cherry juice on indices of recovery following marathon running.  Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports.  Doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.2009.01005.x.

Jeukendrup. A. E. (2011) Nutritoin for endurance sports: marathon, triathlon, and road cycling. Journal of Sports Sciences. 29 (1) : pp.S91-99.

Ormsbee, M. J., Lox, J. and Arciero, P. J. (2013). Beetroot juice and exercise performance. Nutrition and Dietary Supplements. 5 : pp.27-35.

Murphy, M., Eliot, K, Heuertz, R. M. and Weiss E. (2012) Whole beetroot consumption acutely improves running performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 112(4): pp.548–552.

Salinas-Garcia, M. E., Martinez-sanz, J.M., Urdampilleta, A., Mielgo-Ayuso, J., Norte Navarro, A., and Ortiz-Moncada, R. (2014) Effects of branched amino acids in endurance: a review. 10.3305/nh.2015.31.2.7852

Shirreffs, S. M., Watson, P. and Maughan, R. J. (2007). Milk as an effective post-exercise rehydration drink. British Journal of Nutrition.  98 (1) : pp.173-180.

Thomas, K., Morris, P., and Stevenson, E. (2009). Improved endurance capacity following chocolate milk consumption compared with 2 commercially available sport drinks. Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism. 34 (1) : pp.78-82.

Feature Photo Credit: Robbie Britton at Transvulcania 2014 by Flickr user Pete, adapted and used under a Creative Commons


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