As our society becomes more enveloped by fitness and exercise, many people take to running, the quick and easy option. Despite being one of the most accessible sports, running competitively is more complicated than you think, although there are many different technical aspects we could delve into, I’m going to explain the differences between sprinters and long distance runners diets and the influence of their diets on performance.
Diets for runners become complicated due to the specific needs for their specific discipline, although there tends to be one similarity which is now common knowledge for weight management diet plans. This is that athletes eat 5/6 meals a day to maintain a high metabolic rate, and can have recovery meals after their multiple training sessions. This is where the similarities between runners and sprinters end. It doesn’t take a sports scientist to tell you that the physical make-up of these two athletes are complete opposites, but this article should provide you with the answers to why each athlete eats certain things and the benefits it gives them.
When we think of a sprinter, who’s the first person that comes to our mind? None other than Usain Bolt. After London 2012, Bolt spoke about his diet being a 60/30/10 split, but not the normal split you’d think of. Bolts’ diet consists of 60% protein, 30% carbohydrates and 10% fat, and we still wonder why he’s such a man mountain. However, this information must be taken with a pinch of salt due to the reliability of its source. If this information is true, Bolt would be eating far too much protein and his carbohydrate intake would be insufficient to avoid fatigue. This would not be my recommendation to a sprinter, and I wouldn’t want any of my clients to attempt this alleged diet.
I would instead suggest a more carbohydrate biased diet. Burke (2007) suggests that carbohydrate intake mirrors your training intensity, where if you complete moderate intensity training (1 hour per day) you need 5-7 g.kg-1.day-1 and if you complete high intensity training (1-3 hours per day) you need 7-12 g.kg-1.day-1. There are also differences in recovery depending on your training intensity, but recovery in itself is a whole new topic.
Lemon (1998) states that strength and power athletes (aka sprinters) should consume between 1.2-1.7 g.kg-1.day-1, which is in agreement with many of the governing bodies, and it is recommended that each meal should contain 20-25g of protein. Sprinters are some of the most powerful athletes around and therefore need close to the upper limit of protein, this is due to the massive strain which is put on their muscles during their performance. After a bout of resistance training the rate of protein breakdown and synthesis shoots up, creating a need for more protein in your diet. Everyone knows that protein helps with muscle growth and strength, however there are limits, research suggests that anything over 2.1 g.kg-1.day-1 could have the inverse effect and reduce lean body mass. Although high protein diets can work, alongside a extremely high intensity resistance training programme, and the body will adapt after a period of time to oxidise any surplus amino acids into energy.
The Long Distance Runner
The average long distance runner is a lot lighter than the average sprinter, yet their calorie intake is usually a lot higher due to the insane amount of miles they complete during their training. Also, long distance runners complete longer training sessions, regularly over an hour sometimes reaching 2, compared to the high intensity interval training sprinters often use.
If you are a long distance runner you’ll know how hungry the training makes you, but as Paula Radcliffe said in a recent interview ‘Listen to your body. It’s normal that you’ll want to eat more, so go ahead as you need the fuel’. Feeling hungry makes you not want to train and is detrimental to your motivation, so keep eating, keep fuelled but keep it clean.
As said previously the training for long distance running is extremely intense and often takes at least a couple of hours training per day. Therefore, referring back to Burke (2007), all endurance athletes should be consuming 7-12 g.kg-1.day-1. Obviously if you’re training an extreme amount, use the higher end of the bracket. These amounts should be adequate for glycogen store replenishment, and therefore you will be feeling refreshed and refuelled for your next session. Your muscles can store approximately 400g of glycogen (carbohydrate stored as glycogen), so if your pack these stores prior to performing you will delay the onset of fatigue and allow you to maintain exercise intensity.
Referring back to Lemon (1998), endurance athletes need only 1.2-1.4 g.kg-1.day-1 of protein to help their muscles recover. This increase in protein in comparison to a sedentary human (0.75 g.kg-1.day-1) is due to the energy potential of protein. Glycogen stores typically last up to 60-90 minutes, the body then uses certain amino acids (glutamate, leucine & valine) alongside fat to produce energy, and in fact protein can produce up to 15% of energy when glycogen stores are close to depletion. Obviously proteins are still used for repairing muscles and recovery after an intense endurance session, much the same as after a resistance training session.
Concluding the differences
Most of the differences are obvious, where endurance athletes need more calories overall to replace the calories burnt in their longer sessions and as their main source of energy is glycogen, through glycolysis, their carbohydrate intake is higher than that of a strength/power athlete. However, due to the increased amount of muscle damage created during high intensity short bouts of exercise, strength/power athletes need a higher protein intake than that of endurance athletes.
Another difference is the glycemic index of the foods the two different athletes would eat. Most endurance athletes need slow burning carbohydrate sources to last them as long as possible throughout their session, therefore they would eat Low GI foods such as lentils, sweet potato and whole grain bread prior to exercise, and then High GI foods immediately after to replenish the glycogen stores quickly. Compared to sprinters who generally eat a lot of ‘Moderate’ GI foods such as bananas and oats, like Yohan Blake who allegedly eats 16 bananas per day.
One similarity for most athletes will be there fat intakes, where the minimum amount of fat should be between 15-20% of total calorie intake (ACSM and the UK Government). Although any additional fat-mass is detrimental to performance, there are certain fats the body needs (essential fatty acids) to function properly and defend against certain health problems. Fat is also needed to transport certain fat-soluble vitamins, such as, vitamin A, D and E.