Do you wake-up with little or no appetite?
Do you find it difficult to get through a high intensity workout in the morning?
Are you ravenously hungry mid-morning even though you ate “breakfast”?
Do you find it difficult to concentrate or focus on one task at work?
Do you feel tired and groggy an hour or so after lunch?
Are you cranky and irritable with family, friends and colleagues?
Do you get negative thoughts near the end of your evening training sessions?
If you answered ‘yes’ to some or all of these questions, there is likely a diet-related reason – you could be a meal skipper, a poor hydrator or you may be simply trying to run on empty calories. Follow these strategies to improve your mental AND physical performance.
Eat breakfast. Those runners who eat breakfast regularly are the fittest, leanest and likely the fastest runners amongst us. Breakfast is important to “break the fast,” reload the liver’s glycogen stores and get the brain and body ready to perform. Research has shown that carbohydrate-rich foods at breakfast tend to improve morning performance. So whether it’s a smoothie or peanut butter on toast, get those carbs into your morning routine.
Eat more frequently throughout the day. Spreading your food intake over four or more feeding sessions a day has been shown to enhance verbal reasoning— perhaps not a big deal for the lone long-distance runner, but it is important for those runners who use training times as a chance to socialize with friends or discuss work matters with fellow-runner colleagues. Enhanced verbal reasoning will come in handy for any runner trying to talk his/her spouse into yet another weekend away at the races!
Choose carbs for positive thoughts. A lack of carbohydrate-rich foods in your daily diet can quickly turn you into a whiny runner, or worse yet, one with negative or self-critical thoughts. Maintain happy thoughts by keeping your brain fed – it is a carb lover and it doesn’t care what form it comes in. There is a gender effect though - women tend to report greater sleepiness after a carbohydrate-rich meal as opposed to a protein-rich meal, whereas men report greater calmness after a carbohydrate-rich meal versus a protein-rich one. But for overall mental performance, low glycemic index foods such as oatmeal will be your best bet as they provide a long, slow release of carbs – just add some berries and maple syrup for an extra carb punch!
Drink throughout training sessions. Studies also suggest that drinking carbohydrate and carbohydrate-electrolyte drinks enhances feelings of pleasure during and following prolonged endurance activities. Anything that makes those grueling long runs feel better sounds good to us!
Keep that morning java. Research continues to show that caffeine has some mental benefits for those who are not caffeine sensitive. Two to three milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight has a positive effect on cognitive functioning, including your ability to pay attention, your psychomotor skills, and your memory. For those of you that do physical training that requires you to count laps, remember sets and reps (such as interval training) or pay close attention to what you are doing (such as highly technical trail running) the caffeine in your morning cup of coffee might be particularly helpful.
Choose protein for multi-tasking. Short term memory is best after a protein-rich breakfast like a vegetable omelette sans toast, while overall morning brain function is optimal with a meal that contains similar amounts of carbohydrate and protein-rich foods, such as two poached eggs on toast with tomato and low fat cheese.
Eat a high-carbohydrate, low-protein lunch, and your ability to concentrate in the afternoon takes a nosedive, predominantly from lapses of attention. This does not mean that you need to be eating huge hunks of meat for lunch or pounding back the protein rich shakes, mind you. Instead, choose smaller amounts of carbohydrate-rich foods (bread, pasta, rice, crackers, cookies, muffins, etc) to accompany your protein-rich foods (meat, poultry, fish, milk, yogurt, low fat cheese) at lunch time.
Enhance your mental (and physical) performance with iron-rich foods. Iron’s main job is carrying oxygen in your blood. It is part of a molecule called hemoglobin, which gives your blood its bright red color. Hemoglobin is like a magnet for oxygen – it carries the oxygen from your lungs throughout the body to wherever it is needed to release energy from the food that you eat. Too little iron in the diet can lead to iron deficiency anemia, which may make you feel weak, tired, and irritable. You may be too tired to train and may have trouble increasing the intensity of your training sessions—definitely not a great way to feel if you have a big season of running ahead of you!
To maximize your absorption of iron, choose foods with higher iron content more often, especially the more colorful foods, such as dark green veggies, ruby red meats, whole grains and cereals. Plant sources of iron are not absorbed as well as animal sources so non-meat eaters, especially active, menstruating women, need to pay attention to their dietary iron needs. Consuming foods rich in vitamin C—such as oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, and cantaloupe—with any iron rich food will improve absorption. Check out the chart below to see if you can improve your iron intake and absorption.
Plant sources of iron Maximize absorption with/in:
Bran flakes cereal, 30 gm Strawberries
Whole wheat bread, 1 slice Orange juice
Enriched pasta, ½ cup Tomato sauce
Raw spinach, ½ cup Lemon slices
Raisins, 2 tbsp Fruit salad
Tofu, 3 ounces (90 gms) Tomato and red pepper stir fry
Kidney beans,1/2 cup Tomato based chili
Animal sources of iron Iron content (mg)
Broiled Lamb chop, 90 gm 1.8 mg
Grilled Sirloin steak, 90 gm 2.8 mg
Roasted Pork tenderloin, 90 gm 1.4 mg
Roasted Chicken breast, 90 gm 0.9 mg
Baked Sole, 90 gm 0.4 mg