Preparing a marathon, ultramarathon or Ironman is anything but simple and requires determination, focus, organizational skills, fatigue management, commitment and great lucidity. All these abilities come not only from your muscles, but principally from your brain.
Nutrition is essential to give energy support, promote recovery and prevent annoying injuries. What you may not know is that our brain needs more energy and more specific nutrients than muscle to perform and lead us straight to the goal. Hence, the human engine requires right energy not only during competitions, but above all during preparation, which asks for intense, frequent, sometimes very long, training along with the various daily commitments in family and work life.
Science shows that there are food and nutrients helping brain performance, while other eating behaviors can present the opposite effect.
For these reasons, we should learn them to avoid mistakes that might compromise our preparation and the race.
1. Assure brain energy stability
Despite being a small organ, the brain, has a high metabolic activity, and it needs energy continuously, preferentially derives from sugars (glucose). Each glycemic drop is perceived by the brain as a drop in energy, resulting in difficulty concentrating, confusion, and poor lucidity. This situation does not mean that we should continuously have sugars, but it is fundamental giving energy stability to our brain, avoiding both dips and glycemic peaks.
Therefore, it is necessary to avoid meals and snacks high in sugar, such as sweets and refined food, which give our brain a short-lived energy peak.
Furthermore, we should always try to balance meals by inserting all macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) and fiber, contained in wholemeal flours, legumes and vegetables; in this way it is possible to slow down the absorption of sugars, avoiding glycemic peak.Healthy snacks should be balance too,, in order to give greater satiety and long-lasting energy. Food with a high percentage of cocoa mass like nuts, or dark chocolate are the perfect snacks for our brain as they provide very little sugar, while bringing fat and a lot of energy, together with protective effect against the oxidative damage.
2. Choose the right fats
A healthy diet is not low in fat; indeed, some types of fats (e.g., unsaturated fats of plant and marine derivation) have a positive effects on brain health and are the main constituents of the membranes of nerve cells.
This types of fats promote cellular communication and transmission, supporting cognitive abilities, and reduction in anxiety and stress states too. Contrarily, a deficiency of them leads to a decrease in brain performance.
Some types of unsaturated fats, such as omega 3 fats, are essential and they come exclusively from the diet; for this reason it is important to take them regularly from algae, nuts and oilseeds, which should be consumed every day.
3. Provide your brain with vitamins and minerals
Brain cells need a wide variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to maintain an efficient nerve communication. Fresh seasonal vegetables and fruits are the best source of these nutritional elements and we should consider them before any supplement in our daily diet. Athletes, especially those engaged in frequent and long workouts, requires require an increased amount of vitamins and minerals compared to average population, who generally perform mild and moderate physical activity. Thus,, it is fundamental to take fresh fruits and/or vegetables during every meal.
Oilseeds and nuts are good sources of precious minerals and vitamins too, providing unsaturated fatty acids and valuable antioxidant substances which have proven to be protective of brain health.
4. Drink water to help your brain
Water is the most essential element of our organism and also of our brain, whose chemical reactions depend on it. It goes without saying that dehydration has a strong impact not only on muscle during activity, but also on neurons functions. The damages can range from lack of concentration to stronger symptoms such as clouded mind sensation, fatigue or dizziness.
For this reason, it is vital to drink water regularly and eat fresh, water-rich and seasoned food, not only during physical activity, but throughout the day.
5. Take care of your gut health
The bacteria composing our gut bacterial flora (the microbiota) continuously communicate with brain cells, influencing neuronal transmission, and having important effects on mood and stress. Hence, it is essential to choose food that support your microbiota balance; among them, probiotics and prebiotic are definitely the best and should be included in our daily diet.
You can find probiotics in some fermented food like tofu or tempeh, while prebiotic represent the substrate of which microbial flora feeds, and they include particular types of carbohydrates found in plant-based food rich in fiber and in particular inulin such as oats and many types of vegetables or fruits.
6. Sleep! Your brain will thank you
Sleeping is vital for athletes to promote recovery and prevent overtraining syndrome. Having a regular sleep is also essential to preserve brain health, keep mood tone high, be less irritable, and more positive and focused.
After all, who has never experienced dips in attention or irritability as a result of decreased quality or hours of sleep? It is not just a matter of rest: research shows that while sleeping, our brain activity changes completely compared to wakefulness; the brain does not sleep, but eliminates waste of cellular metabolism produced when we are awake. Namely, when we sleep, our brain connections reorganize, as well as our memory, and new synaptic connections are formed.
Author: Nutri Coach Francesca Deriu