The Magic Triangle

I doubt this is what Pink Floyd had in mind, but this is how I picture the triangle in my head! (Wikipedia)

The Magic Triangle: Training, Nutrition and Rest

These are the three core elements that must be kept in balance in order to develop in running (or any other physical ability). In simple terms, the more you run, the more you need to eat, and the more you need to sleep. Finding the right balance is hard, there’s no secret formula, and it’s different for everybody.

It’s a problem that most people in western society today spend more time inactive and eat more calories than they need. But these quantities do not mean their triangle is already balanced. Sitting around and watching TV is not the same rest value as a good night’s sleep. You may be eating enough calories but what about vitamins, minerals and micronutrients? Most people have the spare energy to exercise maybe two hours a week without lifestyle changes. More than that, and you risk diminishing returns if you’re not balancing your rest and nutrition.

If you were to run, then skip a meal and rush off to do something else, you are not going to recover as quickly or develop physically, therefore negating some of the training value of your workout. If you were to get sick or injured as a result of not letting your body recover, you’ve probably negated all the training value of your workout. Sometimes it pays to take it easy!

Resting right

Training for marathons in the past, I’ve found fitting in all the training (ten hours or more on the roads) alongside my work and home-life meant I was burning the candle at both ends. By not getting enough sleep, I was feeling tired throughout the day, not enjoying or performing well on my runs, and not progressing as quickly as I could have. I would have been healthier and fitter if I had trained less and slept more! To stay in good health and not risk injury, you need to take a long-term view and think ‘less today will mean more tomorrow’. Illness or injury risk will always outweigh the possible benefits of pushing yourself too hard.

Rest is important...

Exercise improves most people’s sleep – if you tire yourself out, you should sleep well when the end of the day comes. This isn’t always the case though : hard workouts and overtraining can throw your hormones out of sync, leaving you feeling anxious and restless at bed-time. If you haven’t given your body the opportunity to recover, it will go into overdive when you do finally slow down. Although the right nutrition and adequate post-run rest should help this, it’s not always avoidable. If you don’t take the next few days easy, it’s only going to get worse.

If you’re running more than twice a week, chances are sometimes you have to kick yourself out of the door – you’ll usually feel better afterwards. But if every step of every run is a chore, and you just feel exhausted afterwards, something is not right. You need to take a step back and look at the wider context of your training and lifestyle: it might be better to hold back or take an extra day off.

Many elite athletes take afternoon naps to ensure they’re fitting in their ten hours (yes 10!) a day. When western athletes train in Kenya, they often remark at how ‘lazy’ the Kenyan athletes are in between training sessions: napping, lying on the sofa – doing absolutely nothing. Knowing how to rest properly may well be one of the secrets to their success. Whilst this isn’t practical for most of us, giving yourself a lazy hour or two after running or an early night after a hard session will always aid recovery.

Eating and drinking right

People love simple rules when it comes to our diet; “low fat”, “no carb” or “maple syrup only” are diets we’ve all heard of. If only it were that simple. On the flipside, some people  say: I train hard, so I eat whatever I want, or I’ve just jogged two miles, I’ll reward myself with a donut. As with anything in life, the answer lies somewhere in the middle…

After the Amsterdam Marathon 2010, the waiter warned me I wouldn't manage a pancake AND an omelette. He wasn't counting on my post-marathon appetite - I wish I'd bet him the check!

In determining your needs, you’ve got to keep your goals in mind: the dietary requirements of someone jogging twice a week for weight loss will be different to those of someone training hard for a fast marathon. In either case, what you are eating should not look much different to a normal, healthy balanced diet.

Most of us are already getting enough protein, carbohydrate and fat, but what about other nutrients? If you’re not getting the right quantities of vitamins and minerals, your body can’t generate energy or repair muscle. I’m not suggesting you run out and buy a load of supplements – start with the basics, the fruit and veg. You should be trying to get as many portions of the green stuff in as you can, and rather than quaffing pints of fruit juice, you should aim to max out on un-glamourous veg – particularly leafy greens and root vegetables.

The stereotype is that runners eat nothing but big bowls of pasta. Even though we burn extra carbs from running, there’s no need to focus more on the carbohydrate element of diet than any others. If you’re running for more than 1 hour 30 min, you might need a little extra carb-energy the night before and post-run, but the rest of the time you can stick to your usual carb-protein-veg proportions.

Hydration is also important. Not getting enough fluids after running is the most likely reason you’ll feel rough the next day. Aching is normal, but an overall ‘zonked’ feeling in the following days is probably down to dehydration. There’s a whole world of energy drinks, isotonic sports drinks, low calorie drinks and recovery drinks out there, but water is just fine. Unless you’re running for more than an hour, or training very hard, you should be getting all the vitamins, minerals and energy you need from your food anyway.

A few words on salt: Salt is often seen as a bad guy in our modern diets. High blood pressure is a risk, but much more so in sedentary people than those who exercise. Have you ever tasted sweat? You might be grimacing at the prospect but you probably know it’s salty – sweat contains 1g of salt per litre. If you’ve been exercising, you’ll have been sweating whether you notice it or not, and you need to replace the minerals you’ve lost. Natural sea salt contains a wider range of minerals and has a much better taste than refined table salt  – sprinkle some on your post run meal to replenish your mineral levels.

As for those treats, whether it’s a chocolate éclair or a pint, don’t be too hard on yourself. As long as you’re keeping everything in balance, there’s nothing wrong with a little indulgence – especially if you feel you’ve earned it. Give yourself an objective, then reward yourself for completing it. If you’re too strict with yourself, you’ll come to resent your self-imposed limits, and be more likely to pig out if you’ve had a bad day. Better one candy bar every other day, than nothing for a week then a whole packet in one go!

And of course, training…

Here’s a video of Bob ‘The Wilesthing’ Wiles doing a track workout. In jean shorts. Although he’s having a bit of fun here, in reality he’s a serious runner (1:09 half marathon). Enjoy!

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One Response to The Magic Triangle

  1. bearrunner says:

    Running seems so easy, one foot in front of the other, yet it is so complicated… It is a delicate balance of all aspects of the sport which determine how far we succeed.


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