Want to know what to eat before a run or how to refuel on rest days? There’s no one better placed to share their nutritional tips than the multi-medal-winning athlete, Katarina Johnson-Thompson.
We are what we eat – and nowhere is that more true than on the track or in the gym. How we fuel our workouts can be the difference between a painful session and a new PB, and the food we use to refuel plays a huge role in how well we recover afterward.
No one knows this better than Katarina Johnson-Thompson, or KJT. One of the UK’s most successful and best-known athletes, over the past three years, the heptathlete has taken Gold at the World Indoor Championships, the Commonwealth Games, World Championships and European Indoor Championships. Oh, and a Silver at the 2018 European Championships in Berlin.
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While very few of us might be tempted to give the heptathlon (10 events) or pentathlon (five events) a go, learning how such an athlete uses food to jump, run, throw and recover can be useful for all of us. So, we sat down with KJT to talk about all things grub.
Forget random Instagram “What I eat in a day” videos – we want to know how a professional athlete fuels a typical training day. “At the moment, I’m in a hard training block,” KJT explains, which means “trying to eat protein every three-to-four hours. That can be incorporated into my breakfast, lunch and dinner.” Between meals, she also tries to get “a protein hit on both sides.”
If that seems hard-core, in practice it actually sounds pretty delicious. A typical day involves having scrambled eggs on toast and a Müllerlight Smooth Toffee pot for breakfast. Lunch is something different every day but KJT often has “something like a chicken pasta salad” with a dinner of “salmon, rice and vegetables.” Snacks might be a protein shake, a Müllerlight or a cup of milk before bed. “I try to mix it up so that I’m not eating the same thing every day.”
Training versus rest days
You might think that you need to eat more on the days that you exercise and less on rest days, because you need fewer calories if you’re not being active. In actual fact, the reverse is true.
KJT explains that many of us are “the rest day is when your body is actually recovering the most – so that’s when you have to eat more” in order for that process to happen effectively. On her rest days, the athlete either “bumps up the portion size of what (she) normally eats, or snacks more.”
Fuelling for success
Perhaps the most important thing for those of us who run, for example, to know is just how big a role nutrition plays in race prep. For KJT, it’s so important that she’s enlisted the help of a nutritionist to help get it right.
“In competition, nutrition can be the make or break of your whole schedule. For example, when I was at the World Championships in Doha, the whole schedule was an evening session and I didn’t really know what to do. Normally I’d eat breakfast then go to the competition – but in Doha, I’d eat breakfast and then have about seven hours before I’d have to do anything.” Because of that, she says it’s really important to have a nutritional plan for competitions and races.
These days, she has a plan that’s easy for her to follow – she doesn’t have to think about refuelling or worry about when she can eat.” I just go through that with the nutritionist ahead of whatever schedule I’m on.”
For us amateurs, it’s worth getting into a routine that you’re able to stick with. That might mean, for example, getting used to eating an early carb-heavy breakfast two hours before going for a long run, or trying an intermittent fasting routine that sees you eating at the same time every day and planning your workouts around that.
Supplements and extras
Knowing which supplements are worth taking can be difficult. Do we need them at all? Are certain vitamins more important to supplement than others? Athletes do have higher nutritional demands than most of us, so it follows that they might be more strict about taking supplements to ensure they have all the vitamins and minerals needed to perform and recover effectively.
Katarina says she takes:
- Multivitamins - ensures no deficiencies
- Vitamin C - keeps cells, skin, bones and cartilage healthy
- Zinc - makes new cells and enzymes, processes carbs, fat and protein in food
- Magnesium - turns the food we eat into energy and protects hormonal health
- Iron – maintains energy and ensures oxygen is carried around the body via red blood cells
But what about non-health supplements… like alcohol? It’s common for amateur runners to give up alcohol ahead of a race – even if it’s just to ensure we don’t miss a training session because of a hangover. KJT doesn’t worry about having a glass of wine when she’s in training mode, however, because: “I live and train in France, so it would be rude not to.”
With so much nutritional advice out there, it’s hard to know what works and what we should ignore. Katarina says that she lives by two food-based motos: “Everything in moderation,” and “One healthy meal isn’t going to make you healthy and one unhealthy meal isn’t going to make you unhealthy.”
Whatever you do, she says, “just keep it consistent.” We can’t think of a better takeaway.
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Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.