About Middle Distance Running
Middle distance running includes events ranging in distance from 800m to 5000m, taking around 90 seconds to 15-30 minutes to complete, depending on the event training level of the athlete.
Middle distance runners must have a high level of speed and endurance meaning that both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems must be fine-tuned for success.
The training for middle distance running is usually much longer than the events and includes a variety of training formats focusing on different goals including long easy runs, interval sessions, fartlek running and repetitions. Cross training and gym sessions are also common. Some runners include stretching sessions, yoga, and pilates to aid in recovery. Depending on the level of the athlete, training there may be more than one training session a day 2 on most days of the week.
The competitive season is held over summer with major events (e.g. National Championships) usually held at the end of the season. The frequency of competitions will vary between athletes depending on their level and goals. Most athletes will target a few key races as their priority with other less important races in the lead up.
Middle distance runners are typically a medium height and have a lean body composition with low body fat levels and good muscularity. This optimises their power to weight ratio to aid with speed and power in racing.
Because of this, middle distance runners are often conscious of their nutrition in order to achieve a desired body composition. Any attempts to reduce body fat levels should be done in collaboration with an Accredited Sports Dietitian to ensure that performance is not compromised.
Individual nutrition requirements will be determined by training load, specific athlete needs, training goals, body composition goals, health and adjustment for growth in younger athletes.
Middle distance runners can have high energy requirements to maintain the training volume required. As a result, runners need to ensure they eat sufficient food and take advantage of opportunities to eat during periods of heavy training. This may require special attention to ensure good access to appropriate foods and fluids at all times.
Carbohydrate intake should be matched to training load. During the high training periods, the training diet should be adapted to reflect the higher training load and need for high quality training. Conversely, during the off-season or periods of lower training, carbohydrate needs should be reduced as fuel needs are lower.
The diet of a middle distance runner should also include moderate amounts of protein (e.g. fish, red meat, poultry, tofu); a variety of healthy fats (e.g. oily fish, olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds), as well as plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables to ensure sufficient energy, body function, muscle repair, and an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals.
Dehydration can impair exercise performance so it is particularly important for distance runners to consider their fluid needs when competing in warm conditions and extended training sessions.
Fluid needs vary for different athletes based on their individual sweat rates but the aim is to start any exercise session or competition well hydrated.
To ensure good day-to-day hydration levels, athletes should aim for pale yellow urine. In order to stay well hydrated, runner should drink fluids should before, during and after training sessions. In addition, drinking regularly throughout the day leading up to training or competition and having a drink with all meals will help.
Eating before competition
Pre-competition eating should be similar to eating before training to ensure that the food and fluid is well tolerated and doesn’t cause any stomach upset.
It’s important to start competition well fuelled. Each athlete is different, but runners will often eat a pre-race meal around 3 to 4 hours before the start of the event. This meal should contain some carbohydrate for fuel as well as some fluids for hydration. Food choices will depend on the timing of the first race. For some the main pre-competition may be breakfast, while for other events it may be lunch or dinner. Suitable pre-race meals include:
- Wrap or sandwich with tuna and salad
- Toast with avocado and tomato
- Bircher muesli with berries
- Homemade pasta salad
- Pumpkin soup with a bread roll
- Chicken stir-fry with noodles
Depending on the timing of the race, many runners will also have an additional small snack 1-2 hours before the start. This is usually light but rich in carbohydrate and relatively low in fat and fibre so it is easy to digest. Some suitable pre-race snack ideas include:
- Yoghurt with fruit salad
- Small fruit bun
- Peanut butter on rice cakes
- Toast with vegemite
If solids don’t sit well before a game, or runners are very nervous, a liquid source of protein and carbohydrate such as a fruit smoothie or flavoured milk can be a good option.
Eating and drinking during competition
During races it not necessary or practical to eat or drink due to the short duration and high intensity of these events. However, in most situations, middle-distance runners may compete in more than one event in a day to cover heats and finals, as well as multiple distances. In addition, events are often run over several days.
To ensure that runners keep fuel stores ‘topped up’, snacks should be consumed regularly throughout the day between races.
This is particularly important if an athlete is competing in several races and opportunities to eat are limited. Athletes should not rely on competition venues to provide suitable foods for fueling over the day. Instead, they should pack portable, convenient and familiar snacks that digest quickly and do not interfere with competition preparation or leave them feeling bloated or overly full. Suitable snack options include:
- Fruit – fresh, dried, or fruit cups
- Muesli or sports bars
- Crackers with cheese
- Simple sandwiches (e.g. honey or peanut butter)
- Fruit yoghurt
- Fruit buns or homemade muesli slice
A single race is unlikely to exhaust fuel stores, compete in multiple events over a day or over several days increases recovery needs. Recovery meals and snacks should contain a combination of carbohydrate (fuel), some protein (for muscle repair and development) and plenty of fluids and electrolytes to replace sweat losses.
A recovery meal or snack should be consumed soon after exercise period, especially if competing again the next day. Fluids (mainly water) should also be consumed, based on estimated sweat losses. Some recovery food suggestions include:
- Chicken, avocado and salad sandwich
- Dairy-based fruit smoothie
- Yoghurt with fruit & nut trail mix
- Homemade beef burgers on a wholegrain bun
Other Nutrition Tips –
- Low iron can be a problem with female and adolescent athletes, particularly if training long hours. If you are often tired or low on energy seek the advice of an Accredited Sports Dietitian.
- Body fat levels: The right diet will help athletes achieve an optimum body composition for their sport. Overly restricting energy intake can impair performance and cause health concerns. A long term approach to body composition is important for maximal benefits and reduced risk.