No matter what type of runner you are, nutrition plays a big role in fueling your body with the energy it needs to power your runs. Maybe you’ve heard fitness lingo such as carb-loading, complex carbohydrates or energy chews and wondered: what does it all mean, and how can you incorporate these techniques and products into your routine? And, what’s the right timing for all of it? This guide will provide the basics on what to eat before, during and after runs for optimal performance.
Runners’ Diet Tips
Before considering nutrition strategies, take some time to evaluate your personal needs. These are the two most important things to ask yourself:
1. When was the last time you ate and/or drank?
Our bodies can store approximately one to three hours’ worth of energy to spend during a run. If you’re going for a casual run in the afternoon or early evening, your body will have enough fuel stored if you’ve been eating throughout the day. Therefore, you don’t need a strict “fuel strategy” as you would if running, say, a half marathon.
2. What type of running will you be doing?
The length, speed and intensity of your running session all play a crucial role in determining your nutrition needs. If you’ll be going on a casual run (30 minutes to 1 hour of easy running), your body can rely on stored energy without “extra” fueling. For longer or higher-intensity runs, however, you’ll need eat and fuel differently, according to the duration and type of run. The harder your body works to produce energy, the faster it will need replenishment.
Carbohydrates as a main energy source
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a carbohydrate intake of 45-65% of your daily calorie total. This is especially important for runners, as carbohydrates are an essential macronutrient for energy production, which the body stores as glycogen in the muscles and the liver. Compared to other macronutrients, our bodies “spend” the least amount of oxygen while burning carbohydrates, which is what makes them an optimal and efficient fuel source.
This helps explain the carb-loading nutrition strategy marathoners use to increase performance on the race days. To maximize the storage of glycogen, they increase their carbohydrate intake two to three days before a race. This strategy isn’t necessary for running shorter distances, since glycogen depletion occurs most often during long-distance training and races.
Protein and healthy fats are the two additional macronutrients that should not be neglected. These nutrients play a crucial role in energy provision. Protein is vital for maintaining, repairing and growing lean muscle mass. Healthy fats serve as another source of energy, and a carrier of fat-soluble vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin A and vitamin K.
Timing is key
Timing is crucial for pre- or mid-run meals or snacks in order to optimize your running performance. Eating a large meal just before a run can weigh you down and cause bloating; therefore plan to consume bigger meals three to four hours before a run. This will give your body time to digest and store glycogen. Mid-run snacks should also be timed correctly to avoid gastrointestinal issues, as well as to prevent early-on fatigue during your run.
What to eat before running
Easy or short runs
If you’ll be running for less than an hour, fueling before your run is not as necessary. For these runs, you can opt for lighter snacks of around 100-200 calories for an extra bit of energy. Also remember to hydrate properly with about 8 ounces of water to make up for dehydration from sleeping. Some good lighter snack options include:
During long runs, the body needs sustainable fuel, in the form of complex carbohydrates. They contain long, complex chains of sugar molecules that take longer to break down and therefore provide longer-lasting energy. Before a long run, opt for meals high in carbohydrates, moderate in protein, and lower in fat and fiber. Food high in complex carbs include:
- Bagel with peanut butter
- Whole grain toast with almond butter and banana
- Turkey sandwich
- Brown rice
Sprints or interval training
Running at faster speeds, for shorter periods of time, doesn’t require carbohydrate loading. But that doesn’t mean carbohydrates should be neglected before a speed-running session. Sprinters should eat a normal amount of carbohydrates as part of their pre-workout meal. Optimizing protein intake is important for this type of running, too, in order to aid muscle recovery. Some meal and snack ideas for sprinters include:
What to eat during running
Eating during running is usually more common during long runs and races such as half-marathons or marathons. It’s a strategy used to continuously fuel the body instead of letting it become completely drained of energy and facing what’s known among runners as “hitting the wall.”
During prolonged runs, it’s usually recommended that runners consume 30 to 60 grams of carbs each hour, depending on their needs. Preferably, start fueling within 30 minutes of starting a race, which will help you to avoid running low on energy. For these types of events, stick with food and drinks you’ve tested during training to avoid upsetting your digestive system.
For a mid-run snack or drink to keep your energy and blood sugar levels steady, consider the following:
- Carbohydrate electrolyte sports drinks
- Coconut water
- Energy gels
- Baby food
- Dates, cranberries and other dried fruit
- Salted pretzels
What to eat after running
Your post-run nutritional needs may vary depending on the length and intensity of the run. For short and lower-intensity runs, you can resume eating as you would regularly. After long and more strenuous runs, however, it’s important to be mindful of the food you consume. Avoid foods high in saturated fat and processed foods that will slow the digestion of carbohydrates and protein.
Running for a long period of time will deplete your glycogen stores. You will lose fluids, as well as minerals. Therefore, it’s important to drink fluids and consume foods that allow you to replenish these nutrients and recover properly. Stick with beverages and foods rich in electrolytes, minerals, protein and carbohydrates. Some options include:
- Chocolate milk
- Electrolyte infused water
- Whey protein shake
- Brown rice
- Greek yogurt
- Banana with peanut butter
- Whole grains like farro, quinoa, brown rice and barley
- Cottage cheese with fruit
The key to getting the most out of your run from nutrition, is learning through trial and error. What works for some may not work from others, so incorporate any new food choices into your training first and see what works best for you. Ultimately, getting the right nutrients through a balanced diet should remain your top priority.