Nutrition Guidelines for Long Runs and Race Day

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Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

What you nourish and hydrate your body with on the days leading up to a race or a long run not only affect how comfortable you are during and after the run, but also whether you achieve your peak running performance.

Although it's common for runners to focus on avoiding foods or drinks that are known to cause cramping or gastrointestinal issues during a run, it is equally as important to know what to eat fuel your body and support peak performance and overall health.

Nutrition for Optimum Long-Run Performance

The foods you choose to eat all contain macro- and micronutrients that play different roles in the way energy is delivered to your body and how your long runs are fueled. For healthy long-distance runners, goal macronutrient percentages (also known as "macros") will differ depending on your training schedule.

Optimal Marathon Training Macros
Macronutrient Goal Percentage of Daily Calories
Carbohydrates 60%
Protein 20%
Fat 20%

Carbohydrates

The primary source of energy for runners comes from carbohydrates, which include both simple sugars and complex carbohydrates. Our bodies burn energy supplied by carbohydrates more efficiently compared to energy from proteins or fats, according to studies conducted on energy metabolism. Dietary Guidelines for Healthy Americans suggests the average adult get about 45 to 65 percent of their daily calorie intake from carbohydrates.

For both quick and long-lasting energy needed for long distance and marathon runners, you should consume about 60 to 65 percent of your total calorie intake from carbohydrates during training, particularly in the week before a long run or race.

Good food sources of carbohydrates include:

  • Brown rice
  • Whole grain pasta or bread
  • Potatoes
  • Other starchy vegetables such as corn, beans, and lentils
  • Fruit

Choosing less processed carbohydrates that are made from whole grains will provide you with more fiber, which can help you stay sated.

Protein

Protein provides the body with energy and works to repair tissue damaged during exercise. Protein should make up about 10 to 35 percent of your daily calorie intake. Long distance runners and marathoners should aim for 0.5 to 0.75 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Look for protein sources that are minimally processed and low in fat.

Good sources of protein can be obtained from:

  • Lean beef
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Lean pork
  • Low-fat dairy products
  • Beans
  • Eggs
  • Whole grains such as whole wheat and jasmine or basmati rice

Fats

Dietary fats regulate hormones and assist in blood clotting while helping the body absorb certain vitamins and move them through the blood. Fats also work to reduce inflammation in the body, which is necessary for long-distance runners to help alleviate muscle soreness and boost the immune system.

Since each gram of fat contains 9 calories (as compared to 4 calories per gram obtained from carbs or protein), a high-fat diet can easily lead to weight gain. Limit your intake of saturated fats while increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids. As a long distance runner, fats should make up 20 to 35 percent of your total calorie intake.

Good sources of healthy fats include:

  • Cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel
  • Nuts such as pistachios and almonds
  • Avocados
  • Olive oil
  • Chia Seeds
  • Flaxseed

Vitamins and Minerals

Although vitamins and minerals don't provide the body with energy, long-distance runners should take extra care to include foods high in these micronutrients in their diet to combat the free radicals produced in the body after exercising. Free radicals can be damaging to cells, and vitamins C, E, and A can neutralize them.

Important minerals that runners should take extra care to include in their diets include calcium, iron, and sodium.

Calcium

Research has shown that a diet rich in calcium may prevent osteoporosis and stress fractures, a concern for long distance runners. Your goal should be to consume 1,000 to 1,300 mg of calcium per day, and good sources of calcium include:

  • Dairy products
  • Calcium-fortified juices
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Legumes
  • Eggs

Iron

Iron helps to deliver oxygen to the body's cells. A diet low in iron will leave you feeling weak and fatigued. To ensure your body can efficiently deliver oxygen to your cells while you are on a long run, aim for 8 mg of iron a day if you are male, and 18 mg a day if you are female. Iron is found in:

  • Lean meats
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Shellfish

Sodium and Other Electrolytes

As you exercise, you lose small amounts of sodium and other electrolytes through sweat. A balanced diet will usually provide sufficient amounts of electrolytes to your body, but if you find that you are craving salty foods, your body may be signaling that you need more sodium.

For runs longer than 90 minutes, you should plan to replace some of the electrolytes you lose by a drinking sports drink or taking in salt during the run.

Water

Even mild dehydration can make you feel fatigued and impair your physical performance. Immediately after training, check your hydration levels by doing a urine test. If your urine is light yellow like lemonade, you're well-hydrated. If it's a dark yellow color, you're dehydrated and should keep drinking more water.

If you find yourself feeling thirsty or you are dehydrated, plain water is a great choice to make sure you stay hydrated. The amount of fluid you need to drink before, during, and after a run depends on how long you will be running and your sweat rate.

During a run, runners should drink 4 to 6 ounces of fluid every 20 minutes. For runners who run faster than 8-minute miles, 6 to 8 ounces of water every 20 minutes is recommended. During long runs of 90 minutes or more, drink 5 to 10 ounces of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes.

Supplements and Other Sources of Fuel

There are a number of sports gels, chews, and protein bars marketed to runners that claim to provide the fuel you need to power through long runs. Although some provide a good source of quick and convenient energy for long runs, there is no strong evidence to prove that supplements improve health or athletic performance. However, during long-distance runs your stored glycogen levels will get depleted and your body will need some quick burning fuel to get you through to the finish line.

Many marathon and half-marathon runners run with packaged supplements such as gels, chews, and bars stuffed into their running belts. They do this because after about 60 minutes of running there is a need to replenish lost calories with simple sugars. In addition to quick burning sugars, these products may contain caffeine, vitamins, antioxidants, and electrolytes.

Energy Gels

A good energy gel should contain two different forms of carbohydrates (such as glucose and fructose) for quicker absorption and also offer some sodium to replenish your electrolytes. Some energy gels will also provide caffeine to help push you through remaining miles, but if you are worried about gastrointestinal issues, you may want to alternate between caffeinated and non-caffeinated gels throughout your run.

Chews or Blocks

Most energy chews or blocks resemble candy in some way as they are often chewy, sweet, and fruit-flavored. You will find many vitamins, antioxidants, and amino acids packed into a small fruit chew to help your body rebuild muscle tissue while giving you quick energy. Chews come in both caffeinated and noncaffeinated versions.

Bars

There are many different types of bars out in the market. Protein bars will help to deliver protein to your muscles with upwards of 20 grams of protein per bar. An energy bar will have a higher carbohydrate content than a protein bar. A good energy bar will provide a good ratio of carbs to protein (aim for a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio.) Recovery bars, on the other hand, are designed to contain carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and antioxidants to help your body recover from a long run and stave off muscle cramps.

What to Eat When

Aside from the types of foods you eat, it is also very important to know that nutrient timing can play a role in optimizing your running performance.

A Week to a Few Days Before Your Event

Since our carb stores are limited and carbohydrates are the primary fuel burned during physical activity, ideally, you want to eat foods that are rich in carbs and moderate to low in protein and fat in the weeks before an event. Many runners prefer to increase their daily carb intake in the days before an event, which is known as carb-loading.

When carb-loading, your total calorie intake should stay roughly the same. This means you will need to slowly increase the percentage of carbs in your diet, maintain the same percentage of proteins, but very slightly lower your percentage of fats proportionately.

Be cautious and remember that carb-loading doesn't mean stuffing yourself full of pasta the night before a race, instead aim for at least 65 percent of your calories to come from carbs during the week before a race. Focus on carb-loading with the inclusion of the following foods into your daily log:

  • Fruits (think dates, bananas, and berries)
  • Smoothies
  • Yams, potatoes, or sweet potatoes
  • Simple grains such as rice and sourdough or spelt bread (look for no added sugars or binders and starches)
  • Oatmeal
  • Homemade granola
  • Fresh juices such as tart cherry or beet to boost iron levels and reduce inflammation

3 to 4 Hours Prior to Your Event

For breakfast before your long run or race, focus on getting mostly carbs and some protein. Pick foods that are easily digestible. Some examples of good pre-long run fuel include: 

  • Bagel spread with natural nut butter
  • Banana, a protein bar, and a glass of low-fat milk
  • Oatmeal with a cup of orange juice

About 15 Minutes Before a Race

Consuming a high-carb snack or energy gel around 15 minutes prior to the start of your race will act as a fast-acting source of energy during the beginning stretch.

When you begin the run, you shouldn't be starving, but you also shouldn't feel heavy and stuffed. You don't want to eat a meal immediately before running because it could lead to cramping or annoying side stitches.

An energy gel or chew can give you a boost to keep you from running on an empty stomach, which can cause you to run out of energy and leave you feeling fatigued.

During the Race

During the race, take in enough carbs and fluids to fuel your run, but don't overdo it. Filling up or drinking too much can lead to stomach upset and impair your performance.

You’ll need to replenish lost hydration as well as glucose, which is why sports drinks, gels, and chews are often a popular choice. Some runners even opt for high-sugar snacks like gummy bears or other small candies.

But you're not limited to processed products. If you’d rather eat real foods during your run, there are a number of good options. Some mid-run whole food choices include:

The goal is to opt for foods that have carbs with a high glycemic index but are small and light to carry. You will also want to maintain hydration levels by drinking 5 to 10 ounces of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes during your long run.

Immediately After the Race

What you choose to eat after a run depends on your personal training goals, but after a long run or race, your aim should be to replace lost fluids and restore glycogen levels.

Immediately following the training long run or race event, you should eat a 100–400 calorie snack to aid recovery and allow you to start stocking up on stored carbohydrate for the next run. Good choices include:

  • Water and energy bar
  • Chocolate milk
  • Orange juice
  • Sports drink

About 2 Hours After

Within two hours after a race or long-run, aim to eat foods high in carbohydrates and protein. Look for a 3:1 ratio to replenish glycogen stores and rebuild muscles. If possible, head home and make a high protein smoothie with a variety of fruit and your favorite protein powder. You may opt for lower-calorie choices if you are trying to lose weight, or focus on higher-protein choices if you are trying to build muscle.

Examples of things you might eat include:

  • A protein shake
  • A bagel with nut butter
  • Cottage cheese with a piece of fruit
  • Spaghetti and meatballs

Don’t forget to replace lost body fluids with water, chocolate milk, or a recovery drink. Replacing lost fluids means drinking around 20 to 24 ounces for every pound of water weight lost during your run. Before you reach for that sports drink, consider chocolate milk, which may be a better choice when it comes to exercise recovery, according to a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2019.

A Word From Verywell

Much of what it takes to get optimum nutrition as a long distance runner is planning head. During your training, start paying attention to how nutrition influences your training. What foods and meal timing make you feel your best when you are running? You might find that carb-loading the day before a run helps. Or you might find that gradually increasing your carb intake in the weeks prior to a race works best for your body.

Finally, do some research into what foods and feed stations will be available on race day (e.g., pre-race snacks, breakfast, or post-race lunches served) so you can pack accordingly. Be sure to only bring food items that are tried and true for you. Don't introduce new products into your routine on race day. And be sure to keep track of the forecasted weather conditions as it may mean that you need extra hydration for runs on very hot days.

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Article Sources

Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition

  2. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Calcium.

  3. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Iron.

  4. Born KA, Dooley EE, Cheshire PA, et al. Chocolate Milk versus carbohydrate supplements in adolescent athletes: a field based study. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2019;16(1):6. doi:10.1186/s12970-019-0272-0

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