Your Running Nutrition Guide

As a runner, your diet and nutrition are important not only for maintaining good health, but also to promote peak performance. Proper nutrition and hydration can make or break a workout or race, and also affect how you feel, work, and think.

One of the most common questions that new runners have is what they should eat before, during, and after running. It’s common for runners to worry that eating before a run will lead to cramping or gastrointestinal issues. But they're also concerned that not fueling up before a run will leave them feeling weak, lethargic, and hungry.

When you begin a run, you should feel neither starved nor stuffed. You don't want to eat immediately before running because it could lead to cramping or annoying side stitches. But running on an empty stomach may cause you to run out of energy and leave you feeling very fatigued during your runs.

Your best bet is to eat a light meal about one and a half to two hours before you start running, or a small snack 30 minutes to an hour before running.

What to Eat

  • Whole grains (breads, pasta, quinoa)

  • Lean proteins (eggs, salmon)

  • Fresh fruit (bananas, berries, oranges)

  • Low-fat yogurt

  • Peanut butter

  • Almonds

What to Avoid

  • Sugar-filled drinks (especially soda)

  • Spicy food

  • High-fiber veggies (e.g., broccoli)

  • Lactose-rich foods

  • Legumes

Important Nutrients

Eating right can help you have the energy you need during your runs. A balanced diet for healthy runners should include these essentials: carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals.

Carbohydrates

Without a doubt, carbs are the best source of energy for athletes. As a runner, carbohydrates should make up about 60 percent to 65 percent of your total calorie intake. Research has shown that for both quick and long-lasting energy, our bodies work more efficiently with carbs than they do with proteins or fats.

Good choices include:

  • Whole grain pasta
  • Steamed or boiled rice
  • Potatoes
  • Fruit
  • Starchy vegetables
  • Whole grain bread

Whole grain foods are less processed, meaning they retain more of the nutrition the grain naturally provides. Choosing whole grain pasta over white, for example, provides you with more nutrients—fiber in particular, which can help you feel fuller longer.

Protein

Protein is used for some energy and to repair tissue damaged during training. In addition to being an essential nutrient, protein keeps you feeling full longer, which helps if you're trying to lose weight.

Protein should make up about 15 percent to 20 percent of your daily intake. Runners, especially those running long distances, should consume .5 to .75 grams of protein per pound of body weight.

Try to concentrate on protein sources that are low in fat and cholesterol such as:

  • Lean meats
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Low-fat dairy products
  • Whole grains
  • Beans
  • Eggs*

*One egg satisfies about 12 percent of your daily protein needs, and the amino acids in eggs will help with muscle repair and recovery. You'll also get about 30 percent of your recommended amount of vitamin K, which is crucial for bone health.

Fat

A high-fat diet can quickly pack on the pounds, so try to make sure that no more than 20 percent to 35 percent of your total diet comes from fats. Stick to foods low in saturated fats and cholesterol.

Foods such as nuts, oils, and cold-water fish provide essential fats called omega-3s which are vital for good health and can help prevent certain diseases.

Most experts recommend getting about 3,000 milligrams (mg) of omega-3 fat a day.

Vitamins and Minerals

Runners don't get energy from vitamins, but they are still an important part of their diet. Exercise may produce compounds called free radicals, which can damage cells, and vitamins C, E, and A can neutralize these substances.

Getting your vitamins from whole foods is preferable to supplementation; there's no strong evidence that taking supplements improves either health or athletic performance.

Minerals, on the other hand, care of particular importance when it comes to running.

Important ones include:

  • Calcium: A calcium-rich diet is essential for runners to prevent osteoporosis and stress fractures. Good sources of calcium include low-fat dairy products, calcium-fortified juices, dark leafy vegetables, beans, and eggs. Your goal should be 1,000 to 1,300 mg of calcium per day.
  • Iron: You need this nutrient to deliver oxygen to your cells. If you have an iron-poor diet, you'll feel weak and fatigued, especially when you run. Men should aim for 8 mg of iron a day, and women need 18 mg. Good natural sources of iron include lean meats, leafy green vegetables, nuts, shrimp, and scallops.
  • Sodium and other electrolytes: Small amounts of sodium and other electrolytes are lost through sweat during exercise. Usually, electrolytes are replaced if you follow a balanced diet. But if you find yourself craving salty foods, it may be your body's way of telling you to get more sodium. Try drinking a sports drink or eating some pretzels after exercise. Particularly if you're running longer than 90 minutes, you should need to replace some of the electrolytes you're losing through sweat by drinking sports drinks or taking in salt during your runs.

Do You Need Supplements?

The market is full of energy supplements, sports gels, chews, and protein bars that purport to provide the fuel you need to power through your runs. The reality is that, in most cases, you don’t need any of these things to stay energized before, during, or after your run. Some of them can provide a good source of convenient energy. In other cases, you might simply be consuming highly processed (and often expensive) snacks that you don’t really need.

Hydration Guidelines

The amount you need to drink before, during, and after a run depends on factors such as how long you will be running and your sweat rate.

  • Pre-run: If you plan to run for around 45 minutes, you will want pre-hydrate by drinking around 16 to 20 ounces of fluid about two hours before your run.
  • During your run: You will want to maintain hydration levels by drinking 5 to 10 ounces of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes.
  • After your run: Replacing lost fluids is also important following your run, which means drinking around 20 to 24 ounces for every pound of water weight lost during your run.

What to Eat Before a Run

Your choice of a pre-run meal is important since eating the wrong foods can make you uncomfortable or even send you looking for the closest bathroom during your run. Choose something high in carbohydrates and lower in fat, fiber, and protein.

Some examples of good pre-workout fuel include:

  • A bagel with peanut butter
  • Turkey and cheese on whole wheat bread
  • Oatmeal with berries
  • A banana and an energy bar
  • A bowl of cold cereal with a cup of milk

If you decide to start on empty, you should have enough energy stores to last for a shorter run. But if you have time for a light snack, a piece of toast with jam or half of an energy bar can be a good choice. Focus on carbohydrates and easy-to-digest foods.

If you run in the evening and it's been a few hours since lunch (but you haven't had dinner yet), try eating a healthy 100-calorie snack about an hour before your run. Ideas include low-fat frozen yogurt, an apple with cheese, or about 40 Goldfish crackers.

How Long Do I Have to Wait to Run After Eating?

If you eat a very big meal, you should wait at least two hours before running. This is especially true if you eat foods that take a long time to digest, such as greasy, fatty, or fried foods (though it's best to avoid these before running).

If you eat something smaller, you should be fine to run about an hour after you eat, depending on your meal choice.

Note: This may differ depending on your digestive system.

What to Eat During a Run

While people often plan what they eat before and after a run, there may be times that you need to eat mid-run as well. This is particularly true if you are running long distances. If you are running for less than an hour, you probably won’t need to refuel until your workout is over.

During shorter runs, most of the energy to fuel your efforts come from glycogen stored in your muscles. Once these stores are depleted, however, your body will begin drawing on sugar stored in the blood and liver.

If you are running for 90 minutes or longer, you will need to consume carbohydrates in order to replace the glucose that you have lost.

You’ll need to replenish lost hydration as well as glucose, which is why sports drinks are often a popular choice. These drinks provide hydration and carbohydrates, as well as sodium and potassium. Sports gels and chews can also be a good choice. They usually provide carbohydrates in the form of fast digesting sugars.

If you’d prefer to eat real foods during your run, there are plenty of great choices that will help you recharge your body. Some good mid-run options include:

  • Bananas
  • Raisins
  • Grapes
  • Energy bars

Some even opt for high-sugar snacks like gummy bears or other small candies.

The key is to choose something light that has high glycemic index carbs.

Avoid foods that are difficult to chew and swallow during your run. Spicy foods, dairy products, and high-fiber foods should also be avoided since they can cause tummy troubles.

What to Eat After a Run

What you eat after a run often depends upon your goals. For example, you might 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. In any case, you will need to replace lost fluids, restore glycogen levels, and rebuild muscle fibers.

Good post-run options include snacks or light meals that include fluids, carbohydrates, and protein. If you don’t have time for a meal, energy bars can provide a good ratio of carbs to protein (aim for a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio).

Examples of things you might eat include:

  • A protein shake
  • A bagel with nut butter
  • Greek yogurt with a piece of fruit.

And don’t forget to replace your lost fluids with something like water, chocolate milk, or a recovery drink. According to one study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, chocolate milk might be a better choice than sports drinks when it comes to exercise recovery.

Skip high-fat, fried, or greasy foods that are high in calories but low in nutritional value. You might feel starved, but loading up on high-calorie fast food can undo all the benefits of your run. Sugary sodas are also a poor choice.

Avoiding Runner's Trots

If you've had issues with gastrointestinal distress (also known as runner's trots) during or after your runs, the foods you're eating in the 24 hours before your runs may be the culprit. Here's a guide to what you should and shouldn't eat before your runs.

Try limiting or eliminating some of these foods before running to see if it makes a difference:

  • High-fat foods: Foods with a lot of fat, such as fried foods, cheese, hamburgers, or bacon, digest slowly and will feel like they're sitting in your stomach.
  • Caffeine: Coffee or other caffeinated beverages can cause stomach issues or diarrhea on a long run.
  • Dairy foods: If you are lactose-intolerant, dairy foods can set off runner's trots. If you have a mild intolerance, it may only show up with the stress you place on your body with running. Try eliminating dairy in the 24 hours before your run.

Safer pre-run foods to avoid runner's diarrhea include:

  • Refined carbs: Processed white foods, like regular pasta, white rice, and plain bagels are good choices. Although they're not as nutritious as whole grain and unprocessed foods, they're easier on your stomach because the whole grain is already broken down. A plain bagel with some peanut butter (and a glass of water) would be a safe choice before a long run.
  • Low-fiber fruits and veggies: If you really want to eat fruits or vegetables before runs, zucchini, tomatoes, olives, grapes, and grapefruit are all low in fiber.
  • Dairy substitutes: Some people have issues when they consume dairy products before runs. Soy, rice and almond milk are generally safe because they don't contain the sugar lactose, which can be tough to digest. You can also try acidophilus milk and yogurts with live cultures, which contain bacteria that help with digestion.

Races and Marathons

Preparing for a race or marathon requires good nutrition in addition to your physical training. In the weeks before an event, you should also spend some time familiarizing yourself with what will be available during the race (e.g., feed stations), as well as expected weather conditions (i.e., you may need extra hydration on a very hot day).

Well in advance of your event, you should start paying attention to how your nutrition influences your training. What foods and meal timing work best for you? You might find that carb-loading the day before a run helps, or you might prefer to just up your daily carb intake in general.

For Training

Following different nutritional strategies during your training might be beneficial. For example, if you are running shorter runs, there is probably not a real need to increase your overall calorie or carbohydrate intake.

Distance runs that pass the 90-minute mark should also include the addition of supplemental nutrition. This includes ensuring that you are replacing lost fluids so that you stay hydrated.

The Lead-Up to Race Day

Prior to a race or marathon, runners sometimes engage in what is known as carb-loading, or consuming larger amounts of carbohydrates in the two or three days before the event.

The purpose of this is to maximize the stores of glycogen in the muscles during a race, which can improve endurance and prevent fatigue. This practice used to be more common, but many runners today prefer to simply increase their daily carb intake in the days before an event.

Carb loading should be done with caution and you should always make sure that you are also eating an adequate amount of protein. Overeating or suddenly changing your eating habits right before a race can result in discomfort, decreased performance, and even gastrointestinal issues.

On Race Day

Unlike race day weather or course conditions, your nutrition is one area that you have complete control over. With proper planning of your pre-race meal, you'll feel more confident and prepared knowing that you already have a nutrition plan worked out.

  • At least three to four hours prior to your event, eat a breakfast high in carbohydrate. Go with something familiar—now isn't the time to try something new. Bagels, waffles, or oatmeal can be good options, depending on your preferences. Avoid high-fiber or high-fat foods that can lead to gastrointestinal distress.
  • Around 15 minutes before the race, you may want to consume a high-carb snack or energy gel. This acts as a fast-acting source of energy at the start of 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.
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