Things Runners Should Know About Nutrition

Young woman holding nutrition bar and cell phone after run
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Nutrition is vital to runners not only for maintaining good health but also to promote peak performance. Here are some key running-specific nutrition guidelines that all runners should know.

Carbohydrates Are the Body’s Preferred Source of Fuel

Your body likes to use carbs as energy when you’re running because it can turn carb foods such as pasta, bread, cereal, and potatoes into energy more easily than high fat or protein foods. Our carb reserves are not as ample as our protein and fat stores, so that’s why it’s important for runners to have some carbs at each meal, especially before runs.

Whole grain pasta, steamed or boiled rice, quinoa, potatoes, fruits, starchy vegetables, and whole grain bread are good carb sources for runners.

Runners Need Protein

Runners need protein 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 0.5 to 0.75 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, low-fat dairy products, poultry, whole grains, and beans.

Certain types of protein are particularly beneficial to runners. The iron in red meat is more easily absorbed than in other foods and can help prevent anemia, especially in female distance runners, who are more at risk of it. Oily fish and the fiber in beans also help to reduce your cholesterol and improve heart health.

Drink When You’re Thirsty

Many runners wonder how much they should drink while running to avoid dehydration and the answer is simple: Drink for thirst. Although your thirst doesn’t kick in until you’re 1-2 percent dehydrated, that’s fine. Your performance won’t suffer, and it’s better to use thirst as an indication of your hydration needs rather than just guessing. Drinking too much water while running can dilute the amount of sodium in your blood and lead to hyponatremia, which can cause nausea and vomiting, and even brain seizures and death in extreme cases.

You Need to Replace Electrolytes When Running for More Than 90 Minutes

When you’re running, you’re losing electrolytes (like sodium) through sweat. Since electrolytes help your body retain fluids and may prevent muscle cramps, you need to replace them when running more than 90 minutes. Some runners like to drink sports drinks, such as Gatorade, on the run to maintain their electrolyte balance. You don’t need to hydrate solely with sports drinks during a long run. Drink for thirst, and alternate between drinking water and sports drinks. If you can’t tolerate sweet sports drinks while running, there are other options, such as sports gels and chews that contain electrolytes. Some runners choose to do salt shots or take salt tablets for long runs.

Remember, drinking sports drinks with electrolytes is only necessary for runs that are longer than 90 minutes. You don’t need to drink sports before, during, or after shorter runs, and doing so might lead to weight gain from all the added calories.

You Need to Replace Energy During Long Runs and Races

You’ve probably heard about or may have experienced hitting the wall during a long run or race. After running for a certain distance (typically about 17-18 miles for many runners), your carbohydrate stores are getting low, and you’re feeling totally exhausted. Your body starts to use fat as a source of fuel, but since fat can’t be converted to energy as quickly as blood sugar can, you start to slow down. Your legs feel like bricks, and each step is a struggle.

Fortunately, slamming into the dreaded wall like that can be avoided.  You can prevent running low on carbohydrate energy fuel if you replace some of the energy you’re burning on the run. The key is to consume carbohydrates in the form of energy drinks, sports gels or chews, candy, or other snacks at regular intervals during your run or race. You don’t need to take in carbs if you’re racing less than 60 minutes since the benefits of fueling while running don’t really kick in unless you’re running more than that.

It’s important to start replacing your carbohydrate stores early because if you wait until you’re exhausted, it’s too late. A general rule of thumb is to consume 100 calories after your first hour of running and then another 100 calories every 40-45 minutes after that. Experiment with different options of gels, drinks, bars, and sweets to determine what works best for you.

You Should Avoid Alcohol the Night Before a Run

If you’re running or racing in the morning, drinking alcohol the night before is a bad idea for many reasons. Beyond the bad feeling of a hangover, alcohol has a dehydrating effect and prevents you from breaking down energy stores into usable energy. You’ll suffer from low blood sugar, which will make you feel weak and tired.

You Should Eat Within 60 Minutes of Finishing a Long Run

After running, especially a long run, you want to replenish energy as quickly as possible. Studies have shown that muscles are most receptive to rebuilding glycogen (stored glucose) stores within the first 60 minutes after exercise. By eating some carbs and protein (try to stick to a 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein) soon after a long run, you can replenish your glycogen, and minimize muscle stiffness and soreness. Some quick and easy options for post-run eating are a bagel with peanut butter, a protein shake, a banana, and yogurt, or a fruit and yogurt smoothie.

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Article Sources
  • Karelis, A. D.; et. al., Carbohydrate Administration and Exercise Performance. Sports Medicine 2010.
  • Runner’s World Complete Guide to Running, Rodale Press, 2013