8 Easy Eating Tips for Runners
No need to overhaul your diet or stress about the details. Just follow these simple guidelines to fuel yourself for any run.
Myth bust: No, there's no perfect performance-enhancing diet for runners (if only). What works for one runner, pro or beginner, won't necessarily work for you.
That may sound totally unhelpful or beyond frustrating, but it's actually liberating. Because it really means that there are no must-follow rules to eat well for your sport. Instead, simply experiment with these healthy-eating tips that experts say can support your runs—before, during and after. Ready? Let's go.
1. Don't Overthink It
Running nutrition doesn't have to be complicated. Read that again. To run further and faster, you don't need to follow a high-fat, low-carb diet—or a low-fat, high-carb one. You don't need to break up with sugar. To fuel smarter, just balance the meal on your plate with a fool-proof formula featuring protein, carbs and healthy fats.
"Think of it as one or two palm-sized portions of protein, like poultry and fish, or beans and tofu if you're plant-based; one or two fist-sized portions of vegetables, trying to get a wide variety of colours; one or two handfuls of carbs, like fruits and whole grains; and one or two thumb-sized portions of healthy fats, like avocado, nuts and olive oil", says Ryan Maciel, RD, the head performance-nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition. Follow this combo at meals and you'll give your body what it needs to perform and recover at its best, says Maciel.
When you can, he says, choose whole foods, which tend to be more nutrient-dense and filling than processed ones. That means an orange instead of orange juice and whole grains versus white bread or white rice.
2. Get on Board with the Big Three
All runners need good carbs, protein and healthy fats (called macronutrients) in their diet for performance and recovery. Here's why:
Carbohydrates—or glucose, which is stored in the body as glycogen—are crucial for runners because they're the most easily accessible source of energy. While your body can use protein and fat for fuel, it's harder and takes longer to do. That's why if you don't have enough glycogen stores during a tough workout, your body can actually start breaking down muscle (just guessing that's something you'd like to avoid). Some of your best bets for nutrient-rich carbs include sweet potatoes and other starchy vegetables, whole grains and fruit.
"If you're running and exercising consistently, each day you should ideally consume about 1 gram of protein per 453 grams of bodyweight".
PhD, Nike Performance Council Member
Protein is also majorly important because you just can't build muscle without it. "If you're running and exercising consistently, each day you should ideally consume about 1 gram of protein per 453 grams of bodyweight", says John Berardi, PhD, the co-founder of Precision Nutrition and a Nike Performance Council member. That protein can come from animal sources, such as chicken, turkey, fish, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs, lean beef and pork. Or it can come from plant sources, such as nuts, seeds, lentils, beans, tofu, edamame, tempeh and nutritional yeast.
Fat gets a bad rap, but it's an important nutrient for athletes, especially runners. "Healthy fats can slow digestion, which helps maintain blood glucose and insulin levels", says Maciel. This translates to less crashing on long runs and steady energy throughout all your workouts. Yes, please. "Plus, they can help reduce inflammation and possibly muscle soreness as well", adds Maciel. That means you can recover faster and feel better for your next run. For good sources of fat, look to avocados, nuts, olive oil and oily fish like salmon and sardines.
3. Pay Attention to Your Body, Not Calories
Most runners don't need to focus on calorie counts to be well-fuelled. Believe it or not, knowing whether you're eating enough or too much is generally straightforward. "If you're maintaining your weight while running, you're getting enough calories", says Maciel. "If you're losing or gaining weight and you don't want to, then you might need to increase or decrease the amount of food you're taking in".
More important than any number on a package or scale is how your body feels and performs, says Maciel. If you're eating too much, you'll likely feel sluggish. And if you're not getting enough to eat, you may not feel like you have enough energy during workouts. Listen to your body, and let its cues guide how you stack your plate.
4. Choose Real Food Over Supplements
Protein powders, fish oil, amino acids, collagen and other supplements are often touted as nutritional magic bullets. While some could be helpful to runners, Maciel says there's an easier way to nourish your body. "If you're eating a well-balanced diet and you're getting enough calories, you should be able to meet all of your nutritional needs without taking supplements", he says. (One exception he calls out: Vegans may need to consider supplementing certain nutrients such as vitamin B12 and vitamin D, which tend to come from animal-based products.)
FYI: Dietary supplements are not regulated by the FDA for safety and effectiveness, and you might experience unwanted side effects from taking them. Chat with your doc before taking one, especially if you're on other meds.
5. Hydrate. Seriously, Though.
Getting enough water is a health rec that's easy to shrug off. After all, if you're thirsty, you drink, right? But for runners, hydration is a bit more complex than that.
As you sweat, you lose electrolytes and fluids that your body needs to function properly. This can happen quickly, and if you aren't replacing what's lost, you could be asking for trouble, says Brian St. Pierre, RD, the director of nutrition for Precision Nutrition. "One of the main causes for why people get injured athletically, regardless of sport, is dehydration and fatigue", he says. "If you can maintain hydration, you significantly reduce your risk of injury". (Research suggests dehydration could lower muscular endurance, upping your chances of a sprain or strain.)
To stay amped up and running strong, you need to keep your water reserves high before, during and after workouts. "Your body can't adapt to dehydration", says St. Pierre, "so to maximise your performance, your goal is to always be hydrated".
A good guideline for runners: Down 12 to 16 230ml glasses of water per day, especially on warm days when you're going to be exercising outside, says Maciel. If you're having trouble tossing back that much, you can eat more fruits and vegetables that contain large amounts of water, which can help up your fluid intake, adds St. Pierre.
Bring a water bottle with you on any run longer than 15 minutes, says Maciel, and take a few sips every 15 to 20 minutes. If you plan on pounding the pavement for more than 90 minutes, he recommends bringing a sports drink to restock electrolytes like sodium and potassium that you sweat out. On race day, take a swig of something every time you pass an aid station, even if it's just a tiny bit of water.
Speaking of race day, focus on staying well hydrated for the week leading up to it to keep fluid levels high. Waiting until the night before—or, worse, the day of—to drink more water isn't going to do much to reverse the performance-zapping effects dehydration may have had on your training up until that point, says Maciel.
Finally, don't forget to rehydrate after you complete a run or race. One way St. Pierre says you can help ensure you've replaced the fluids you've lost is to weigh yourself before a run, then again afterwards. The difference is roughly the amount you should aim to drink so you're ready to go for your next workout.
6. Fuel (and Refuel) Each Run
Proper nutrition can help prevent a lot of a runner's worst nightmares, like bonking, stomach issues (been there, done that) and fatigue. That's especially true for eating before a run.
"For most training sessions, your pre-workout nutrition is easy. You can either have a normal meal a few hours before you exercise, or you can have a smaller meal at least 30 minutes before you start your workout", says Berardi. Experiment with these options and do what works best for you. In any case, you need to eat something, because if you go into a run on an empty stomach, you could experience symptoms of hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) thanks to the lack of glucose, says Maciel. These range from an increased heart rate, fatigue, light-headedness and blurred vision to loss of consciousness.
How you refuel post-run matters too. "If you don't eat anything within two hours after your run, it could slow your recovery and negatively affect your next-day performance", says Berardi. If you don't feel hungry for a legit meal within an hour or so of completing a run, a post-workout smoothie or snack that includes carbs, protein and fat can tide you over, says Maciel.
7. Eat for the Long Run
Sure, endurance and stamina come from training, but nutrition plays a key role too.
During long, steady-state runs, you're working off some of your body's stored fuel, or glycogen, as well as the fuel you provided it right before and during the run, explains Maciel. Your body can store only a finite amount of glycogen, though—enough to power about two hours of exercise. When that begins to run low or gets used up, you won't be able to keep your pace (this is known as "hitting the wall").
That's why you always want to start a long run with your glycogen stores full and bring nutrition aids with you to top them off. "Extra fuel, like gels, chews or drinks, helps you preserve as much muscle glycogen as you can. That's going to keep you going and performing at your highest level" instead of losing steam mile after mile, says Maciel.
8. Fine-Tune Race-Day Nutrition
Runners have an age-old adage: "Nothing new on race day". This is especially true for nutrition—no one wants to feel slow or get stuck in the Portaloo when they're trying to PR. The only way to know what will be best for your body during an event is to test foods, drinks and gels or chews during your training sessions.
On race day, you want to eat and drink the exact same way you've successfully fuelled for the majority of your runs, says Maciel. Try mirroring your race-day schedule a few times during training to help you figure out what works best for you. Long runs are great for this, because they often last about the same amount of time as a race does.
Not sure where to begin? Maciel recommends eating a balanced meal two to three hours before a race (shoot for a nutrient ratio of more than half carbs, a quarter protein and the rest fat). If you don't want to get up that early, eat a mini version of this meal an hour before you start running. Even better if it's in liquid form, like a shake, so you can more easily digest the food.
Remember, these eating tips are just that—tips—meaning that if one doesn't work for you, then kick it to the kerb. As long as you're getting out there and feeling good, you're doing this whole running-nutrition thing right.
Words: Ashley Mateo
Illustration: Kezia Gabriella