Give "Fast Food" a Whole New Meaning
With the right menu, you can fuel every run and recover faster for the next one. Here's what's on it.
Eat smart, run well. This isn't an oversimplification.
"The crux of a good training diet is that you have fuel for your workout stored in your body, and that you refuel to help your body recover from the workouts that you do", says Monique Ryan, RDN, a sports nutritionist who advises professional endurance athletes and teams. Look at it that way and you are always fuelling for your next run.
What an Ideal Plate Looks Like
When and what you eat depends on a lot of factors, like how long you're running for and how hard you're pushing yourself. But overall, your day-to-day diet should look relatively the same.
Runners (and other endurance athletes, FWIW) should get more than half of their calories from carbohydrates, a quarter from protein and the rest from fat, says Ryan Maciel, RD, the head performance-nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition. For carbs, choose nutrient-dense sources like sweet potatoes and other starchy vegetables and whole grains. Protein can come from animal or plant sources: chicken, fish, yoghurt, eggs, seeds, beans and tofu. And good sources of fat include avocados, nuts and olive oil.
Why this particular nutrient breakdown? When you run, you burn a mix of carbs and fat, explains Ryan, and "the more intense or longer your run, the more carbs you'll need". Carbs are stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen and released as glucose, your body's most easily accessible source of energy. Use up those glycogen stores and you're going to hit a wall sooner rather than later, she says. Fat, meanwhile, can fuel you, but because it's stored primarily in your adipose tissue as well as your muscle tissue, it takes your body more time and energy to convert it into fuel.
A combo of carbs and fat plus that third macronutrient, protein, is critical after your run. "Protein helps with muscle repair and rebuilding, and carbohydrates are going to replenish the glycogen stores you just burnt through", says Ryan. Together, those nutrients kick-start the recovery process.
Now that we got that out of the way, here's how to apply that nutrition know-how before, during and after your run.
How to Fuel Up Before a Run
Eat a well-balanced meal—ticking off the macronutrient breakdown above—within three hours of starting your run, says Maciel, and you likely won't need additional food. (Sorry, snackers.)
As for what that meal should be, experiment with what works best for your stomach within those carb, fat and protein parameters. Unless you want to be, uh, interrupted during your run, you'll probably want to avoid eating high-fat and fibre-rich foods, like a cheeseburger or beans, as those can do a number on your gut.
If you're hungry within an hour of heading out for a run and you'll be going for 75 minutes or longer, an easily digestible mini-meal is your best bet, says Maciel. "We generally recommend something liquid at this point, like a shake or smoothie, that contains protein, carbs and a small amount of fat", he says. You want to include a good source of complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains. These take longer for your body to break down, which means the fuel should hit your bloodstream during your run, right when you need the extra oomph. (For a go-to shake, try oats, peanut butter, berries and a little soy or cow's milk. Just don't sip so much you end up stuffed.)
Going for a shorter run? Grab a small, carb-y, low-fibre snack, like a banana (it's a classic for a reason) or a piece of toast with PB.
What to Eat During a Run
OK, moment of truth for those who always stash a snack in their pocket for any run—and to those who never do: If you're running for less than 90 minutes, you don't typically need to eat while you're out there, says Ryan. If you're going longer than that, you definitely do.
For those longer sessions, ideally you'll start with a good meal earlier in the day. This way, you're beginning the run with your glycogen stores topped off, says Ryan. "From there, runners should take in 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour", she adds. Those can come in the form of gels, chews, sports drinks or carb-dense snacks like pretzels. Fuel up this way and your body is able to use not just the glycogen stored in your muscles and liver, but also the additional carbs you're ingesting to keep your tank full.
Pro tip: If you're training for a distance race—say, a half or full marathon—use your weekly long run to experiment with those different carb forms. They don't always sit well, so keep taste testing until you find ones that do.
"The crux of a good training diet is that you have fuel for your workout stored in your body, and that you refuel to help your body recover from the workouts that you do".
RDN, Sports Nutritionist
How to Replenish After a Run
You don't need to down a protein shake the second you kick off your sneaks. To give your muscles the fuel to repair, though, try to eat a snack or meal with protein and carbs within an hour of finishing your run, says Ryan. If you want to hit exact numbers, he says to shoot for 10 to 25 grams of protein, and half a gram of carbs for every pound that you weigh.
Sound complicated? "If you run early in the morning, have a good breakfast. If you run after work, come home and have dinner", says Ryan. "Depending on how you're timing your run, your recovery meal could just be your next meal. You're going to get the appropriate nutrients".
A Quick Note on Carb-Loading
Carbs may be a runner's best friend, but as is the case with most pleasures in life, there can be too much of a good thing. Case in point: carb-loading, an old-time strategy involving, you guessed it, loading up on carbs before a big run to get all the energy you need to perform your best. Considering how important carbs are for fast energy, it makes sense, in theory. But many people do it wrong, says Maciel.
Carb-loading isn't permission to inhale bread bowls before every workout, eat only pasta for dinner every night leading up to your race or live on carbs for a 5K. The approach benefits your body only for runs that last longer than 90 minutes, says Ryan, and there's a specific way to go about it.
Shift the makeup of your meals to 70 to 75 percent carbohydrates (instead of the 50-ish percent of a normal recommended diet), still leaving plenty of room for protein and healthy fat on your plate, a few days before your endurance run. You don't want to devour a bowl of spaghetti the night before a long run or race and risk waking up feeling bloated in the morning, especially if you're not used to that type of dinner. Carb-loading two or three days before your event allows you to eat normally the day before, because your glycogen levels will already be topped off, says Maciel. This way, you wake up hungry for your pre-run meal and energised for your day—not sluggish in all the ways.
So there you have it: three (OK, four, if you want to carb-load for a race) chances to eat smart and run well.
Words: Ashley Mateo
Illustration: Gracia Lam