8 Healthy-Eating Tips for Runners
By Nike Running
Follow these simple guidelines and you’ll be properly fueled for every run.
Improving your diet doesn't require sweeping changes or rigid rules. These small steps can help you fine-tune your nutrition to better prepare you for all of your training goals.
Here’s the thing: There is no perfect performance-enhancing diet for runners. What works for one runner, elite or beginner, won’t necessarily work for you.
That may sound unhelpful or frustrating. But what this really means is that there are no rigid rules you must follow to eat well for your sport. Instead, you can use the simple improvements below to design your ideal way to eat. And that’s pretty delicious.
01. Don’t Overthink What You Eat
Running nutrition doesn’t have to be complicated. To run farther 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 obsess over macronutrients or give up sugar. To fuel smarter, simply balance the meal on your plate.
“Think of it as one to 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 veggies, trying to get a wide variety of colors; 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.
To fuel smarter, simply balance the meal on your plate.
For extra credit, he says, choose a whole food over one that’s been processed when you can. That means an orange instead of orange juice and whole grains versus white bread or white rice. In most cases, whole foods are more nutrient-dense and satiating.
02. Respect Good Carbs, Protein, and Fats
Here’s why all runners need these macronutrients in their diet for performance and recovery.
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, 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.
Protein is also important, because you can’t build muscle without it. “If you're running and exercising consistently, each day you should ideally consume up to 1 gram of protein per pound 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.
All runners need these macronutrients in their diet for performance and recovery.
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 bonking on long runs and steady energy throughout all your workouts. “Plus, they can help reduce inflammation and possibly muscle soreness as well,” Maciel adds. That means you recover faster and can feel better for your next run. For good sources of fat, look to avocados, nuts, olive oil, and oily fish like salmon and sardines.
03. Pay Attention to Your Body, Not Calories
Most runners don’t need to focus on calorie counts to be well-fueled. In fact, 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.”
Listen to your body, and let its cues guide how you fill your plate.
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 fill your plate.
04. Prioritize Healthy Food Over Supplements
Trendy supplements like protein powders, fish oil, amino acids, and collagen are often touted as nutritional magic bullets. While some could be beneficial 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, vitamin B12 and vitamin D, which tend to come from animal-based products.)
“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.”
Ryan Maciel, Precision Nutrition Head Performance Nutrition Coach
It’s important to remember that dietary supplements are not regulated by the FDA for safety and effectiveness, and you may experience unwanted side effects from taking them. Consult with your doctor before taking any supplement, especially if you’re on other medications.
05. Take Hydration Seriously
Getting enough water is a health recommendation that’s easy to shrug off. After all, if you’re thirsty, you drink, right? But for runners, hydration is more complicated than that.
“To maximize your performance, your goal is to always be hydrated.”
Brian St. Pierre, Precision Nutrition Director of Nutrition
As you sweat, you lose electrolytes and fluids that your body needs to function properly. This can happen quickly, and if you aren’t replenishing what’s lost, there can be repercussions, 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,” says St. Pierre. “If you can maintain hydration, you significantly reduce your risk of injury.”
To stay energized 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 maximize your performance, your goal is to always be hydrated.”
A good rule of thumb for athletes is to drink 12 to 16 eight-ounce glasses of water per day, especially on days when you’re going to be exercising outside, says Maciel. (Including plenty of fruits and vegetables, which contain large amounts of water, in your diet also helps raise your fluid intake, adds St. Pierre.)
Have a long run or race coming up? 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 mitigate the performance-reducing effects dehydration may have had on your training up until that point, Maciel points out.
During a run, bring a water bottle with you, Maciel says, 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; these contain electrolytes like sodium and potassium that you lose through sweat. In a race, stay on top of your hydration by taking a swig of something every time you pass an aid station, even if it’s just a tiny bit of water.
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 afterward. The difference is roughly the amount you should aim to drink so you’re hydrated for your next workout.
06. Fuel (and Refuel) Each Run
Proper nutrition can help prevent a lot of running’s worst scenarios, like bonking, stomach issues, 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 scenarios and do what works best for you.
If you go into a run on an empty stomach, you may experience symptoms of hypoglycemia, also known as low blood sugar, says Maciel. These range from an increased heart rate, fatigue, lightheadedness, and blurred vision to loss of consciousness. (A quick science lesson to help explain this: Sugar, or glucose, comes from carbs. Glucose is stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen, and when you exercise, it’s released for fuel. The food that you eat before your run provides your body with an immediate fuel source to use before you tap into your limited glycogen stores.)
“You really just have to find what works for you.”
Ryan Maciel, Precision Nutrition Head Performance Nutrition Coach
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 whole 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.
Exactly how much you eat before or after training often depends on your schedule. Some people like three big meals a day, while others prefer grazing on six small meals throughout the day. “One option isn’t better than the other,” says Maciel. “You really just have to find what works for you.”
07. Eat for the Long Run
Building endurance and stamina comes 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 depleted, you won’t be able to keep up 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 to top them off. “Extra fuel, like gels or 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,” says Maciel, instead of losing steam mile after mile. “You don’t want to just blow through that muscle glycogen in the beginning of a run and then be relying solely on the supplements.”
08. Dial In Race-Day Nutrition
Runners have an age-old adage: “Nothing new on race day.” This is especially true for nutrition. The only way to know what will be best for your body during an event is to test foods, drinks, and gels or chews in your training.
On race day, you want to eat and drink the exact same way you’ve successfully fueled 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).