For runners, food is more than nutrition – it is fuel. Before, during, and after your runs, what should you eat? How much water should you drink? If you’re training for a long race – 10K or more – you’re going to have to change how you eat; we’ll show you how.
Table of Contents
Three Simple Food Rules
These tips should guide your eating habits if you are training for a long-distance race.
- Eat More
During marathon training, you burn many more calories than you did before, so you need to replace them. You can use this calculator to get an idea of how much you are burning. It is important to keep in mind, however, that your calorie burn will vary depending on your gender, size, and intensity. Using the rest of this guide, you’ll learn how to replace those calories with nutrient-rich foods.
Have you been thinking about losing weight? It may surprise you to learn that long-distance running is not an effective way to lose weight. Running burns about 100 calories per mile, but that doesn’t mean you’ll lose a pound after 35 miles. Runners’ appetites are increased by running, especially new runners. Runners’ bodies pump out hormones that cause them to crave food to maintain weight homeostasis. You can eat more if you are not trying to lose weight, but if you want to lose weight, you should be aware of how many calories you burn and how many you consume.
Do you have any tips? The body uses fat stores as fuel when running on an empty stomach, so it can help you lose weight.
As you train, watch your calorie intake and read rule #2 if you find the scale creeping higher.
- Fight the Hunger
When training for a marathon, you may feel hungry, a feeling called “runger” in running circles. When you feel hungry all the time, it’s time for a dietary change to ensure you can go longer between meals without feeling hungry.
Consider these questions if hunger is an issue:
- Are you getting enough protein? Carbs have long been considered the holy grail of fast running, but protein stabilizes your blood sugar and keeps you feeling fuller for longer.
- Are you eating enough before a run? An empty stomach can often lead to sluggish workouts and clawing hunger later in the day.
- Are you eating often enough? Try spreading out the same amount of food into five smaller portions if you are hungry after eating three meals. It will help your body maintain stable blood sugar levels and stave off hunger if you consume food steadily. Also, keep a variety of healthy snacks on hand so you don’t turn to calorie-laden foods when you are hungry. Consider a handful of nuts, a cup of applesauce, or a banana.
- Try and Try Again
Food is fuel, but we’re not machines. You spend months training for a race to develop your form, your endurance, and also your optimal diet. Throughout your training, experiment with different types of foods and alter their timing little by little to find what works best for you. Once you have that combination, use it on race day.
It can take a lot of trial and error for runners to figure out their ideal diet, but with guidance, the time from trial and error to success can be greatly reduced, says registered dietitian Lauren Antonucci.
To begin, let’s look at how our bodies use different types of food.
The Runner’s Food Pyramid
As a runner, the basic food groups take on a whole new meaning.
Food as Fuel
The same way gasoline powers a car, food powers your body. When you log your miles, the right kind of fuel will help your engine run smoothly. When you consume the wrong fuel, you may experience slower times or digestive discomfort.
It’s time to take a closer look at what’s going on under the hood. Sugar and fat are the primary fuel sources for muscle cells. Raw materials can come from food we eat or from our own bodies.
Dietary carbohydrates are broken down into simple glucose, a form of sugar that powers your cells. Muscles and liver store glucose that is not immediately needed as glycogen, another form of sugar. A runner’s body first pulls sugar from the bloodstream and then taps into stored glycogen as glucose levels fall.
Fat is another raw material that fuels your muscles during endurance exercise. Unlike carbs, diet fat must be broken down into fatty acids and other components before it can be used by the muscles, making it less efficient as a fuel, especially during intense exercise.
The stored body fat, on the other hand, is an excellent fuel source because everyone – even the skinniest runners – has so much of it. Running regularly actually enhances your body’s ability to burn fat as fuel, which is one of the best changes you can make.
Doctor, assistant professor of sports nutrition at the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University, says carbs are like jet fuel for muscles. Carbohydrates are broken down by your body into glucose, which is burned to fuel your movement.
During a run, carbs provide you with immediate energy. Hence, sports drinks and pre-packaged fuels such as goos and gels contain easy-to-digest carbohydrates.
How do I choose the best pre-packaged energy gel? Your options have been reviewed in detail by The Sweethome.
At UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, Doctor, a professor of medicine and director of the Center for Human Nutrition, says you shouldn’t rely solely on sports products for carbs, because your body will not be able to absorb too many carbs at one time. Carbohydrates will instead be converted into fat by your body. In addition to simple carbohydrates like sugars, runners training for long distances should also consume complex carbohydrates, such as pasta, oatmeal, and potatoes.
Doctor recommends endurance athletes get 60 to 65 percent of their calories from carbohydrates (and if you’re wondering about a low carb, high fat diet – we’ll discuss that later).
Before a race, choose “more digestible, quick sources of carbs for energy,” advises chef and co-author Elyse Kopecky. Her book Eat Slow. was written with Olympic marathoner Shalane Flanagan. It’s not the time for whole grain or fiber-enriched foods because they’ll sit in your stomach, which means they won’t get used effectively, and could lead to a race to the restroom. For this reason, instant oatmeal is better than steel cut oats before a race.
Complex carbs can be found in pasta, bread, pretzels, cereals, and dairy products. Sugars found in fruit, sports drinks, goos and gels.
Stored body fat is an important source of energy for endurance exercises. Vitamins are absorbed more efficiently by the body when you consume dietary fat.
Fat is not your enemy. Your body needs a backup source of fuel when it’s depleted of carbs, especially if you’re running long distances. According to Ms. Kopecky, fat also helps you feel full. Typically, processed foods that remove fat replace it with sugar, which makes you hungry.
Fat-rich meals don’t make the best fuel right before a race, since dietary fat is slow to convert into energy.
Consume a mix of saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fats. Coconut oil, butter, red meat, chicken with the skin, and dark meat contain saturated fats. There are polyunsaturated fats in seeds, avocados, and fish. Olive oil, avocados and some nuts contain monounsaturated fats.
It is not a fuel source, but rather a muscle builder or – in the case of runners – a muscle re-builder, re-shaper, and reconditioner.
Running breaks down muscles. Doctor says protein helps your body build muscle to keep running.
According to Doctor, women should consume three ounces (20-25 grams) of protein with each meal as part of a three-meal-a-day diet. It is recommended that men consume four to five ounces (25-30 grams) of protein per meal. A deck of cards is about the size of three ounces of chicken, tofu, or meat.
Protein should also be consumed within 20 minutes after a workout, says doctor. After a workout, protein prolongs the period in which insulin levels increase, which aids in redistributing glycogen back to your muscles.
You can find it in fish, chicken, beef, beans, pork, dairy, eggs, quinoa, soy, barley, and protein powder (such as whey powder).
Fruits & Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are also sources of carbohydrates. Vitamins and minerals are contained in them, as well as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties.
Doctor claims that antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties in fruits and vegetables may ease muscle soreness and limit injuries.
Anytime is a good time to eat it. If you’ve had GI distress while running and/or in long races, limit raw fruits and vegetables 24 to 48 hours before a long run. (Cooked may be better for you.)
You can eat all fresh fruits and vegetables, but if you want to pick the ones that have the strongest anti-inflammatory effect, choose berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries), stone fruits (peaches, plums, cherries), and a variety of vegetables (kale, sweet potatoes, red bell peppers)..)
You can also try some delicious beetroot juice. One study found that cyclists who drank half a liter of beetroot juice before a 2.5-mile or 10-mile time trial were almost 3 percent faster. Each pedal stroke also produced more power.
Time Your Food
It is just as important when you eat as what you eat.
Before a Run
Ms. Antonucci recommends not worrying too much about what you eat before a short run under an hour in length.
Athletes who consume easily digestible carbohydrates an hour before exercising are generally able to work out longer. In the 24 to 48 hours before a run more than an hour in length, limit foods high in fiber, especially cereals with added fiber.
Ms. Antonucci recommends seeing a doctor if you have gastrointestinal distress, even when you aren’t running. As a result of prolonged physical exertion, blood is diverted away from the digestive tract, making digestion even more difficult.
Plan at least one long training run at the same time as the marathon’s start time if you’re training for a marathon. On race day, you can figure out when and what to eat. For example, the New York City Marathon starts late, with runners not arriving until after 11 a.m. Even worse, the New York City Marathon always coincides with the end of daylight saving time, which means that runners start their race at lunchtime. Running this race will require you to eat a larger breakfast or pack more snacks than a race with a 9 a.m. starting time.
During a Run
If your run will last less than 45 minutes, you should only need a bottle of water. Because your body should be able to sustain you for that length of a run without any food, you probably don’t need to bring anything with you. If you are planning a longer run, you should bring some nutrition along the way: carbohydrates and fluids. It is common for sports drinks to contain both.
For your long-run carbohydrate intake, you can also carry pre-packaged sports gels or energy chews. These products are almost all simple carbohydrates, so they’re easy to digest, and they’re designed to be easily carried in a pouch or pocket. Try a banana if you prefer a more natural fuel source. Drink a lot of water when you use solid food as your fuel source to help your body absorb it quickly, says Ms. Antonucci.
You should eat and drink every four miles (or more often if the course is difficult and hilly) if you are new to fueling during a long run. Try eating more often or eating a little more each time if you feel drained, sick or both.
Bring the drink, sports gels, and food you have found to work best on race day. Sports drinks at races may not be exactly what you prefer, and they are often watered-down powder mixes.
After a Run
It doesn’t matter what you eat after a short run, but after a long or intense run, eat immediately. Following intense exercise, insulin levels are high in order to deliver glycogen back to muscle cells. Consuming carbohydrates immediately after a strenuous workout, at a level of at least one gram per kilogram of body weight, is crucial for restoring glycogen you’ve burned and helping your muscles recover. You lose half your ability to replenish that fuel if you wait even a few hours to eat. You should also consume protein to keep your insulin levels high so your muscles can recover more quickly.
What is one of the best post-workout snacks? A chocolate milkshake. You can also try whole-fat yogurt and fruit, a smoothie, or a peanut butter and banana sandwich.
After your post-workout snack, hop in the shower to cool off. While your body is still trying to recover, eat a real meal within two hours.
To quench your thirst, drink. Be careful not to overdo it.
Water consumption is a concern for many runners. What is the best way to stay hydrated during a run? When you are thirsty, drink. When you run, you can carry a water bottle in one hand or plan your route around water fountains.
Check out The Sweethome’s guide on running gear for advice on how to carry your water, from single, handheld bottles to multibottle options.
Are you concerned that you are not drinking enough water? Keep an eye on your sweat rate. Calculate how much fluid you lost by weighing yourself before and after a long run. During your next run, drink that many ounces of fluid.
As the weather changes, so does your sweat rate, so adjust your fluid intake accordingly.
According to Ms. Antonucci, if you didn’t pee during your long run, you should feel the need to use the bathroom within 30 minutes after finishing. You may be dehydrated if you haven’t hydrated during your run.
Too Much Water
There is such a thing as too much drinking. Hyponatremia occurs when someone consumes so much fluid that their bodies cannot eliminate the excess through sweating or urinating. Consequently, water levels rise in the bloodstream and sodium levels, diluted, fall. As a result of osmosis, water is drawn from the blood into the surrounding cells of the body to equalize sodium levels, causing those cells to swell like water balloons. It can be fatal if this process occurs in the brain.
Do not drink bottles of water before running, thinking it will keep you from getting thirsty. It is not possible to prevent cramping or heat-related illnesses by drinking excessive amounts of fluid – those ailments are caused by pushing yourself too hard. Make sure you drink when you feel thirsty and don’t overdo it.
Common Food Myths
Food and running myths debunked.
Myth: You will lose weight when you run.
Running is not a good weight-loss strategy. It is common for people who have just started running to gain weight. Due to a craving for fuel, running will cause your body to release hormones that will increase your appetite.
Keep an eye on your scale if you are concerned about weight gain or trying to lose weight. Keep track of the calories you eat and the ones you burn during your runs if you see your weight tipping higher. Don’t overeat just because you’re exercising more, even though it’s tempting.
Eat three meals filled with protein and carbohydrates throughout the day. Leaving yourself hungry at night and overeating may result from skipping meals.
Keep small, nutritious snacks on hand to stave off cravings – chocolate-covered nuts, an apple or carrots if you find yourself hungry between meals.
Myth: Carb-loading is essential before a race.
Carb-loading is so engrained in running culture that many races organize pasta dinners the night before the big race. A reasonable assumption behind carb-loading is that carbs provide power, and during a race, you need power. You will gain weight if you eat too many carbs because when muscles store glycogen, they also add water – which makes you weigh more.
You can improve your performance by eating a lot of carbs a full day before a race. Before a race, carbs eaten days earlier or for breakfast do not seem to affect performance.
Myth: Low-carb, high-fat diets are a proven way to improve performance.
A low-carb, high-fat diet has recently become popular among serious runners. Instead of using glycogen (which is created from carbs), the body uses fat as its fuel source. The theory goes that with this diet you can run longer without having to replenish your fuel supply because we have more fat stores in our bodies than glycogen. Originally developed for ultramarathoners, this eating plan is now catching on with shorter distance runners as well.
In one study of serious athletes, exercising strenuously in the afternoon, depriving yourself of carbohydrates afterwards, and then training gently the next morning may improve endurance and performance. There is little evidence that this type of diet enhances performance in average athletes, however.
Myth: You can’t run and be vegan.
Scott Jurek, who has won Spartathlon, Hardrock 100, Badwater 135 and Western States 100 and once held the Appalachian Trail thru-hike record, is a vegan ultrarunner, so it is possible. To make sure you are getting enough vitamins and minerals, you need to plan and know your food.
Vegans must be diligent about protein intake, says Nancy Clark, a sports nutrition expert in Massachusetts. You can’t eat a quarter of that tofu cake. It’s important to eat the whole thing. There are plenty of good vegan protein sources. However, it is not as bioavailable as meat. Therefore, you need to have more.”
You should eat one and a third cups of black beans or one and a half cups of chickpeas to replace the protein in three ounces of chicken.
Another concern for vegan (and vegetarian) athletes is vitamin B12 consumption, which is found in animal products.
In endurance athletes, B12 is crucial for red blood cell production, says David C. Nieman, a professor of health and exercise science at Appalachian State University. Iron is another potential problem.
These nutrients can be added to a vegan diet with the foods we discuss below, but if you’re not performing as well as you should on a vegan — or vegetarian — diet, you might need to get your B12 levels and iron levels tested to see if a supplement can help – but don’t just start popping iron pills just because you feel sluggish because you could overdo it.
Include soy, nuts, seeds, legumes, and increase your protein intake. Iron, B12, and protein can also be found in fortified cereals and soy milk.
Myth: You need prepackaged energy products to run.
You can make your own fuel if you dislike goos, gels and sports drinks, prefer less-processed products or just want to save money. Testing and culinary skills are required, but it is possible (and the only option before running fuel became a big business).
In the form of raisins, dates, or dried cherries, nature has created its own energy food. Make your own sports drink with water, salt, and sugar or make energy gels by puréeing bananas, honey, peanut butter, lemon juice, agave nectar, coconut water, and salt. To get you started, we have provided you with two recipes.