Diet and Nutrition for Runners
Eat Well for Good Health and Running Performance
Christine Luff, About.com Guide
As a runner, your diet is important to maintain good health and to promote peak performance. Proper nutrition and hydration can make or break a workout or race, and greatly affects how runners feel, work and think. A balanced diet for healthy runners should include these essentials: carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals. Here are some basic guidelines for a nutritious, healthy balance:
As a runner, carbohydrates should make up about 60 – 65% of your total calorie intake. Carbs are the best source of energy for athletes. Research has shown that for quick and long-lasting energy, our bodies work more efficiently with carbs than they do with proteins or fats. Whole grain pasta, steamed or boiled rice, potatoes, fruits, starchy vegetables, and whole grain breads are good carb sources.
Protein is used 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% – 20% of your daily intake. Runners, especially those running long distances, should consume .5 to .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.
A high fat diet can quickly pack on the pounds, so try to make sure that no more than 20 – 25% of your total diet comes from fats. Stick to foods low in saturated fats and cholesterol. Foods such as nuts, oils, and cold-water fish provide essential fats called omega-3s, which are vital for good health and can help prevent certain diseases. Most experts recommend getting about 3,000 mg of omega-3 fat a day.
Runners don’t get energy from vitamins, but they are still an important part of their diet. Exercise may produce compounds called free radicals, which can damage cells. Vitamins C, E, and A are antioxidants and can neutralize free radicals. Getting your vitamins from whole foods is preferable to supplements; there’s no strong evidence that taking supplements improves health or athletic performance.
calcium-rich diet is essential for runners to prevent osteoporosis and stress fractures. Good sources of calcium include low-fat dairy products, calcium-fortified juices, dark leafy vegetables, beans, and eggs. Your goal should be 1,000 to 1,300 mg of calcium per day.
Iron: You need this nutrient to deliver oxygen to your cells. If you have an iron-poor diet, you’ll feel weak and fatigued, especially when you run. Men should aim for 8 mg
of iron a day, and women need 18 mg. Good natural sources of iron include lean meats, leafy green vegetables, nuts, shrimp, and scallops.
Sodium and other electrolytes: Small amounts of sodium and other electrolytes are lost through sweat during exercise. Usually, electrolytes are replaced if you follow a balanced diet. But if you find yourself craving salty foods, it may be your body’s way of telling you to get more sodium. Try drinking a sports drink or eating some pretzels after exercise. If you’re running longer than 90 minutes, then you should need to replace some of the electrolytes you’re losing through sweat by drinking sports drinks or taking in salt during your runs.
Question: Should I Eat Before a Run?
Answer: When you begin a run, you should feel neither starved nor stuffed. You don’t want to eat immediately before running because it may lead to cramping or side
stitches. Running on an empty stomach may cause you to run out of energy. Your best bet is to eat a snack or light meal about 1 1/2 to 2 hours before you start running.
Choose something high in carbohydrates and lower in fat, fiber, and protein. Some examples of good pre-workout fuel include: a bagel with peanut butter; turkey and cheese on whole wheat bread; a banana and an energy bar; or a bowl of cold cereal with a cup of milk. Stay away from rich, very fatty, or high-fiber foods, as they may
cause gastrointestinal distress .
Question: Do I Need to Eat During My Runs?
Answer: When you run for under 90 minutes, most of your energy comes from stored muscle glycogen. If you’re running for longer than 90 minutes, the sugar in your blood and liver glycogen become more important because your stored muscle glycogen gets depleted. Fueling with carbs during your longer runs will prevent you from running out of energy and help boost your performance. One way to get carbs on the run is through sports drinks. Solid foods can be tolerated, but they need to be small and easy to digest. There are numerous products on the market, such as energy gels, bars, and even sports jelly beans, designed for long-distance runners to eat on the run. Some runners prefer to eat pretzels or sugary candy such as gummy bears or candy corn. Start experimenting with different foods, gels, and bars on your long runs to see what you prefer.
So how much do you need to eat on the run? A basic rule of thumb is that you should be taking in about 100 calories after about an hour of running and then another 100 calories every 40-45 minutes after that. You may need more depending on your size and speed, so make sure you carry an extra one or two gels (or other food).
Question: What Should I Eat After a Run? Do I need to eat something after a run?
Answer: 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 30 minutes after exercise. If you eat soon after your workout, you can minimize muscle stiffness and soreness.
You’ll want to consume primarily carbs, but don’t ignore protein. A good rule of thumb for post-run food is a ratio of 1 gram of protein to 3 grams of carbs. Nutrition bars, such as Clif bars or Power bars, are healthy options. Other examples would be a bagel with peanut butter or a smoothie made with fruit and yogurt.
If you feel like you can’t stomach solid food immediately after a run, try drinking some chocolate milk. Chocolate milk provides plenty of protein, carbohydrates
and B vitamins —- making it a great recovery drink. And cold chocolate milk tastes pretty refreshing after a run.
Don’t forget to rehydrate with water or a sports drink after your run. If your urine is dark yellow after your run, you need to keep rehydrating. It should be a light lemonade color.