Food for Fuel: What to Eat to Power Your Running
No matter how much you love running, you’re not going to make it very far if you’re not fueling yourself properly with the right food.
I can attest to this from experience. Going out for a long-distance run is one of my favorite things in the world, but if I’ve not been nourishing my body the way it needs to be nourished, then I just end up hating the whole experience. I feel lethargic and unmotivated. There’s also the increased risk of cramps and injury.
Are you a new runner who is trying to figure out what and when you should eat to get the most out of running? Well, just as everyone’s body is a little bit different, everyone’s ideal eating pattern is going to be a little bit different, too — so while there are general guidelines you can observe, the best way of eating is the way that makes you feel your best. Listen to your body and adjust your diet accordingly.
Here are some great tips to get you started:
- Don’t let yourself exercise in a completely fasted state. You won’t have the energy you need to perform at your best. Even if you go out for a run when you first wake up in the morning, a light pre-run snack will boost your blood glucose levels and provide your body with the energy it needs.
- What you want are easily digested carbohydrates that will break down quickly. You want to avoid anything greasy or really high in fiber, as these types of foods can slow down digestion and might upset your stomach midway through your run. Food like cereal, toast with a little bit of peanut butter, fruit, or yogurt are all great options.
- Avoid having any big meals right before you run. Digesting a heavy meal means more blood and oxygen is diverted to your stomach and is less available for your muscles. Plus, having a lot of food jostling around inside you won’t feel really good when you’re pounding the pavement. If you’re someone who works out later in the day, wait at least three hours between your most recent big meal and when you go for your run.
- On the other hand, it’s okay to have a snack or a light meal about an hour before your run. Aim for about 15 to 25 grams of carbohydrates from a half-cup (dry) serving of plain oatmeal, a medium-sized banana or apple, or an 8-ounce cup of fat-free yogurt.
- Hydrate! Taking in fluids is just as important as taking in calories.
While you’re running…
Don’t feel compelled to consume any food while you’re running unless you’re going for more than 90 minutes; however, if you’re out for a long-distance run and hit the wall, you can give yourself a pick-me-up with something that’s easy to digest like pretzels, a squeeze tube of yogurt, a banana, or a granola bar. Some runners like to consume energy gels, but bear in mind that they’re highly processed (I bet you can’t pronounce everything on the ingredient list). Even worse, they might upset your stomach.
- After an intense, long-distance run, you have two nutritional priorities: You want carbohydrates to replenish the energy store you’ve depleted, plus a moderate amount of protein for muscle recovery. Emphasis there is on moderate — excess amounts of protein won’t help you build muscles faster or more efficiently.
- Aim for a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of calories from carbohydrates to calories from protein. So if you have a post-workout snack of about 200 calories, about 150 calories should come from carbohydrates and 50 calories should come from protein. Great options include a peanut butter sandwich on whole-wheat bread, granola with almonds, apples with low-fat cheese, or a glass of chocolate milk.
- Don’t stress out over a “window of recovery time,” or the idea that you have to refuel within an hour or within 15 minutes (or whatever window of time you might have heard). Yes, you’ll feel much better if you take in some carbohydrates right away and start raising your blood sugar levels. But your body won’t fail to recover from a workout if you hold off for a few hours.
- If you’ve been sweating a lot, you need sodium in addition to fluids. Sure, you might have heard that consuming a lot of salt is bad for you. But as an active individual who just lost a lot of sodium by sweating, you need it! Take the chance to enjoy something salty like pretzels or pickles.
During race week…
- If you have a big race coming up, you want to make sure you have plenty of energy. Don’t fall for the myth that you can carb-load the night before with a big pasta dinner. A true carb load should begin three days out from your race, and you should aim to increase your carbohydrate consumption while scaling back your fat and protein consumption. If you simply eat more of everything, fats and protein included, you’ll end up feeling bloated and sluggish come race day.
- Stick to as close to a normal eating routine as possible the night before and the morning of the race. Your weeks of training and your past three days of carb loading have prepared you for the race, so there’s no need to overeat at breakfast on race day morning. It could end up giving you digestive upset during the race — and nobody wants that!
In general, DON’T…
Live off junk food. Sure, you’re torching a lot of calories when you run. But that’s not a free pass to eat whatever you want. You might have heard the expression that you can’t out-exercise a bad diet. But more importantly, junk food won’t give you the nutrients you need to perform at your best.
In general, DO…
Eat a variety of healthy foods, including complex carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. Getting a balance of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, as well as all the vitamins and minerals you need, will ensure your body functions properly, recovers from exercise, and grows stronger and faster.