10 Rules of Nutrition for Runners

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We’ve devised our top rules of nutrition for runners, to help guide you through how best to fuel your running!

As runners, our nutrition can really influence a whole bunch of factors – our performance, our recovery, our mood, our energy levels – it’s a core part of your non-running lifestyle.

Knowing what to eat, when to eat it, and how much to eat is also important – all of these play an important role in our nutrition game!

So let’s jump in with our 10 Rules of Nutrition for Runners!

P.S. you can grab our FREE marathon training meal plans at the end!

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Rule #1: Eat Real Food 80% of the Time

As a runner, it’s sometimes a thought that you can survive on anything.

Since you are running so much and burning so many calories, it really doesn’t matter what you are eating. However, this is a fast track to DECREASING your running performance.

You may be thinking that it’s just food.

However, that food is what carries nutrients to your body – which affects how you feel, how you run, and your energy levels.

It’s important that you work to have 80% of the food you eat come from something real.

Now, when saying real, this means food that is minimally processed.

It’s important that we get back to eating vegetables, lean meats, fruits, and unprocessed grains.

You know, how it used to be done!

This will help you to improve your performance in running by actually providing your body with the vitamins and minerals you need to operate well.

And hey, there is the 20% left in there for those other foods you enjoy!

Life is about fun as well.

Rule #2: Understand the Fuel that Running Needs

The human body can use various things for energy.

However, it prefers glycogen when running.

Glycogen is just stored glucose that came from some source of carbohydrate that you have consumed.

This type of fuel can go quickly though. It’s also important that you have enough for your run, otherwise, you are going to be very low on energy and not be able to perform at a high level.

Or worse, you could even become intensely fatigued, leading to injury.

So, it is obvious that your fuel needs are high.

You need to make sure that you are consuming the right amount of carbohydrates so that you can get those glycogen stores elevated.

Around 2-2.3g of carbohydrate per pound of body weight would be plenty to sustain a long run.

If this sounds like a lot to you, then you probably haven’t been fueling enough!

Get those carbs in and make sure you are fueling the machine properly.

Related: carb loading for runners

Rule #3: Eat for Recovery

We just talked about eating for fuel – but we also need to eat for recovery!

We know that any sort of physical activity can put some strain on the body.

Therefore, we have to make sure to be putting food in that is going to help heal the damage.

Your priority, along with the carbs, is going to be protein.

Depending on your level of intensity, protein needs may vary.

The best time to eat for recovery is the 45-60 minute window after you finish a run.

This is an opportune time to get in some high-quality protein such as whey, lean meats, or fish.

In addition, the entire day should have some meals based around a protein source.

This will ensure that you are eating to recover.

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Rule #4: Intra-Workout Nutrition

You may have used gel packets that contain carbohydrates in the gel form.

These are great for a quick dose of easy to digest carbs. They become ready to use very quickly and can aid in running performance. This is referred to as Intra-Workout Nutrition.

It’s simple – you are just making sure to get some fuel for the body during your activity. This is beneficial in the sense that the body is burning up fuel QUICKLY. When we take time to get in some extra energy, the body can pull from that source and keep going.

Rule #5: Keep Hydration in Check

This one may vary depending on what climate you live in. Obviously, if you live in a more humid or tropical place, you are going to sweat more. This is going to make hydration even more important.

Regardless, it is important that runners keep their hydration levels in check.

This means making sure that the body has enough water, but also electrolytes. These are nutrients such as sodium, potassium, and calcium. They help to control some processes in the body and even to hydrate the body.

You can get them from your food, or you can take an electrolyte supplement. Something such as Gatorade would work but is higher in sugars. There are plenty of other options on the market that work just as well, if not better.

Keep in mind that your sweat lost, is fluid and electrolytes that you have to replace.

Runner’s performance will dramatically drop if hydration becomes an issue.

Rule #6: Don’t Eat Right Before a Run

Often, we can get caught up in our busy lives.

This leads us to rush around and really just get food when we can. Behavior like this can lead to a meal getting scarfed down right before a run.

Running with a full stomach is not fun, and your performance may suffer.

The food sits on your stomach and feels like it may come back up.

It doesn’t feel good, but it also isn’t good for your digestion.

Digestion works best when we are at rest.

It can take time to get the most from your food and really break things down. When we start off on a high-intensity run right after eating, the body is going to be more focused on the act of running. This can lead to some gastro-intestinal issues, and a lot of discomfort.

To avoid this, try keeping big meals at least two hours away from your runs.

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Rule #7: Don’t Run on an Empty Stomach

In the previous rule we stated that you shouldn’t eat right before your run. However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t eat prior.

Running on an empty stomach, especially if it is an intense run, won’t hold over well.

It will lower your performance, make you fatigued, and could even make you sick. We have to make sure that there is fuel in the tank for the runs.

Here’s our guidelines for What To Eat Before Running !

Rule #8: Use Branched-Chain Amino Acids

This may be a supplement that you are familiar with. If not, it’ll be a great addition.

Branched Chain Amino Acids – or BCAAs – are the building blocks of protein. When we consume whole protein, it gets broken down into BCAAs in the body, and they are used to heal tissues along with a ton of other things.

They can be very beneficial for your recovery and maintaining muscle mass. As a runner, you can pull from muscle stores for energy, especially if you are going on very long runs (marathons, ultra-distance).

This may lead to you losing some of that lean muscle mass.

Now, as a runner it is probably not your goal to be very muscular.

However, you want to maintain some of it to increase your strength as you run.

BCAA’s can help the body maintain that muscle, while still performing at that same level.

So, give them a try and add them in.

They are best used as an intra-workout supplement and can be taken mixed into your water.  

Related: Ultramarathon Nutrition Guide: What to eat before, during, after an Ultra

Rule #9: Make a Plan

Failure to plan, is often failure to succeed.

This is a quote that holds a ton of truth. We have to plan for our day if we hope to properly fuel the body and be primed for our runs.

This doesn’t have to be anything crazy or over the top, yet you should put some priority to it.

It can be as simple as planning out a couple of your meals for the day, or even your pre-run nutrition.

By doing so, there will be less ambiguity going into your day. You will know that you have a routine or plan to follow, thus leading to some controlled performance increases.

We can’t control everything, but we can exercise control over the things we are allowed to.

If you need to, work with a dietitian or nutritionist to come up with the best plan of action for you.

Related: Pre-Run Routine: What To Do Before A Run + 10 Activation Exercises

Rule #10: Keep Things Constant

Let’s say you have a big race coming up. You’ve followed everything to a “T”, but all of the sudden you decide that you are going to switch things up for this race. Not a good idea.

You see, if you change the variables that have been leading to your current performance, there is no telling what may happen.

It could go without any issue; however, you could mess up your stomach or change the conditions just enough to not have enough energy.

So, as a STRONG rule, make sure that if you follow a plan you don’t change it on a whim. You wouldn’t change your cat’s food all in one day. They may get sick. You would gradually implement those changes and see what happens. You should treat your nutrition the same when running.

Get Our Free Marathon Training Meal Plans

Looking for some recipe inspiration, and a meal plan to guide you through your run training?

Grab a copy of our meal plans below!

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Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and playing with his two tiny kids. More at his bio.

2 thoughts on “10 Rules of Nutrition for Runners”

  1. I just wanted to thank you for having a ton of free resources on your website. I just came across your site today as I am starting my marathon training for my first one in October! Thank you for all that you do 🙂


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