Running nutrition is a cornerstone of any runner’s performance and lifestyle – nutrition for runners is a huge topic, which deserves an epic post . . . so here it is!
What you eat determines how you run.
You need to eat right to:
- fuel your running
- recover right, in order to perform better tomorrow
- balance your energy and mood, so you’re in the zone to run.
Runners actually need a ton of nutrition support.
Running can be tough on the body, and good runners know how to prioritize recovery. One way to do just that is to put a strong priority on your nutrition.
A balanced diet or nutritional plan will not only improve your running performance, but it can also trickle into other aspects and improve many parts of your life.
Running to get better at running is important, but if you are looking to do this even more efficiently, then nutrition is your answer.
So whether you’re just beginning your running journey, or you’re training for your next marathon, let me walk you through our running nutrition guide – and why nutrition for runners is so important!
Table of Contents
- Why Nutrition Is So Important for Runners
- How Your Body Uses Fuel When Running
- How Your Body Recovers After Running
- Running Nutrition Tips for a Healthy Runner’s Diet
Why Nutrition Is So Important for Runners
No matter what kind of running you are doing, it is important to put some focus on your nutrition.
As I noted above, your nutrition plays three main roles in your life as a runner – for fuel, for recovery, and for a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
Let’s look at these one at a time:
Nutrition for Fuel
As we run, we burn energy.
This is in the form of calories, but also in the form of protein, carbs, and fats.
Like a car, we are constantly burning through these resources.
Also, just like a car, we have to put fuel back in.
When we neglect to fuel the machine, bad things can happen.
We will begin to feel fatigued, sluggish, and generally want to stop . . . the car begins to shut down. If you’ve ever heard of bonking or hitting the wall, this is what we’re talking about.
This ‘running on empty’ feeling usually happens when we burn through all our readily available fuel sources – normally carbs – and the body has to revert to burning more fat for fuel (more on this later).
So how can we ensure we’re properly fuelled for our runs?
We have to do two things:
- Eat carbs before exercise
- If the exercise is over 45-60 long, consider fuelling during the exercise to keep your energy levels topped up.
So, no matter the level of runner you are, you still need fuel to function. This is the baseline nutrition requirement for running.
Nutrition for Recovery
The simple principle behind any kind of strength training is that you put a muscle under load until it’s stressed, then you allow it to heal and recover so it’s stronger and performs better in the future.
The same principle applies to running.
Running puts load on our muscular system. After a taxing run, your leg muscles will be tired and will have a few micro-tears in the muscle mass.
Nutrition plays a key part in the recovery process of these muscles. In the period after a run, your body is fatigued – and also primed for entering recovery mode. A snack or meal which is high in protein and carbs can go a long way in helping your body heal quickly.
Nutrition for Wellbeing and a Balanced Lifestyle
Running and a balanced diet go hand-in-hand.
It’s much harder to sustain a regular running habit if you’re eating a poor diet – your energy levels and mood are often dictated by what you eat, and the poorer the diet the less likely you are to have the energy, enthusiasm, and willpower to go running regularly.
Likewise, have you ever tried running while sick?
It isn’t fun. When we neglect running nutrition, and just kind of go about doing whatever, we miss out on a lot.
We miss tons of micronutrients that can help to build the immune system and keep you healthy. So, if you would like to feel good and be healthy while running, then nutrition is super important.
How Your Body Uses Fuel When Running
As we run, the body acts as furnace burning fuel for energy.
When you consume food, it gets broken down into constituent parts which are then distributed throughout the body. Carbohydrates and fats which are not immediately recruited are stored for later use.
These are the reserves we dip into each time we engage in prolonged activity – and a key element of our running nutrition.
Carbohydrates as a Primary Fuel Source
Carbs are typically our primary fuel source.
The body finds it easy to quickly access and convert our stored carbohydrates into energy to drive us forward as we run.
When following a regular diet, the more intense your rate of exertion, the higher % of your fuel is coming from carbs.
Loading up on carbs is a long-established technique used by runners of all abilities.
It’s why carbo-loading before big races is so popular (ever been to a pasta party the night before a big event?), and why runners tend to carry high-carb energy gels with them as they run.
Carbs are easy and fast to process, and an effective form of fuel.
Fat As a Fuel Source
Our secondary fuel source is the body’s stored fat.
During exercise, we’re almost always burning some amount of fat – the quantity depends on the intensity of the exercise.
We tend to burn the most fat in lower-intensity, longer exercises.
The more intense the exercise, the more the body seeks out quick and easy fuel in the form of carbs.
A molecule of fat contains 9 calories per gram. This is the highest among all other macronutrients (protein, carb, fat).
However, for most of us, the fat-conversion process is not a very efficient process. The body prefers to keep fat stores in reserve for emergencies and isn’t used to fuelling exercise exclusively using fat reserves (which is called ketosis).
When you burn through all your available carbs, the body realizes that it has to burn fat to fuel your workout. However, the body isn’t normally used to this, so it’s an inefficient process – and we suddenly bonk or hit the wall as our energy supply is throttled back.
Runners’ bodies gradually become more effective at burning fat for fuel, which is often why runners carry little body fat.
How Your Body Recovers After Running
Running can take a toll on you. The pounding against the pavement and the increased heart rate for extended periods of time can cause a need for recovery.
The body is actually really well equipped to do this.
However, various things can cause recovery to either slow or speed up.
Running nutrition is one of the things that can determine the rate at which you recover. As you break down the muscles you use protein to repair and recover.
If you aren’t consuming enough protein to do this, it can cause recovery to be slower than normal.
The general rule of thumb for protein is about 0.8g of protein per pound of body weight.
As a runner, the more useful range would to be consuming around 1g of protein daily per pound of body weight.
Remember to consume a good portion of your protein intake within 45-60 minutes ou completing your run.
You also have to replace the glycogen, or carbs, that you used while running.
As you deplete the stores that you had, you have to consume more so that you can run again.
This will ensure that you are well recovered and fueled up for the next run.
Water is extremely important for recovery as well.
As we run, we excrete water in the form of sweat. Without the right amount of water in our system we can become dehydrated.
Dehydration can heighten fatigue and slow down the recovery process.
Drink a tall glass of water after a run, and continue to hydrate for the rest of the day as you feel is necessary.
Feel free to throw in a rehydration salt tablet to speed up the recovery process and replace some of those salts lost through sweat!
Running Nutrition Tips for a Healthy Runner’s Diet
As a runner, you want to eat a healthy diet for fuelling your performance, optimizing your recovery, and maintaining a happy, balanced lifestyle.
Here’s my top nutrition for runners tips:
1. Stick To Whole Foods (As Much As Practical)
Whole foods are foods with minimal processing or refinement before they reach you.
Generally speaking, a runner needs to make sure that they are getting in ample amounts of protein, the right kinds of complex carbs (think sweet potato), and healthy fats such as olive oil.
Consuming whole foods is an easy way to ensure you’re eating the appropriate number of calories needed to maintain a healthy body weight.
Whole foods are generally easier for the body to break down and convert into fuel (compared to highly processed foods, which can be harder to break down and have low nutritional value).
2. Focus on Carbs and Protein
Once you have good habits and a foundation of nutrition built, you can begin to get a little more specific. This will include your macronutrients (protein, carb, fat). Using different combinations, you can fuel your running.
Typically, you are going to want a high protein, high carb diet for running. This will provide the body with plenty of fuel for those long runs. If you are running ultra-long distances, you are going to need even more food for fuel.
If you just casually run for fun or exercise, just make sure that you are consuming enough food to support this activity. Typically, the intensity and length of your running should match up with your intake.
3. Recommended Macronutrient Intake For Runners
For those runners who want to get specific with numbers and quantities, here are some guidelines into the recommended quantities of each macronutrient:
For carbohydrates, aim to eat between 3.5 – 4.5g per pound of body weight each day on intense intense days. For a 120lb runner this equates to 420-540g of carbs per day.
On lighter training days and rest days the goal for carb consumption should be between 3.0 – 3.2g per pound of body weight.
Protein is the next most important macronutrient to help replenish muscle break down.
On training days aim for 0.7 – 1.0g of protein per pound of bodyweight while non-training days should be between 0.5 – 0.7g per pound of body weight.
Fat is the final macro and is needed to help with vitamin storage and hormone production but should be kept around 0.5g per pound of body weight on training and non-training days.
4. Eat a High Carb Snack Before You Go For a Run
Look to consume a snack which has plenty of carbohydrates in the 45-60 minute window before you set off running.
A banana contains 23g of carbs and is a perfect pre-run snack!
5. Eat a Snack or Meal After Your Run
Within an hour of finishing your training session replenish your carb stores by eating a full meal using the macronutrient quantities dicussed above; roughly aim for 1 gram or protein for every 3-4 grams of carbs.