Runners often want to know what they should and shouldn’t be eating to support their training and general health, how much they should be eating, and when they should be eating relative to a run.
Nutrition for runners is arguably just as important as the actual workouts. After all, a runner’s diet influences how the body is fueled for a workout and what nutrient resources are available to recover after a run is over. These both significantly impact energy, performance, strength, injury risk, and health status.
In many ways, optimal nutrition for runners is similar to that of the general population, although runners do have some specific nutritional needs. Therefore, we’ve compiled a guide to the complete runner’s diet, to explain the basics of nutrition for runners.
Don’t let a poor diet derail your body composition goals or progress and performance as a runner. Keep reading for The Complete Runner’s Diet: Nutrition For Runners Explained.
In this guide, we’re going to look at:
- Basic Nutrition for A Runner’s Diet
- What Is the Best Food for Runners?
- Foods To Avoid On A Runner’s Diet
- Nutrition for Runners: Important Micronutrients
- Do Runners Need to Take Nutritional Supplements?
Let’s jump in!
Basic Nutrition for A Runner’s Diet
A runner’s diet should consist of a balance of all three macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) along with micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and water.
While this is no different than a healthy diet for non-runners, runners usually have higher carbohydrate and protein needs relative to the general population, particularly runners training at a high intensity.
Running burns a lot of calories and endurance exercise requires deliberate care to nutrition timing relative to your workouts, so runners who want to maintain or gain weight should focus on energy-dense foods to meet caloric needs.
What Is the Best Food for Runners?
It’s all well and good to talk about nutrition for runners in a general sense, but what should a runner’s diet actually consist of in terms of optimal food for runners?
When it comes to creating the ideal diet for runners, not all foods are created equally. In other words, it’s not enough to focus on getting a good balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat, along with an adequate total caloric intake.
The quality of your diet is paramount to actually meeting your nutritional needs as a runner. Below, we share examples of runner-friendly foods for each of the three macronutrients.
Although many popular diets seem to demonize carbohydrates, carbohydrates are usually considered a key component in nutrition for runners as they are the body’s preferred fuel source during vigorous exercise.
Carbohydrates are generally categorized as either simple carbohydrates or complex carbohydrates.
Simple carbohydrates consist of simple sugars (monosaccharides and disaccharides) like glucose, fructose, maltose, lactose, sucrose, and galactose. They are digested and absorbed very quickly but do not provide sustained energy.
Simple carbohydrates can also spike blood sugar levels and subsequent insulin levels. While this isn’t necessarily ideal for overall health, a runner’s diet should include some simple carbohydrates.
For example, simple carbohydrates are beneficial before and during a workout to top off glycogen stores, when there is neither the time nor blood flow to the digestive system to break down complex starches, fiber, protein, and fat.
Pre-run snacks and running fuel consisting primarily of simple carbohydrates can therefore provide a boost of energy for working muscles without causing digestive distress.
Examples of foods high in simple carbohydrates include fresh and dried fruit, applesauce, refined grains like crackers and white bread, cereals, packaged oatmeal, candy, juice, and sports beverages.
Related: How to Make Homemade Protein Bars: 7 DIY Recipes for Runners
Complex carbohydrates are formed from polysaccharides, which are longer chains of sugar molecules strung together. Often called starches, complex carbohydrates take longer to break down, so they provide more lasting and sustainable energy.
Complex carbohydrates also usually contain fiber, which adds bulk or volume to the diet which increases fullness, aids digestion and promotes bowel regularity, and feeds the beneficial gut bacteria.
The majority of the carbohydrates you eat should be complex carbohydrates. Good sources of complex carbohydrates for runners include whole grains, tubers, and legumes.
Check out these detailed lists of carbohydrate-rich foods:
- Vegetables: Spinach, green beans, kale, artichokes, beets, carrots, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, broccoli, zucchini, cucumbers, onions, cauliflower, radishes, turnips, peppers, cabbage, parsnips, celery, asparagus, bok choy, potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, onions, etc.
- Fruits: Apples, bananas, pears, peaches, passion fruit, oranges, grapefruit, berries, cherries, pineapple, kiwi, kumquats, plums, mangos, star fruit, grapes, nectarines, papaya, melon, guava, clementines, jackfruit, currants, pomegranates, apricots, figs, tomatoes, pumpkin, etc.
- Whole Grains: Whole, unprocessed oats, whole wheat, quinoa, buckwheat, rye, barley, brown rice, quinoa, teff, farro, arameth; pasta, bread, oatmeal, healthy cereals, etc.
- Legumes: Beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, soy, etc.
- Running-Specific Sport Performance Fuel: Energy and protein bars, healthy energy gels, sports drinks, dried fruit, etc.
As long as your body is well-fueled and your runner’s diet plan is generally meeting your nutrition needs, protein isn’t typically oxidized for energy while you run to the degree that carbohydrates and fats are.
However, protein is vital for runners because it helps refuel and repair your muscles after training. When considering optimal nutrition for runners, post-run meals and snacks that contain a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein have been shown to best help your body recover from your workout.
For example, if you are having a 300-calorie snack after a run, aim for about 60 grams of carbohydrates and 15 grams of protein.
Protein sources in a healthy runner’s diet include:
- Fish: Halibut, anchovies, flounder, salmon, sardines, haddock, catfish, mackerel, tuna, bass, trout, tilapia, mahi-mahi, cod, catfish, etc.
- Seafood: Scallops, crab, shrimp, prawns, lobster, crayfish, mussels, squid, oysters, clams, etc.
- Poultry: Turkey, chicken, squab, emu, duck, quail, etc.
- Lean Meat: Lean beef, pork, venison, bison, alligator, etc.
- Legumes: Beans, peas, lentils, etc.
- Soy: Tofu, tempeh, edamame, soybeans, soy milk, etc.
- Low-Fat Dairy: Low-fat milk, cheese, ricotta, yogurt, cottage cheese, kefir, buttermilk, etc.
Whole grains, vegetables, nuts, and seeds also contain some protein, along with other macronutrients.
Healthy fats are also an important component of a runner’s diet. Fat increases satiety and is the body’s preferred fuel source during low-intensity aerobic runs like recovery runs and easy cross-training workouts.
Therefore, if you are doing lots of base-building Zone 2 training, you’ll want to consume a higher percentage of your calories from fat and reduce your carbohydrate intake accordingly.
Fat also provides more calories per gram than carbohydrates and protein, so increasing your intake is a good way to feel fuller on a smaller volume of food. This can be helpful for runners who struggle to meet their caloric needs or want energy-dense fueling options before, during, or after a run.
The following foods are good sources of healthy fats to include in a runner’s diet:
- Nuts and Nut Butter: Almonds, macadamia nuts, pistachios, Brazil nuts, kola nuts, walnuts, cashews, pecans, almond butter, peanut butter, cashew butter, etc.
- Seeds: Squash seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, etc.
- Healthy Oils: Olive oil, flaxseed oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, etc.
- Dark chocolate
Foods to Avoid On A Runner’s Diet
Foods to limit or avoid on a runner’s diet include the following:
- Fast Food: Burgers, anything fried, French fries, breakfast sandwiches with sausage, donuts, chicken nuggets, fast food Chinese, milkshakes, fast food tacos, onion rings, etc.
- Unhealthy fats: Lard, shortening, bacon fat, cream, margarine, trans fats, hydrogenated fats and oils (palm kernel oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil, etc.), half and half, butter in excess, etc.
- Processed meats: Deli meats, sausages, bologna, hot dogs, salami, pepperoni, etc.
- Fatty meats: Veal, bacon, sausage, lamb, etc.
- Sugary foods: Jams, jellies, canned fruit in syrup, processed condiments and sauces, jello, pudding, artificial popsicles, fruit snacks, frosting, etc.
- Sweetened beverages: Sugar-sweetened tea and juice, soda, packaged chocolate milk, blended coffee drinks, frappes, etc.
- Refined grains: Croissants, bread crumbs, cereal bars, biscuits, white bread, white pasta, white bagels, muffins, packaged pizza dough and pie crust, toaster pastries, sugary cereals, etc.
- Snack foods: Packaged chips, pre-made popcorn, breaded snacks, pork rinds, combos, Jiffy pop, tater tots, packaged cookies, toaster pastries, artificial cheese dip, etc.
- Processed sweets: Danishes, cookies, ice cream, brownies, pies, doughnuts, snack cakes, etc.
- Highly-processed protein powders, unless organic and natural
- Frozen Dinners: Unless otherwise natural and healthy, frozen pizza, frozen entrees, frozen prepared lasagna, frozen Chinese foods dishes, frozen pot pies, etc.
- Sauces and Condiments: Mayo, creamy salad dressings, any salad dressing with hydrogenated oils, gravy, sweetened jellies and jams, chocolate syrup, artificial pancake syrup, etc.
- Artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols
- Alcohol in excess
Nutrition for Runners: Important Micronutrients
Micronutrients, which are vitamins and minerals, are also a key factor to consider in a runner’s diet.
In general, if a runner’s diet is balanced, varied, and focuses on whole, minimally-processed foods, including whole grains, vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, legumes, eggs, seeds, nuts, low-fat dairy products, and healthy fats and oils, it should provide an adequate intake of all the essential vitamins and minerals.
Variety is important, particularly when considering vegetables, fruits, and protein sources, as different foods provide different vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and phytonutrients.
Important micronutrients for a runner’s diet include the fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K) and the water-soluble vitamins (B vitamin complex and vitamin C).
Essential minerals for runners include iron, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, chloride, magnesium, zinc, iodine, sulfur, cobalt, copper, fluoride, manganese, and selenium.
Do Runners Need to Take Nutritional Supplements?
Most runners should be able to meet their nutrition needs by consuming a balanced diet.
However, runners with food allergies and intolerances, dietary restrictions, and certain health conditions may need vitamin and minerals supplements, protein powders or bars, and/or omega-3 fatty acid supplements to offset gaps in the diet that may lead to nutritional deficiencies.
For example, vegan runners often struggle to get an adequate dietary intake of vitamin B12, zinc, iron, and omega-3 fats, so supplements can provide nutritional support.
Pre-menopausal female runners sometimes need iron supplements, particularly if they follow a plant-based diet that includes no meat, seafood, or poultry.
Runners who are concerned about their iron levels should speak to their doctor about getting lab tests to assess hemoglobin and ferritin levels.
As a final example, vitamin D supplements may be necessary for runners, particularly those who live in northern latitudes where sun exposure is minimal during the winter.
There it is. A complete guide for a runner’s diet. You now know what to eat, and what not to eat, to help your overall health and performance.
If you would like to check out what to fuel during a run to put together your race strategy, you can check out our Ultramarathon Nutrition Guide.