Fueling your body is important for everyday life. If you are active, it’s even more important that you are adequately replenishing your energy stores with the right nutrients at the right time. If you are a runner, you have likely experienced “good” runs and “bad” runs. First of all, I don’t believe there is ever a “bad” run for the armature runner. If you chose to get up and move your body in a healthy way that’s a win! Some runs may feel better than others. One day you may feel like you can run for miles and other days it’s hard to get through the first mile. There are a lot of factors that come into play when that happens. Stress, sleep, hydration, environment, and the topic of this blog post, nutrition all affect how you perform during a run. If you are a professional athlete your needs will be different than an amateur runner. There are, however, basic nutrition concepts that will improve your overall performance regardless of your running level. What you eat matters, it’s not the only thing but it’s very important.
To move your body, you need a steady source of energy. If you are active you need to match your energy (calorie) intake with how much energy you are expending. Carbohydrates are a macronutrient that is made out of sugars linked together. It’s your body’s main source of energy. Glucose, which comes from carbohydrates, is the brain’s energy source (1). There are two main types of carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are made out of monosaccharides and disaccharides (small carbs) that are found in milk, fruits, processed foods, table sugars, candies, and other sugary drinks. Complex carbohydrates consist of oligosaccharides and polysaccharides (big carbs) that are found in foods like vegetables, peas, beans, and whole grains. Fiber is also a form of complex carbohydrates that the body doesn’t break down, it helps with digestion. When you eat carbohydrates, they are broken down into simple sugar molecules, like glucose, and digested primarily in the small intestines and absorbed into the bloodstream. Glucose is stored as liver and muscle glycogen (1). When you are active the glucose that is stored in your liver and that is already in your bloodstream is used for energy and to maintain your blood sugar (glucose) levels.
If you will be running or exercising for more than an hour aim to get some carbs in through foods such as an English muffin with jelly, a banana with nut butter, yogurt, dried fruit, dates, gram crackers, granola, bread with honey, and applesauce. You can customize this to what you like but make sure you aren’t taking in too much or too little. Excess calories may cause weight gain and too little will mean you don’t have enough to utilize for your run.
For post-run/exercise try to get in both simple and complex carbs as soon as possible. Simple carbs are important for your cells and muscles to have access to quick energy to promote growth. Complex carbs take longer to digest, they help keep you sustained and prevent sharp spikes and drops in blood sugar. If you are exercising for more than 90 minutes, try to eat carbs within at least 2 hours (2). Good sources of carbs after a run include but are not limited to oats, walnuts, yogurt, berries, whole wheat bread, and cottage cheese with fruit.
Protein is found everywhere in your body. It’s in your muscles, skin, hair, and bones. Proteins drive enzymatic reactions and metabolic processes. Protein is not a significant contributor to fuel during exercise; however, muscle breakdown does occur and can be used as a source of fuel (3). When you run the first source of energy used is from carbohydrates. If you deplete your carbohydrate energy source protein will be used as energy. Ideally, you want to use glucose as your first energy source and not protein. Protein is important for muscle growth and repair of damaged tissue from exercising. Eating protein before a run is good but make sure you combine it with carbs. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that the average person needs a dietary reference intake (DRI) of 0.8 g/kg of protein to prevent muscle loss (3). For professional/endurance runners needs increase. There is no need to excessively take in more than the recommended amount of protein for your exercise level. Excess protein will not promote muscle growth (2). If you are taking in enough calories to maintain weight, you are likely consuming enough protein.
Healthy fat is part of a balanced diet and should never be eliminated from the. The recommended amount of fat for professional/endurance athletes does not differ much from what is recommended for non-athletes. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommend that 20-35% of caloric intake should come from dietary fat for the average adult (3). Essential fatty acids such as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) are healthy fats that should be incorporated into the diet. Good sources include “fatty fish” such as salmon and tuna, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, avocado, flaxseeds, and avocado/olive oils (4).
The key is to make sure you are properly fueled for your run. Adequate hydration throughout the day along with proper fueling from nutrition allows you to reach your fitness goals. The proper pre-run fuel allows you to feel energized during your run while utilizing energy properly. Post-run nutrition allows you to recover from your workout and build strength for future exercises. With proper nutrition, hydration, and rest endurance improves and so does the quality of your running.
- Cermak NM, van Loon LJ. The use of carbohydrates during exercise as an ergogenic aid. Sports Med. 2013 Nov;43(11):1139-55. doi: 10.1007/s40279-013-0079-0. PMID: 23846824.
- Nutrition and athletic performance: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002458.htm. Updated 2021. Accessed April 14, 2021.
- Pramuková B, Szabadosová V, Soltésová A. Current knowledge about sports nutrition. Australas Med J. 2011;4(3):107-110. doi:10.4066/AMJ.2011.520
- Fueling strategies for distance runners. Mayo Clinic Health System. https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/fueling-strategies-for-distance-runners. Published June 5, 2018. Accessed April 14, 2021.