So you just started running, how does your nutrition factor in?
As a runner there is so much information available that it is often difficult to figure out what things are most important that impact our training, recovery and how we feel in our daily lives. In this article we aim to outline how to think about fueling as a runner, and to make it as clear as possible!
LET’S FIRST THINK MACRO
We can think of our daily requirements in terms of building blocks of carbohydrates, protein, and fats. A general breakdown of daily intake is around 55-65% carbohydrates, 20-25% fats, and 15-20% proteins for most endurance athletes.
Carbohydrates are the preferred source of energy for working muscles. Current guidelines suggest that we consume between 3-10 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight every day. That is a huge range! The reason for this varied range depends on whether you’re exercising at a light, moderate, or hard intensity.
This sounds clear and simple, but in reality, who counts carbs relative to body weight? There is an easier method to make sure you are consuming enough carbohydrates to fuel your workouts. It is called the Plate Method. Pick the plate below that matches your training for each day.
- Easy training day
- ½ plate colorful vegetables
- ¼ plate carbohydrates
- ¼ plate protein
- Moderate training day
- ⅓ plate colorful vegetables
- ⅓ plate carbohydrates
- ⅓ plate protein
- Hard training day or carb load prep
- ¼ plate colorful vegetables
- ½ plate carbohydrates
- ¼ plate protein
Our muscles store energy from carbohydrates in the form of glycogen which is usually sufficient for an exercise duration of 90-120 minutes. Once glycogen is depleted athletes will feel fatigue and experience a drop in performance. Carbohydrates need to be replaced generally after this time at the rate of 30-60 grams/hour for continued performance.
Carbohydrates can be broken down into complex carbohydrates or simple carbohydrates.
For runners a baseline daily intake of complex carbohydrates and use of simple carbs for fuel just prior or during a workout generally works best.
Fiber is very important as it helps to keep us full for longer, keeps our digestive tract healthy, helps lower the “bad” cholesterol to name a few of its benefits. If you are a morning runner, you will want to consume fiber later in the day. On the flip side, if you are an evening runner, consume your fiber much earlier in the day so it doesn’t interrupt your running.
What’s the role of Protein in a Runner’s diet?
As a runner the most optimal intake contains plenty but not excessive protein to build and repair muscle tissue, produce hormones, boost your immune system and help replace red blood cells.
Protein has two different types – complete and incomplete. It is important for building strong bodies, helping develop muscle, and repairing bodily tissues. Complete proteins have the 9 essential amino acids that our body does not produce. Examples of complete protein are: fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products (milk, yogurt, or cheese), beef or pork, soy.
Incomplete proteins are proteins that don’t include all 9 essential amino acids. Examples of incomplete proteins are: nuts, seeds, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes such as lentils, peas, and beans.
If you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, experts recommend you eat a variety of different proteins in the form of nuts, seeds, lentils, and whole grains on a daily basis so that you’re forming complete proteins in your diet through a combination. There are also a few sources of complete proteins that you can get from plants. Among them are quinoa, buckwheat, and hempseed, but you may not get the same amount of protein that you would get from animal sources for the same serving size. It is recommended that vegans consume 10% more protein than the general recommendation, because plant proteins are not as readily digested.
As runners we need slightly more protein than the general population to repair the small amounts of muscle damage that occur with training and to support the building of new muscle tissue.
Fat is needed for a variety of reasons, such as helping the body absorb fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K), hormone regulation, and building tissue membranes. Fats digest slowly so it increases satiety.
About 20-35 percent of your total calories should come from healthy fats such as olive oil, peanut and nut butters, nuts, avocados, flaxseed, salmon, tuna and oily fish.
Now we know the big picture building blocks of what to fuel your body with – Carbs, Proteins, and Fats. Now let’s dig into the details of when to consume these fuels in order to optimize your training.
TIME TO TALK TIMING
Before your Run
Plan to eat your meal 3-4 hours prior to running. Your meal should include quality carbohydrates (such as whole grain toast or overnight oats), and lean protein (such as eggs, peanut butter, or cottage cheese). It is important to keep consistent hydration throughout the day so you are properly hydrated for your run.
Thirty minutes to 1 hour prior to your run, refuel with a quick snack that pairs protein and carbohydrate. Try applesauce and a mozzarella cheese stick, sliced cucumber with hummus, or crackers with peanut butter. Remember to drink 8-12 oz of fluid (water, sports drink) 1-2 hours before your run.
During your Run
You will lose electrolytes, and utilize glycogen and protein during exercise. Replenishing these as best you can will improve your performance and are vital to continue on! Try “quick-acting carbohydrates” such as sports drinks/gels/beans, fruit snacks, or even bars during exercise. Your hydration is individualized depending on how much you sweat, but generally, you want your urine to be pale yellow in color.
After your run
Within 30 minutes of your run it is important to refuel with protein in order to repair and build your muscle tissue (as well as re-energize you). Your post-run snack can be identical to your pre-workout snack (carb/protein pairing). Remember to re-hydrate! You want to take in 16-24 oz of water or sports drink for every pound lost during your run.
2 hours after your run, it’s time to eat! Remember to include your lean protein, quality carbohydrate, and low fiber/fat composition. Try whole wheat pasta, chicken breast, and cooked asparagus mixed with pesto sauce for a quick and delicious meal.
Hydration is dependent upon sweat rate (more on that below!) Average needs are 20-35 ounces of water/sport drink/electrolytes every hour. Sport drinks have 6-8% carbohydrate and can also help replace sodium and potassium. If the run is between 60-90 minutes, hydration can be with water only. For runs over 90 minutes (or if it is hot out), add a sports/electrolyte drink to replace those lost through sweat.
How to Calculate Sweat Rate
- Determine body weight lost during exercise: Body weight before exercise minus body weight after exercise = pounds of water weight lost.
- Determine the fluid equivalent, in ounces, of the total weight lost during exercise: Pounds of water weight lost during exercise x 16 = ounces of additional fluid that should have been consumed to maintain fluid balance during the exercise session.
- Determine the actual fluid needs during an identical workout: Total fluid needs = ounces of fluid consumed + ounces of additional fluid needed to establish fluid balance.
- Determine the number of fluid ounces needed per hour of exercise: Total fluid needs / duration of exercise, in hours = number of fluid ounces needed per hour of exercise.
Tips for Runners and Endurance Athletes:
Now that we know the basics about runner nutrition, nutrition timing, and hydration, let’s summarize with some quick nutrition tips to help you fuel your running journey.
- Eat frequent meals and snacks throughout the day.
- Do not skip meals
- Include a quality carbohydrate, lean protein, and healthy fat with all meals and snacks to increase satiety.
- Include vegetables and fruits with meals and snacks.
- Rely on water throughout the day and water/sports drinks during exercise.
- Consume a post exercise snack as soon as possible (within 30 minutes) after training
Lastly, many people start out running as part of their weight loss or life transformation journeys. Sometimes this is successful, but sometimes weight loss does not occur with running. Sometimes runners actually gain weight. There are multiple causes and explanations for this. To learn more about running and weight loss, check out this article HERE.
A good mindset around nutrition is to strive to achieve a good balance to support your running and active lifestyle. This should be a way of living and not a restrictive set of rules. Listen to your body as some days you may need more recovery, some days you may need more fuel but aim to fuel your running and life to stay healthy, have more energy and run faster longer.
To really dive into this topic,check out Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, which helped guide much of this article.
This article was co-written by Coaches Jodi O’Shea, Ashley Brush and Erin Babin. To learn more about them or to work with them, check out their coach profiles below.