The types of food we eat can greatly impact our endurance while running. Choosing the right foods will help boost your performance and endurance and ensure a smoother recovery post-run.
But what are the foods runners should eat, and what should you avoid when preparing for a run? Don’t fret. We have answers to these questions and more in our guide to the perfect runner’s diet.
If you’re looking for the short answer: a minimum of 70% of the calories you eat before a run should be carbohydrates. A further 20% should consist of lean proteins and fats.
Let’s delve into the world of nutrition for runners, focusing on what to eat, what to avoid, and the ideal diet that runners should consider to improve their performance and boost their overall health.
- Nutrition and Running: The Science Behind Your Diet
- Best Foods for Runners: What to Eat and What to Avoid
- Foods to Avoid For Runners
- Essential Micronutrients: What Are The Best Nutrients for Runners?
- Pre- and Post-Run Nutrition
- When Should You Eat Before a Run?
- The Ultimate Runner’s Diet: An Example Meal Plan
- Why Nutrition Is Key For Runners
Nutrition and Running: The Science Behind Your Diet
It’s no secret that proper nutrition is necessary for peak athletic performance, and for runners, maybe more so, as the correct foods are necessary for the endurance needed for a run.
While running might be just another way to keep fit for some people, it is a way of life for others.
When creating a diet for running, a minimum of 70% of the calories you eat before a run should be carbohydrates.
A further 20% should consist of lean proteins and fats.
This may seem excessive, especially when knowing how carbohydrates can affect the body. Still, nutritionists worldwide agree that carbohydrates are runners’ number one energy source.
The amount of carbs we eat in our diet is a bit of a contentious issue, and the truth is, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution as to how much we should be eating. It is mostly dependent on your fitness goals, how active you are, and for runners, the running they do.
Low-carb diets are usually suggested for those who wish to lose weight. But scientists and nutritionists have proven time and time again that a high-carb diet is the best option for endurance and performance for runners.
Carbohydrates are always stored in the body as glucose and glycogen. Glucose is the sugar stored in the bloodstream and is a quick-release nutrient that gives us energy. Glycogen is stored in the liver and muscles and is the perfect fuel for endurance while running.
Carbohydrates ensure that the body’s energy stores are ready to support the type of running you do, and eating the right amount can help prevent burnout and fatigue.
Best Foods for Runners: What to Eat and What to Avoid
The foods you choose before, during, and after a run can make or break a run or workout. It is imperative that you choose the right foods that help boost your energy and thus help improve performance and endurance.
Before, During, and After Your Run
Eating a good meal and staying hydrated are both important and necessary both before and after a run. But don’t forget that eating a snack during your run can help increase your energy levels and reduce the risk of burnout or injury.
Pre-run foods you should try:
Depending on the time of day that you run, several foods can help prepare the body for the coming activity.
Here are a few great ideas you should try:
- A bowl of oats
- Steamed broccoli and lean meat like chicken
- A banana smoothie
- Sliced avocado on wholewheat toast
- Apple slices and peanut butter
- Fish and rice (sushi is a great option that combines both, but be aware of the salt content)
- A lentil bowl with fresh vegetables and poultry or fish
- A small portion of pasta with a vegetable sauce
- Vitamin D-enriched cereal with low-fat or skim milk (soy or almond are great alternatives)
- A wholewheat turkey sandwich with sprouts
- Cream cheese, crackers, and tinned fish like pilchards or sardines
Foods to eat during your run:
If you are running a longer distance, you might need to have a light snack to boost your energy and help improve your endurance while running.
Here are a few great food options to try out that will keep you going:
- Water, water, and more water! (Staying hydrated is key)
- A banana
- An energy bar
- A handful of raisins
- Fresh berries
You can check out the options in the health-food aisle of your local store for great snack options.
Foods to eat post-run:
What you eat after your run depends largely on what your goals are. If you are running to lose weight, you might want to choose some low-calorie options. If your goal is to gain some muscle and get your body trim and toned, a high-protein meal would be best.
Here are a few meal or snack ideas that you can try after your run:
- A bagel with cream cheese or assorted nut butter
- Fruits and yogurt
- A good quality energy bar that is packed with protein
- An egg on toast
- A protein shake or smoothie
- Pasta with protein (a small serving)
Any meals eaten after your run should align with your goals, so choose wisely for the best results.
Foods to Avoid For Runners
Now that we have looked at all the good things you should eat, it’s time to point out the bad foods you should try to avoid eating while running.
The most common foods runners tend to avoid are caffeine, foods high in sodium and sugar, and fatty foods that will leave you feeling bloated and sluggish.
Caffeine might seem like a good idea for a quick energy boost, but it acts as a diuretic, causing you to urinate more and lose those all-important nutrients necessary to prevent injuries while running. Skip energy drinks containing caffeine and choose an electrolyte-based drink that will return what you are losing while running.
Sodium and sugar are present in most of the foods we eat. But they are definitely not good for runners as they can quickly lead to dehydration and aching muscles. Consume both in moderation and choose healthy options.
Spicy food is another one to avoid, as it can lead to gastrointestinal irritation and bloating. While we all love a good curry, eating it before you head out for a run is probably not the best idea. Leave the curry for dinner after the race and choose other healthy foods with natural flavors.
Essential Micronutrients: What Are The Best Nutrients for Runners?
The right nutrients and vitamins can radically improve your running game and reduce the risk of injury, so let’s look at what these are and where you can find them:
#1: Vitamin D
Vitamin D is essential for strong bones and drastically reduces the risk of bone density loss and injury. While Vitamin D is also harnessed from the sun, many foods contain just the right amounts of Vitamin D to help you get the best boost possible.
It can be found in eggs, tuna, salmon, Vitamin D-enriched dairy, soy or almond drinks, and cereal.
Iron plays an important role in the body and produces Hemoglobin.
Hemoglobin is the essential protein that carries oxygen in the bloodstream. We all know how important oxygen is, and these guys help ensure that there is enough of it in your body to sustain any level of activity. Without Hemoglobin, your muscles would ache early into your run, and recovery would be… well, very difficult indeed.
You can find iron in foods like poultry, dark leafy vegetables like spinach and everyone’s favorite, kale, nuts and dried fruits, legumes like peas and beans, and iron-fortified cereals and bread.
#3: Vitamin C
Do you remember your mother or grandmother telling you that eating an orange was good for your health? They weren’t wrong at all. Vitamin C plays a key role in the body and helps with the absorption of iron. As we have already mentioned, iron is necessary for hemoglobin production, so Vitamin C and Iron go hand in hand in ensuring that sufficient oxygenated blood is coursing through your veins and to your vital organs.
Vitamin C is found in most citrus fruits, berries (like blueberries and raspberries), and bell peppers.
Calcium, like Vitamin D, is essential to build strong bones. Since running puts a lot of strain on the muscles and skeletal system, ensuring that your bones are as strong as possible can help reduce and prevent injuries and stress fractures.
Choose foods like tofu, almonds, tinned fish like sardines and pilchards, yogurts and cheese, and edamame to increase your calcium intake. Calcium can, of course, also be found in dairy, but be wary of consuming too much dairy before a run to reduce bloating, gas, and the infamous “runner’s trot” that many runners experience.
Did you know that much of your sweat is made up of electrolytes and sodium? Increasing your sodium intake might be necessary to put back what is lost and can help reduce aches and pains in your joints. A handful of pretzels, a sports drink, or a piece of smoked meat will help increase your sodium levels, but remember to consume this in moderation.
Other sources of sodium are beans, salted nuts, canned meats, and smoked or cured meats like bacon, sausage, ham, or cold cuts.
Your body is pretty clever in telling you what you need, so listen to your body’s cues and give in to those cravings every now and then.
Pre- and Post-Run Nutrition
Eating the right foods before, during, and after your run has a significant impact on your performance and endurance during a run, as well as how quickly you recover after the effort.
While it is important to eat healthy foods, even the best athletes can suffer a setback if they choose the wrong foods while training.
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), what you eat, and when you eat plays a great role in your performance and recovery. They believe that timing your meals is crucial to bettering your performance and have done various studies on how eating at the right times affects your glycogen levels.
The ISSN released a paper on just this, detailing the importance of timing your eating before going for a run. This concept, they say, dates back to the 70s and 80s, when they examined the effects of carbohydrates, proteins, and later amino acids on the recovery process and resynthesis of proteins like Glucose and Glycogen.
A clear scientific consensus shows that sufficient pre- and post-run nutrition positively affects performance, recovery, and overall health and well-being, so make good choices and remember to eat a well-balanced diet with foods from all major food groups.
When Should You Eat Before a Run?
Every runner is different and your metabolism will play a key role in when you should eat before a run. While there is no clear consensus, it would seem that a good ‘window to eat’ is in the range of three to four hours before the effort, with a snack at least half an hour before.
We’ve all heard the saying, “breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” and there is definitely some truth to it, as this is the meal that kick-starts your metabolism and sets the tone (and your hunger patterns) for the rest of your meals.
A healthy, balanced diet consists of three to five meals per day, depending on the activity level, current fitness level, and the individual’s fitness goals. Runners tend to eat smaller meals more regularly, focusing on foods high in carbohydrates and proteins to boost their energy levels and help them run longer.
This makes sense when you read articles that suggest a larger meal at least three to four hours before with an energy-boosting snack half an hour before a run. Remember to keep hydrated. Choose an electrolyte-based sports drink to help restore what is lost by sweating.
There are no clear guidelines on how much water you should drink while on the run, but keep sipping water throughout your run to keep dehydration at bay without causing the need to urinate excessively.
The Ultimate Runner’s Diet: An Example Meal Plan
Eating the right foods will not only help boost your performance while running but also positively influence your overall health. So let’s take a crack at the ultimate runner’s diet!
Meal One / Breakfast
This is the first meal of the day and should therefore include nutrition from various food groups. Kickstarting your metabolism is good for improving cognitive performance and will help your body break down the calories you consume throughout the day. Running breaks down calories faster than many forms of exercise, so be sure to eat enough to prevent burnout, injury, or overeating later on.
A good first meal should consist of protein, healthy fats and oils, a fruit or vegetable, and an all-important carbohydrate.
- A seeded or wholewheat bagel with cream cheese
- Half an avocado, sliced
- A cup of soy, almond, or rice milk
- A cup of cereal or a bowl of oatmeal
- One boiled egg
Snacking between meals is essential to keep your metabolism going and reduce the risk of overeating at your next meal. Snacks should be healthy and light and not contain excessive amounts of sugar and salt that will leave you feeling sluggish.
- One green apple, sliced
- A tablespoon of peanut butter
- A small handful of raisins or fresh berries
A banana will suffice as a snack if you are short on time.
Meal Two / Lunch
Meal two is considered lunch for many people. Lunch, too, should consist of foods from the major food groups, focusing on those higher in protein and carbohydrates but lower in fats and cholesterol.
- A turkey sandwich with lettuce on wholewheat or rye bread
- A handful of nuts
- A small full-cream yogurt with a teaspoon of honey
- A fruit (apples, oranges, and grapes are great to keep you going)
The afternoon snack is important as it usually comes right around the time you would feel that afternoon slump. Choosing a healthy snack is crucial to give you a much-needed energy boost without filling you up and causing you to feel sluggish.
- A protein or energy bar
- A small portion of dried fruits and nuts (many health stores and supermarkets sell small pre-packed portions for your convenience)
Meal Three / Dinner
Dinner is just as important as any other meal, but it should not be the biggest meal of the day. If you are eating a balanced diet, there is no need to increase the portion sizes at dinner time to compensate for not eating properly throughout the day.
Dinner should include protein, carbs, vegetables, healthy fats, and oils. Refer to our suggestions on what you should choose in our “what to eat” section above and develop a few twists and variations on your own. No one likes eating the same meals day in and day out, so spice up your dinner with a few (healthy) options that are easy to make and good for you.
- Pasta (choose wholewheat or gluten-free for a healthier alternative)
- Protein like chicken, red meat
- A vegetable sauce (pestos are great and are quick and easy to make)
- Cheese to sprinkle on top (full-fat cheeses are great for their calcium content)
Other great options include a baked potato with grilled bacon and cream cheese, a small piece of steak and grilled vegetables, or a healthy vegetable soup for those winter nights.
It may seem strange to include a snack after dinner, but this last snack of the day is essential to regulate your metabolism and blood sugar levels, reducing the risk of diabetes and other health issues. Choose snacks that are low in sugar and sodium.
- A handful of nuts
- Crackers with cream cheese
- Yogurt and honey
Why Nutrition Is Key For Runners
Choosing the right foods has a lasting impact on your performance.
Try and plan your run at least three hours after a meal, and be sure to include a snack before you run. Pop a protein bar or a banana in your pocket during your run for that extra boost of energy and endurance when you need it the most, and last, but certainly not least, remember to stay hydrated!
Select foods that contain the necessary micronutrients, and eat foods from all major food groups. Meal planning need not be arduous if you follow our handy guide above, so get creative and try to come up with your own delicious meals that are both tasty and good for you.
If you have any doubts about portion sizes or supplements that you should be taking or have any questions that we have not answered, it might be best to consult a dietician for a personalized meal plan to meet your nutritional needs based on your current fitness levels and your goal.