Fuel Like a Runner
Proper nutrition is a key component of running that is often overlooked, yet it can make a big difference not only while training, but also in race day performance! In general, “nutrition” is a very broad topic ranging from day-to-day routine all the way to training specific, and it covers a variety of situations that are specific from person to person. In this article we will discuss nutrition as fuel for runners, specifically in terms of pre-run, post-run, and on-the-run.
Have you ever heard of the term “carbo-loading” or wondered why runners have pasta parties a night before a big race?
In general, our body uses both carbohydrates and fats as a fuel/energy source for every day living activities. That said, while both fat and carbohydrates can also be used as a fuel source for energy during exercise, carbohydrates are the main and first utilized source. According to research by Cassie Dimmick and RRCA, “glycogen (the stored energy form of carbohydrates) is the main fuel during strenuous exercise and anaerobic exercise”. Therefore, it is recommended by the RRCA to consume meals that are high in complex carbohydrates and lower in fat before a run.
Timing carb intake before a run can help the body perform better due to increased glycogen storage that will be used as energy during a run. For shorter runs, it is recommended by RRCA to eat carbohydrates about 30-60 minutes beforehand. For longer runs, it is recommended to eat 2-3 hours beforehand, however if this timeframe is not feasible before a long run, eating something carb heavy the night before and again about 30-45 minutes before the run is also effective.
Examples of pre-run carbs are:
- Bagel, Toast, English Muffin
- Banana and Peanut Butter
- Granola Bar
Overall, timing of these carbohydrates is important, but it is equally important to live by the rule “never do anything new on race day”. This quote not only refers to running shoes and gear, but also nutrition, and the reasoning behind it is specific! According to Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD, “running jostles the intestines, reduces blood flow to the intestines as the body sends more blood to the exercising muscles, simulates changes in intestinal hormones that hasten transit time, and alters absorption rate”. Nancy Clark continues to mention that becoming dehydrated and/or having a pre-existing bowel problem can also affect GI issues during running. That said, the way the body will react to food eaten before and during a run is different for everyone, and it is important to practice what works (or doesn’t work) for you before a race to avoid race day GI/digestive problems.
On-the-run nutrition refers to anything consumed during exercise, such as water, electrolytes, energy gels, and more!
Hydration: Proper hydration is important not only during a run, but before and after, as well, however timing is everything during a workout to prevent becoming dehydrated or overhydrated. According to RRCA, “Drink 4-8 oz of water every 15-20 minutes for exercise 60 minutes or less. Drink 4-8 oz of sports drink every 15-20 minutes for exercise 60-90 minutes” for optimal hydration. Another rule of thumb to go by is listening to your body. If you’re thirsty during a long run, hydrate by taking small sips (rather than large chugs) of water and/or sports drinks containing electrolytes (example: Gatorade).
Carbohydrates: As mentioned above, the body uses carbohydrates for fuel during a run. During a long run, it is possible for stored glycogen (carbohydrates) to become depleted, so re-fueling mid-run will be needed. The RRCA recommends taking in additional carbs for exercise over 90 minutes. Many runners utilize gels/chews for this purpose because they are easy to consume while running. Examples include Gu energy gel, Gatorade Energy Chews, Honey Stinger, Skratch energy chews, and more! Most gels have 20-30 g of carbs and should be taken with water not only to speed up the carbohydrates entering the system, but also to help prevent digestive issues as mentioned above. When taking gels or chews, follow the timing instructions on the label for best results. Finally, it is important to test what works best for you during practice long runs to determine not only ease of consuming while running and to prevent any digestive issues from occurring on race day.
Finally, what we consume post-run can help with muscle recovery and repair. This is when protein comes into play, as it plays a major role in muscle repair.
When we exercise, the body is placed under stress and tiny tears are created in the muscle fibers. After exercise, the body repairs these tears, and the muscle fibers grow back stronger. Over time, this is how muscle growth occurs and the body gets stronger. Protein can help with this repair process and timing is everything. In general, it is best to consume protein within 15-30 minutes of exercise. Additionally, based on research by Cassie Dimmick, the RRCA also recommends “eating a snack or meal with carbohydrates and protein within 30 minutes of completion, and eating again within 2 hours”.
Examples of post-run meals include:
- Smoothie with protein, yogurt, fruit, and almond butter
- Pasta with low-fat chicken sausage/meatballs
- Sweet Potato with Chicken
- Scrambled eggs with black beans and chicken
To conclude, nutrition is important for running performance and is critical in giving the body fuel it needs for peak performance. Always remember, these tips are generalized and consulting a nutritionist or dietician is always best for more personalized recommendations. We hope these tips leave you fueled and ready for your next long run!