NUTRITION FOR RUNNERS
ON THE RUN
STEFANIE WILKERSON, RD, CSG, LD
REGISTERED DIETITIAN NUTRITIONIST
BOARD CERTIFIED AS A SPECIALIST IN GERONTOLOGICAL NUTRITION
CERTIFIED HEALTH COACH
CERTIFIED PERSONAL TRAINER
FITNESS NUTRITION SPECIALIST
To my husband, Randy, thank you for always believing in me.
To my kids, Lexi & Colten, dream big!
To my parents, thank you for your unconditional love.
Your body is like a car, it needs fuel to run (just like you do). It will run off whatever type fuel you put into it, but to run at its best, it needs the right type of fuel (just like you do). A car runs differently in different environments and requires different care for various conditions. For example, in cold weather a car will need more time to warm up as compared to warm weather; it also runs differently driving in a crowded city than it does on an open highway. Your body operates in much the same way. Your body has different energy demands whether you are training for a marathon, a 5K, playing a specific sport, or working out for general health and fitness. The variety in activity levels can put different nutritional demands on your body. Your job is to be sure you are fueling it with the nutrients it needs to perform at its best.
In this book we will keep it simple. We will cover why your body needs certain nutrients and how it affects you as a runner (the science behind it all), and then we will take that knowledge and apply it in practical ways to help you be the best runner you can be.
Proper nutrition is vitally important for runners.
Developing a nutrition plan to meet the demands of running is a must. With endurance training, the main goal is to provide the runner with adequate calories to replenish glycogen (energy) stores that are lost during running, and to repair lean muscle mass. Also eating to maximize the energy stored in the muscle (glycogen) can be the difference between finishing a run strong or not finishing at all. The frequency, intensity, duration, and your individual fitness level will all determine your individual needs.
When talking about energy sources to fuel the runner’s body, there are three components: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Vitamins and minerals themselves do not provide energy but they are needed to make sure the energy pathways run efficiently. Let’s take a look at each energy source and discover why, as a runner, you need its’ specific type of energy.
THE POWER OF CARBOHYDRATES
Carbohydrates (CHO) are your body’s main energy source during running/exercise and should make up the majority of your diet. Just as your car’s manual will tell you which type of fuel is preferred for your car, your body’s preferred fuel source for running is CHO. Carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram. With your main source of fuel coming from CHO, runners can maintain rigorous activity longer. This, coupled with proper training, offers a competitive edge. To power working muscles, energy comes from different locations in the body; glycogen which is CHO stored in the liver and muscles, and blood sugar, which is an immediate source of energy. The more energy you have stored, the more power you have for running, and the longer your energy can last. Your body can only store so much power (glycogen) and therefore it must be replaced continually through proper nutrition. Runners sometimes complain of “hitting the wall”. This happens when glycogen stores are empty (the body can store 300-400 grams of glycogen). CHO loading will not make you run faster, but it can help you perform longer before fatiguing.
There are two types of CHO, simple and complex. Simple carbs are foods such as jellies, cookies, juices, syrup, candy, etc. Complex carbs are foods such as whole wheat bread, pasta, bagels, oatmeal, rice, crackers, granola bars, etc.
HOW MUCH CARBOHYDRATES (CHO) DOES A RUNNER NEED?
Endurance training: Consume 7-10 grams of CHO per kilogram (kg) of body weight (BW) each day.
(Example: a 140# runner would need 445-636 grams of CHO per day)
To convert pounds to kilograms divide pounds by 2.2.
(Example: a 140# runner weighs roughly 63kg)
Ultra-endurance training: Consume 11 grams of CHO per kg of BW each day.
General training: Consume 5-7 grams of CHO per kg of BW each day.
Off-season or leaning out: Consume 3 grams of CHO per kg of BW each day.
Choose high quality CHO whenever possible. The following is a list of foods that contain 15 grams of CHO:
1 slice bread
½ cup mashed potatoes
1 small apple
3 cups popcorn
1 ¼ cup milk
1 6” tortilla
½ cup juice
1/3 cup rice
½ medium baked potato
½ medium sweet potato
THE POWER OF PROTEIN
Every athlete is concerned with protein. Let’s first discuss why a runner needs protein and what its job is in the body. Protein is used to build and repair muscle mass (which is torn down during a run). It’s needed for healthy growth, it’s involved in red blood cell production, it helps transport nutrients, it helps muscles contract, and it aids in water balance. Protein provides 4 calories per gram, the same as CHO.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN DOES A RUNNER NEED?
Light exercisers/runners: 1.0 g/kg of body weight (BW)
Endurance runners: 1.2-1.4 g/kg of BW
Runners also doing resistance training: 1.6-1.7 g/k of BW
Extreme exercise/increasing lean body mass: up to 2.0 g/kg of BW
Did you know that muscle is actually only 15-20% protein? 70-75% of muscle is made up of water and 5-7% is fat, glycogen, and minerals. You have probably heard other athletes talk about extra protein builds more muscle. Actually, excess protein is not stored in your body for future use as protein, it is either used as energy (when there is a lack of CHO energy available, which is counterproductive) or stored as body fat. As a runner, it is important to understand that excessive protein intake can have negative consequences. When you consume too much protein, you require more water intake to excrete the urea (the waste product of protein). This in turn increases the chance for dehydration and increases the need to urinate - 2 things a runner does not want to have to deal with during a workout.
Choose lean protein foods as much as possible. The following is a list of foods that contain 7 grams of protein:
1 ounce of cheese
1 ounce of meat (beef, pork, chicken)
½ cup of black beans
2 tablespoons peanut butter
1 cup milk
1 cup yogurt
THE POWER OF FAT
Runners need to consume fat in their diets. Why? Fat fuels muscles and is, in fact, a more concentrated energy source as it contains 9 calories per gram as compared to 4 calories per gram in protein and CHO. It performs other functions for runners as well such as transporting fat soluble vitamins, providing essential fatty acids, cushioning body organs, offering insulation (which is nice on cold days), and protecting bones from injury. Fat helps power runners during longer runs. Fat does not convert to energy as quickly as CHO do, which is helpful during shorter runs, but it comes in handy during longer runs to provide the energy needed to sustain activities of extended durations.
HOW MUCH FAT SHOULD A RUNNER EAT?
A good rule of thumb is 0.8-1.0 g/kg of BW or 20-35% of total calories
Choose healthy fats as much as possible. The following is a list of healthier fats:
lean meats (salmon, tuna, chicken)
So now that we have discussed why a runner needs a certain amount of CHO, protein and fats, let’s see how to put that into good use to optimize your performance.
WHAT SHOULD A RUNNER EAT BEFORE A WORKOUT?
When possible, it is best to eat 3-4 hours before a long training run or competition. The goal here is to consume roughly 200-300 grams of CHO and around 30 grams of protein which could consist of something similar to this:
A turkey sub sandwich
Piece of fruit
Chicken wrapped in a tortilla
Fruit juice or milk
17 to 20 oz. of water or a sports drink (or 5-7 ml/kg of BW)
If you do not have enough time to eat 3-4 hours before then opt for a snack 1-2 hours before your run or competition. Some examples would be:
A small bagel with peanut butter
Cheese and crackers
A bowl of cereal
Yogurt with some fruit
5 to 10 oz. of water or sports drink
If you have less than 1 hour, you are probably best served just consuming liquids such as a sports drink or a low fat meal replacement drink.
FOODS NOT RECOMMENDED PRIOR TO RUN:
High fat foods
High fiber foods
Always experiment with foods and drinks before a competition; do not try anything new during the actual competition itself!
WHAT SHOULD A RUNNER EAT DURING A RUN?
CHO intake should begin shortly after the onset of the run if lasting over 1 hour. CHO digest the quickest of the energy sources and thereby provide the quickest energy.
Consume 30-60 grams of CHO per hour, after the first hour.
Chose high glycemic CHO such as sports drinks, gels, blocks, beans, fruit, etc.
Consume 5 to 10 oz. of fluid every 15-20 minutes (if consuming a sports drink, pick one that contains 6%-8% CHO).
FOODS NOT RECOMMENDED DURING A RUN:
High fiber foods
High protein foods (dairy products, high-protein energy bars)
High fat foods
Fluids containing more than 8% CHO (juices, soft drinks, sweet tea)
*Drinks HIGH in fructose are not recommended during a run as fructose absorbs slower than other forms of sugar (it is absorbed through facilitated diffusion and not by active transport) and can cause water to rush into the gut and trigger cramping and diarrhea. Most sports drinks use a combination of sugars including glucose, sucrose, fructose, and maltodextrin.
WHAT SHOULD A RUNNER EAT AFTER A WORKOUT?
Your body has a 2 hour window of recovery whereby you are able to more effectively take up nutrients as blood flow to your muscles is greater and muscle cells are more sensitive to the effects of insulin during this time period. The three R’s to post-workout recovery are replenish, repair, and rehydrate.
You need to replenish the CHO you burned during exercise. Your body needs CHO to replace your energy/glycogen stores. Nearly 90% of the CHO you consume post-run is deposited as muscle glycogen to be used as energy on future runs.
You need to repair the damaged muscle tissue and start stimulation of new muscle tissue. It is best to consume 20-25 grams of protein immediately following your run. Whey protein is a good choice as it is highest in branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) especially leucine which has been shown to resynthesize muscle the quickest after a workout.
You also need to rehydrate at this time. It is best to consume 16 to 24 oz. of water or a sports drink for every pound lost during exercise.
POST EXERCISE CHOICES:
Turkey or grilled cheese sandwich
Slice of cheese pizza
Low fat chocolate milk (one of the best choices)
Cottage cheese and fruit
Granola bar and low fat milk
Smoothie made with low fat milk, fruit, water, and whey protein powder
Graham crackers with peanut butter
Stir fry with lean steak, veggies, and brown rice
To put all of this together I have included a sample menu below.
SAMPLE MENU THAT PROVIDES 2500 KCALS COMPRISED OF 60% CHO, 20% PROTEIN, and 20% FAT:
BREAKFAST (500 CALORIES): ¾ cup low fat cottage cheese, 2 cups fruit, 1 slice whole wheat toast with 1 tablespoon peanut butter and 1 tablespoon honey
SNACK (250-300 CALORIES): granola bar, ½ scoop whey protein mixed in 8 oz. low fat milk, 1 piece of fruit
LUNCH (500 CALORIES): sandwich on whole wheat bread with 1 slice low fat cheese, 3 oz. of meat, lettuce, tomato, and 1 tablespoon light mayo, 15 whole wheat crackers or pretzels, 1 non-fat Greek yogurt, 1 small piece of fruit
PRE-WORKOUT SNACK (300 CALORIES): 1 serving low fat crackers, 1 serving low fat string cheese, and 1 light yogurt mixed with ¼ cup granola
POST-WORKOUT SNACK (300 CALORIES): 16 oz. low-fat chocolate milk
DINNER (500 CALORIES): 1 cup whole wheat pasta with ½ cup tomato sauce and 3 ounces of lean meat, 2 cups grilled vegetables, 1 roll
SNACK (150 CALORIES): 1 non-fat vanilla pudding with 1 cup fruit and 1 tablespoon nuts
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS:
I HAVE BEEN TOLD THAT ALL RUNNERS SHOULD TAKE IRON SUPPLEMENTS, IS THIS TRUE?
Iron supplements should only be taken if you have a known iron deficiency or depletion. The only accurate way to know if you are deficient in iron is to have a blood test to check your hemoglobin, hematocrit, and ferritin (the storage form of iron). Since runners are known to have a higher prevalence of iron depletion, it is a good idea to include iron rich food sources in your diet. Good sources of iron include tuna, black beans, raisins, spinach, dark meat chicken, dates, iron-fortified grains, and beef. Vitamin C can help you absorb iron better so drinking a glass of orange juice with your meal is a good choice or topping your burrito with some tomato salsa can be beneficial.
WILL CAFFEINE HELP ME RUN FASTER AND LONGER?
Caffeine is a known ergogenic substance. It can seem to help you feel less tired. The mechanism by which caffeine seems to work on the central nervous system is by blocking a compound that causes fatigue. This result can be achieved by just a small dose of caffeine, 0.9 to 1.35 milligrams per pound of body weight. For example – a 115# runner could consume 104-115 milligrams of caffeine to achieve this effect. This amount of caffeine can be found in about ½ cup of premium coffee. Some studies have concluded that caffeine can be used in a variety of ways to maximize its effectiveness on endurance runs. It can be used at any point during a run. If interested in trying caffeine as an ergogenic aid, it is best to experiment with it during training and see what works best for you. Runner’s response to caffeine is highly variable and the saying “more is better” is not applicable in this instance.
WHAT ARE SOME QUICK, ON-THE-GO BREAKFAST CHOICES?
Whole wheat bagel with 2 spoons of peanut butter, a banana, and some low fat milk; energy bar, banana, and some low fat milk; peanut butter and jelly sandwich on wheat bread with some yogurt or milk; smoothie with fruit, milk, and whey protein; granola bar and string cheese with milk; oatmeal-on-the-go bar with nuts and chocolate milk; breakfast burrito; ready to drink protein shake and some fruit.
To be the best runner you can be, take the information provided in this book on how to properly fuel your body, couple that with a good training program, and you will find the best YOU at the end of your run!