Runners Nutrition Basics

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Energy foods for running

Food is fuel for your body and paying attention to what you eat and when you eat can make a big difference in how you feel while you’re out for a run.

But it’s not always simple to know how to best fuel up before, during and after a run. If you ask five runners how they do it, you’ll probably get five different answers. To really discover what works for your body, you’ll need to get out there and experiment. Before you do, read this article to help you get started with developing a plan and limiting the amount of trial and error. The information below covers three key topics:

  • Nutrition Basics: Learn where your body draws energy from and what it needs to stay strong during a run.
  • When and What to Eat: What you eat before, during and after a run can greatly affect your performance.
  • Nutrition Tips: Following a few simple tips can help you find what food works for you and stay fueled up during a run.

 

The Basics of Nutrition for Running

A graphic showing energy foods for running

How much should you eat while running? The quick answer is that if you’re heading out for an easy run lasting about an hour or less, you can probably get by with just drinking water. If you’re running an hour or more, it’s time to start eating at a rate of about 200–300 calories per hour. For most runners, this means eating and/or drinking 80–100 calories roughly every 20–30 minutes, primarily in the form of small carbohydrate-rich snacks like gels, chews and sports drinks.

The exact number of calories depends on several factors, including the length and intensity of your run and your body type. A larger person will likely need more calories per hour than a smaller person. Likewise, someone doing a very strenuous run will need more calories per hour than someone doing a short, easy run.

Also, the quality of your calories—the type of food you eat—is key: Carbohydrates are the primary energy source during your run, while protein and fat are better for before and after your run.

 

The Role of Carbohydrates

A runner puts a packet of energy food into her pocket

When you run long distances, your body relies initially on glycogen as its primary fuel. Glycogen is stored in the muscles and liver for easily accessible, efficient energy.

Glycogen is derived from eating carbohydrates. This is why you’ve probably heard of athletes who will “carbo load” the night before a big run. Eating lots of carbohydrates like pasta, bread or potatoes helps fill up your glycogen stores to ensure you start your run with a full tank of energy.

During your run, your body burns through glycogen relatively quickly (it can be spent within a couple of hours), so you need to replenish your glycogen stores with midrun snacks, like energy bars, gels and chews that contain carbohydrates. If you run out of glycogen, you’re likely to experience what athletes call “bonking” or “hitting the wall”—you’ll feel really lousy and fatigued. You don’t want to get anywhere close to letting this happen, so make sure you’re eating enough carbs.

 

The Roles of Protein and Fat

A runner holds a handful of nuts

Since carbohydrates are the primary energy source during exercise, you’re more likely to consider fat and protein needs before or after a run.

Fat is an essential energy source for your body, but it takes a while for your body to convert fat into fuel. This means you can’t eat a fat-rich meal right before a run and expect that fat to power you through your run. To keep your energy stores ready for the long haul, you’ll want to make sure your everyday diet includes fat.

Some runners choose to eat a little fat during their runs, particularly on long outings lasting more than a few hours. Doing so can provide your taste buds with relief from the monotony of energy gels and help you feel more satiated. Mixing in solid foods like bars, wafers or PB&J sandwiches can be a welcome change. But don’t overdo it. Fats take longer to break down than carbs, which can leave you feeling too full and possibly with an upset tummy on your run.

Protein is not a primary energy source and therefore is not typically a major component of midrun nutrition plans. But it should be a part of your everyday diet and your post-run recovery plan.

When you run, your body breaks down muscle. Protein is great for helping your body rebuild tissues and recover after endurance activities. So, after a long run, eat a healthy meal containing carbohydrates and protein within about 1–2 hours. It’s sometimes recommended that athletes get protein in their systems faster than that (within 30 minutes of finishing a run) in order to maximize recovery, but the general consensus these days is that there really is no rush as long as you plan to eat within 1–2 hours.

Eating small amounts of protein during a long run can be OK and may help speed recovery once you’re done. Limit your intake to about 15g per hour—more than that can leave you feeling full and uncomfortable.

 

Shop Energy Food and Drinks 

 

Making a Nutrition Plan

Every runner is different so it’s difficult to say exactly what you should eat and when to eat it but there are some reliable guidelines to get you started. Experiment with foods during training runs to see what actually works for you. And, always remember: Despite what anyone tells you, if it works for you, keep on doing it.

 
When to Eat Types of Food Examples
Night Before High carbs; low fiber, fat and protein
  • Pasta
  • Bread
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Lean meat
Morning
(2 Hours Before)
Mostly carbs; a little protein OK
  • Granola with berries
  • Bagel with peanut butter
  • Oatmeal with dried fruit
During Run Easily digested carbs and sugars; a little fat and protein OK on longer runs
After Run Foods high in carbs and some protein; hydrate with water
  • Lean meats
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Beans
  • Fresh vegetables

 

What to Eat the Night Before a Long Run

The night before a long run (lasting roughly an hour or longer), eat a healthy meal that’s high in carbohydrates but low in fiber, fat and protein. The fat that you do eat should be healthy fat that you get from foods like avocados and extra virgin olive oil. Healthy fats are good for heart health, immune system function, joint health, recovery and injury prevention. Don’t overdo it and eat a huge meal that will leave you feeling full the next morning. Also, avoid foods that could cause you issues. For example, if spicy foods irritate your stomach, stay away.

 

What to Eat Before a Long Run

About 2–3 hours before a long run, it’s good to eat a pre-run meal made up mostly of carbohydrates. Include some protein to help keep you satiated during the run, but don’t eat too much fat or fiber as these can leave you feeling too full and racing for the restroom. Granola with berries, a bagel with peanut butter, or oatmeal and dried fruit or bananas are good ideas. Generally, aim for a meal that’s about 400–600 calories. It’s important to give your body time to digest your pre-run meal, so that’s why we recommend eating 2–3 hours ahead of time. If it’s been more than about 3 hours since you last ate a meal, try eating a light snack about 30 minutes before you start your run.

Read about what elite runners eat before a run.

 

Video: What to Eat Before a Run

 

What to Eat During a Long Run

On easy runs lasting less than an hour: Most people can get by with drinking water and no food—your body should have enough glycogen stored up to get you through.

On runs lasting longer than an hour: Bring some form of nutrition along to keep you energized and aid in recovery. For most runners, this means taking along snacks rich in carbohydrates, such as energy gels, chews and fruits. Here are some general guidelines:

  • Most runners will want to limit their intake of carbohydrates to 30–60 grams per hour. Sixty grams per hour is the maximum amount that most people’s bodies can process and eating more than this may cause an upset stomach.
  • Aim for about 200–300 calories per hour. With 1 gram of carbohydrates equaling 4 calories, aim for no more than about 240 calories of carbs per hour. (Everyone’s metabolism is a little different, so that’s why we recommend the 200-300 calorie range).

For runs that last several hours or more: Consider mixing in some fat that will help you feel satiated and provide a break from all the gels and chews. Things like energy bars, nuts, beef jerky and PB&J sandwiches can be a good choice. Also, listen to your cravings. Your body does a surprisingly good job of telling you what it needs. If you’re consistently doing long endurance runs, a small amount of protein (about 15g per hour) may help speed your recovery.

Remember to aim for 200–300 calories per hour. Many pre-packaged energy gels, bars and chews come in portion sizes that make this simple to do.

 

Video: What to Eat During a Run

 

What to Eat After a Long Run

After a short run of less than 45 minutes or so, what you eat is not too important. But after a long, strenuous run, plan to eat foods high in carbohydrates and with some protein within about 1–2 hours of completing your run to help replenish your glycogen stores, replace lost electrolytes and rebuild muscle that was broken down during your run. Some runners like to do this by downing a recovery drink that’s formulated with a mix of protein, carbs, fat and electrolytes. A healthy meal with good nutritious ingredients works just as well.

Don’t forget to hydrate: Drink water to rehydrate. An electrolyte replacement drink is not required if you eat food, as that will replace what you lost during your run. It’s OK to celebrate after a big run with a beer but go easy. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it can pull fluids from your body, making you more dehydrated. Learn more about hydration in our article, Hydration Basics for Running.

 

Video: What to Eat After a Run

 

 

Nutrition Tips

Pay attention to your everyday nutrition: Not every day is about fueling up for a long run or big race. Sometimes you’ll be doing short training runs or perhaps taking a day off from exercise completely. As an athlete, it’s important to think about how much carbohydrates, protein and fat your everyday diet includes. Having a healthy, well-balanced diet made up mainly of carbohydrates, followed by fats and protein will help keep you energized.

Experiment: Figuring out what foods work for your individual body while running requires some experimentation. Some lucky runners can handle any and all foods, but many others find that the jostling of running brings on nausea and irritation. If you experience stomach discomfort, check out the nutritional labels on food products and try avoiding common allergens like whey, gluten or soy. You can also try cutting out solid foods and see how sports drinks, shakes and homemade smoothies feel.

Experiment with different food combinations and quantities before, during and after your training runs to narrow down what works and what doesn’t. Using a journal to keep track of what you eat and when can be helpful.

Drink your calories: If you know that solid foods irritate your stomach while running, try getting your nutrition in liquid form. Many sport drinks include calories in the form of carbohydrates, fat and protein. However, be careful not to overdo it and combine an energy drink with energy food—too many carbs can cause an upset stomach. If you're using energy gels, chews or bars for nutrition, follow up a bite with a swig of straight water rather than a sports drink.

Train the way you race. Race the way you train: If you’re signed up for a big trail race, use your training runs to figure out what foods work for you and then practice eating the way you will on race day.

When race day arrives, don’t suddenly try something new. It can be tempting to scarf down goodies from the spread of food at an aid station, but if you don’t know that candy bars, carbonated drinks or any of the other offerings work for you, then don’t eat them. You’ve developed a plan, so stick to it.

Set a timer: It’s easy to zone out on a long run and lose track of the last time you had a sip of water or sucked down an energy gel. Many runners like to set a timer on their watch to sound an alarm every 20–30 minutes as a reminder to eat and/or drink 80–100 calories.

 

Related Articles 

Hydration Basics for Running

How to Start Running

Trail Running for Beginners

How to Pack Your Trail-Running Gear

 


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Contributing Experts

Julia Zuniga

Julia Zuniga is an REI Outdoor School Instructor in San Diego, Calif. She holds a Master’s Degree in Exercise Science and her expertise is in fitness and trail running.