You won’t be able to run very far without proper fuel before, after, and during a workout. This can come from your regular meals and snacks along with some specialized running nutrition. Here are the basics to get you started!
Daily Meal Blueprint
First and foremost, to have enough energy to run your best and stay injury free, you have to eat nutritious, “balanced” meals throughout the day. Balance here means that you should work to incorporate a ratio of the holy trinity of macronutrients: Protein, carbohydrates, and fat.
Carbohydrates are strictly used as an energy source for the human body. The more active you are, the more carbohydrate you need to consume so that your digestive system can break them down to feed energy to your cells, tissues, and organs. Carbs come in either simple or complex forms. Simple carbs include sugars that naturally occur in foods like fruits, vegetables, and milk. You can find healthy complex carbs in starchy veggies like potatoes, whole grain bread, and oats.
Protein is necessary for muscle recovery and growth. It’s made up of a chain of amino acids, which are essential to every cell in the body. Protein can either be complete or incomplete, a complete protein meaning that it contains all the amino acids a body needs. This includes animal sources of protein like meat, fish, poultry, and milk. Incomplete protein sources (typically plant-based proteins) often lack one or more of the essential amino acids.
Fat plays a vital role in the human body. Aim for the “healthy” fat, unsaturated fats, which come from plant sources like olive oil, avocados, and nuts. Healthy fats from these sources provide energy, help with body development, protect our organs, and maintain cell membranes.
There is no magic ratio of these nutrients that meets the needs of every runner as it varies depending on training volume. But check out this guide to learn more about what amount of each of these macronutrients you should aim for.
Additionally, you need to make sure you’re getting vitamins and minerals in your diet, so choose a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables. You also need to hydrate well, drinking enough water every day and particularly around workouts.
If you’re logging serious mileage, you want to ensure that you’re eating snacks between meals to keep your energy level stable. The snacks should ideally combine those three macronutrients. For example, greek yogurt with fruit and nuts, a piece of whole grain toast with nut butter, or a fruit smoothie with added protein powder.
You also need to be especially conscious of adding in foods with antioxidants if you’re running high mileage. Because you are burning through your fuel supply, you want to make sure that fuel is “clean” or else free radicals may damage your cells in a process known as oxidative stress. Try to eat antioxidant-rich foods such as berries and green leafy vegetables to reduce cellular damage and inflammation. As high mileage also can compromise your immune system responses, you may want to add in ginger, turmeric, and reishi mushrooms, which are all said to enhance immunity.
You also may want to venture into specific sports nutrition products like drinks, bars, gels, and chews (DBGC) which are easy to carry on a run and provide quick energy during long runs. People tend to prefer certain flavors, textures, etc., choose something to try and see how your body reacts.
Before a Run or Workout
Right before a run or workout, your best bet is to eat something high in carbs but low in fiber to give you some quick energy without being too difficult to digest and causing stomach issues. Examples of good pre-run or workout snacks include:
- A banana with peanut or almond butter
- A piece of wholegrain toast with avocado smear or turkey
- A cup of porridge with nut butter
- Low-fat yogurt with berries or a banana
As for timing, this varies from runner to runner and studies have shown mixed results. Typically, somewhere between 30 minutes to 2-hours before you go is a good window. If you’re having a full meal, try to aim closer to 2-hours before a run, so your stomach has time to digest. Experiment and find what works for you through trial and error. If you are really having stomach issues, try taking a probiotic.
You may also want to try drinking coffee or green tea about 2 hours before a workout, drinking caffeine has been found to enhance training benefits by stimulating your central nervous system.
During a Run
If you’re going to be out longer than 75 minutes on your run, you should bring along some fuel. Experts note that for every hour you are out running you should intake around 100 calories. The easiest thing to carry on a run is a sports bar, gel, or chew. It’s important to note these are best taken with water, so either time eating them around a water fountain (or water station in a race) or carry a water bottle—you can find ones that are easy to hold or fit in a belt and may even have a little pocket for your fuel of choice.
If you prefer real food, take something light and easy to digest like jelly beans, fruit snacks, some crackers, a fig bar, or a pouch of honey.
After a Run, Workout, or Race
You’ll want to replenish yourself after an intense effort or even just after a run. While there have been many studies done on the ideal ratio of carbohydrates and protein after a run, the bottom line is that you want to make sure you get a combination. Here are some great options:
Chocolate milk (or nut milk) – it’s loaded with high-quality protein and fast-digesting carbs for muscle recovery and efficient energy refueling.
Salmon with quinoa and steamed vegetables – this is packed full of proteins, healthy fatty acids, vitamins, and antioxidants to help you recover faster, build your muscles, and nourish your cells.
A dark fruit smoothie with whey powder – Add dark colored berries like blueberries, cherries, and blackberries to a smoothie to reduce muscle soreness and replenish muscles after a hard effort. Research has shown that dark-colored fruits can delay the onset of muscle soreness, so you may also want to drink tart cherry juice after a run, workout, or race.
Greek yogurt with fruit, pumpkin seeds, and granola – is another great option to also heed the call to eat colorful fruits rich with carbs and loaded with vitamins and minerals. The yogurt and seeds provide protein you need to rebuild your muscles.
Cordyceps – This powerful mushroom has been shown to help the body utilize oxygen more efficiently and enhance blood flow. In addition to possibly boosting athletic performance, it can speed-up post-workout recovery.
Dark chocolate – if you are craving something sweet, this is a great post run snack as cocoa is a powerful antioxidant and can reduce inflammation. Try to aim for 65% cocoa or more.
Eggs, broccoli, turmeric, kale, spinach, melon, and nuts are all great post-run foods as well. And, of course, hydrate with lots of water and a sports drink that will replenish your depleted sugar stores.
Note: If you’ve done a particularly hard effort or have had an intense week of training and you’re craving something that isn’t necessarily a food combo marked as “good for training”, listen to your body and trust your body.