If any sport requires good nutrition, it’s running. Even though running is primarily an endurance sport, it also requires muscle strength which is why the diet for runners is extremely important. Below are 10 easy-to-follow and practical tips to help you fit good nutrition into your running schedule.
1. Keep your body hydrated
The most obvious tip, but the most important! When you run, the body sweats to keep your core temperature down. The rate at which water is lost can vary, depending on several factors. For example, the average marathon runner can lose 500ml (17 fl oz.) of water per hour, while an elite runner can lose up to 2litres (70 fl oz.).
This loss of water can have serious affects on your performance, as well as recovery. Water helps muscles contract effectively, and also helps to prevent cramp.
In addition, water increases blood flow, which means your cardiovascular system will be working smoothly and getting blood to your muscles to help you run faster.
Drinks that contain carbohydrates and electrolytes can prolong endurance and postpone fatigue. Aim to drink about 3ml (0.1 fl oz.) per kilogram (2.2lbs) of body weight every 15 minutes during exercise.
2. Carb load
It’s the runners buzz-word, but for good reason. Carbohydrates are converted into glucose (sugar) by the body and stored in the muscles in the form of glycogen. When you run, the body will use this stored glycogen as its primary source of energy to fuel your body.
‘Carb’ loading (eating lots of carbohydrates) leading up to your run, essentially means you will have more stored glycogen in your muscle ready to be used and allow you to run harder and longer.
The loading phase should begin approximately 2-3 days prior to an event or hard session. Complex carbohydrates are the best source of carbs for the loading phase, so go for things like brown rice, wholemeal bread and pasta, as well as oats. A wholemeal base pizza is a great complex carbohydrate that will also satisfy your indulgence craving!
3. Eat good quality protein
Most people will associate protein and exercise with bulky muscles and bodybuilding. However protein is essential to runners as well. Whether you are a recreational or competitive runner, you will no doubt be clocking up the miles in training and in races.
This puts a huge amount on strain on your muscles and they need to be able to recover quickly for that next session, and protein does exactly that. While all foods contain protein, the key is to eat good quality protein.
Generally speaking, plant-based protein is better for you, as it is lower in saturated fat and is easier to digest, making it perfect for runners. Foods that are high in good quality protein include:
- Brown rice
- Quinoa (a South American grain now commonly found in supermarkets)
4. Be fuelled not full
There’s nothing worse than feeling full or bloated on the start line or wasting a good training session feeling sluggish. Make sure that you have enough food in your stomach to keep you going, but not so much that you feel heavy.
The amount and timing of your pre-run meals will be individual to you and so it is recommended that you use your training sessions to see what works best.
If you find that eating before a run is uncomfortable, try having a meal replacement shake or smoothie with yoghurt. These will be easier to digest, but still provide you with energy.
5. Combine protein and carbs for recovery
Recovery is probably one of the most important aspects of any runner’s regime, because if you can’t recover, you can’t run. Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is a common feature for many runners, with symptoms ranging from muscle tenderness and swelling, to complete muscle breakdown.
These symptoms can occur at any time during or after a run and usually peak within 24-72 hours after exercise. Studies have shown that combining protein with carbohydrates within 1 hour of exercise can reduce the likelihood of suffering from DOMS.
The best ratio is 80g carbohydrate and 28g protein. There are plenty of sports drinks and shakes on the market with a good ratio.
6. Eat anti-inflammatory foods
Runners often suffer from inflamed muscles or joints and so eating nature’s anti-inflammatory nutrients, essential fatty acids (EFAs), can help reduce any inflammation.
Foods high in EFAs include salmon, mackerel, sardines, walnuts, almonds, avocadoes, pine nuts, and sunflower seeds.
7. Eat more beets! (and other colourful fruit and vegetables)
When you exercise, the body produces free radicals – molecules that damage cells. Antioxidants protect the body from this free radical damage, so whilst antioxidants may not necessarily improve sports performance, they are absolutely essential in keeping you healthy whilst running.
Colourful fruits and vegetables contain the highest amounts of antioxidants: think berries, red grapes, tomatoes, broccoli and beetroot. In fact, a 2012 study concluded that ‘consumption of whole beetroot improves running performance in healthy adults.’ So get those beets into your salad!
8. Consider supplements
Although it is always best to get all your vitamins and minerals from a wide range of fresh food, the extra demands placed on runners’ bodies mean you might need more than can be achieved through diet alone.
There are many supplements that can help improve endurance; sports drinks, high glucose gels and protein bars are all good options to help get you through your session or race.
In addition, a B-vitamin complex will help your body produce energy, and a supplement of branched-chain amino acids can help with muscle recovery.
9. Get a good night’s sleep
Whilst not strictly a nutrition tip, and while it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a good amount of sleep each night will have you feeling refreshed and energized, the importance of a good night’s sleep cannot be overestimated.
When sleeping, the body is in repair and recovery mode. So if you are not getting enough sleep, then you are likely to find yourself picking up injuries and not performing at your peak. Also, during sleep, testosterone is produced, further aiding muscle recovery and improving strength.
10. Don’t Change
We’ve all been there; the morning of a race and you’re looking for something to give you that extra boost and the temptation is to try something new add to your usual routine.
Well don’t! Experimenting on the day of a race is never a good idea. You just don’t know how your body will react; you could get abdominal cramps, a headache, dry mouth, diarrhoea or any number of other reactions.
Be confident that you have put the effort into your training and diet, and that the adrenaline of the big day will give you the extra push you need.