ICYMI, proper nutrition is crucial for runners at every level. Your body needs the right fuel in order to perform at its highest potential. All the workouts and training in the world may still fall flat if your diet isn’t in check. That said, we know there’s a lot of broad and confusing information out there in the wellness world. So, we tapped registered dietitian EA Stewart to help break down the basics of nutrition and the best foods for runners. Whether you’re a speed demon or a long distance lover, we cover everything from what to eat before and after your runs to your rest days and every day in between.
“In general, I recommend a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods, like the Mediterranean diet, as a good starting point for runners,” says Stewart. “Not only because it provides a wide range of nutrients, but also to help decrease inflammation and post-exercise muscle and joint pain.”
The diet actually is one of the least restrictive around, emphasizing foods like fresh produce, fish, chicken, nuts, whole grains, and, cheese (!!). Diets rich in these foods, and free from too much processed food, have been linked to improved cardiovascular health and a lowered risk of diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and even brain aging.
Runners, specifically, should focus on wild salmon and other fatty fish, walnuts, flax and chia seeds, olive oil, antioxidant-rich leafy greens & berries, quinoa and oats, beans, and lentils, suggests Stewart.
On Endurance Days
Good news: Carbs are truly some of the best foods for runners. We’re not suggesting you inhale all the pizza and pasta in sight, but you will need that pure energy. When done correctly, carb-loading can maximize your glycogen storage, which is critical for lengthy runs.
Let us explain: when you eat carbs, they store as glycogen, your body’s most easily accessible form of energy. During long runs, your body burns both glycogen and fat (your other form of energy). Fat doesn’t burn as efficiently as glycogen, which causes your body to work harder to convert it. So, you want to maximize your glycogen storage in the days leading up to your run to prevent burning out. Start carb-loading two or three days ahead of your long run, especially if it happens to be a marathon. About 80 percent of your calories should come from carbs.
If you plan to workout for longer than one hour, Stewart suggests a balanced meal two to three hours beforehand. Try oatmeal, easy-to-digest fruits, bread, rice, or pasta. And, try to avoid foods high in fat, like cheese or butter, which take longer to digest. And, to keep the carbs interesting, add some protein sources like peanut butter, low fat yogurt, or hummus, she adds.
Another pro tip: “Coffee, or other forms of caffeine, ranging from 225-600 mg, may help improve performance by up to 12% on endurance days,” explains Stewart. But don’t take that as an excuse to drink straight from the drip. “Keep in mind that your morning cup of coffee can have a laxative effect, so experiment with timing and the optimal dosage before race day!” she warns.
On Sprint Days
For days when you plan to power through sprints (“Fast Forecast”, anyone?), skip carb-loading. Sprinting doesn’t exhaust your glycogen (or energy) stores like endurance running. Instead, “choose high carb, low fat and low fiber foods that are easier to digest,” says Stewart. Try bananas, pineapple, or rice cakes topped with peanut butter. And try to eat this snack a minimum of 30 minutes before your workout, she suggests.
If you’re eating three to four hours or more before your workout, though, feel free to eat something more substantial. A well-rounded pre-workout meal should include complex carbs, like whole grain pasta, brown rice, or oatmeal.
Try to steer clear of spicy and gassy foods, like peppers, garlic, beans, and broccoli. These don’t exactly prove to be the best foods for runners. Stick to the basics to avoid any mid-sprint stomach meltdowns.
“It’s important to replenish your body with carbohydrates and protein within an hour after a long workout,” Stewart advises. “If you can’t eat a full meal right after your workout, have a snack right away, then a full meal within two to three hours.”
Refueling quickly after your run is especially key post-endurance workouts to restore all the glycogen you burned through. And your muscles are most capable of rebuilding thirty minutes after exercise. This will also reduce the chances of muscle soreness and stiffness, so, at the very least keep a snack on hand.
Try a veggie omelette, protein shake with yogurt and fruit, or chicken and veggie stir fry with rice, suggests Stewart. Feel free to toss in some fibrous foods like beans, legumes, and cruciferous vegetables, too.