Nutrition for Runners: How to Fuel Your Runs

Nutrition for Runners: How to Fuel Your Runs

Keep these key nutrition recommendations for runners in your back pocket to optimize your performance and fuel for all distances and durations.

As many runners know, the concept of “proper fueling” often becomes a heated debate and yet another topic of conversation to avoid. Some runners swear their pre-race bowl of pasta gives them the extra edge. Yet other runners cannot stomach more than half a banana hours before running. And then you have the lone long-distance runner who keeps jerky in their pocket for a salt-filled snack.

While your food choices may help you reach a new personal record (PR), they may also send you running to the bathroom! Here are the key points on fueling right and proper nutrition for runners to focus on to make this your best running year yet!

Should I eat before my runs?

Whether you’re a long-distance, Forest Gump inspired runner or new to pounding pavement, it’s critical to understand your fueling needs. When we run, the body’s primary fuel source comes from carbohydrates, which are stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. Glycogen stores last for about 60 to 90 minutes of exercise. (1) Therefore, your fueling strategy before exercising ultimately depends on the duration and intensity of your upcoming run.

Fueling for runs under 60 minutes

  • For runs under 60 minutes, your glycogen stores will provide you with adequate energy. So, skip the additional pre-run snack, grab your sneakers, and go! But, be sure to adequately fuel throughout the day to avoid low energy availability. Remember, daily fueling not only affects today’s run, but tomorrow’s as well!

Fueling for runs over 60 minutes (1 hour)

  • If you plan to run for over an hour, it’s recommended to consume 1-4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight 1-4 hours before an activity. The goal is to top off your glycogen stores, providing your body with energy to delay fatigue. Whether you are an energy gel sucker, sports drink sipper, banana muncher, or bar biter, it’s all about what works for you! Experiment with different fuel choices to see what you can stomach during exercise. While some may cause a route diversion to the bathroom, others may help you set a new PR. Find your energy source and stick with it!
  • If you are a long-distance runner with a sensitive stomach, diversify your sugar sources instead of relying on a single selection to minimize gastrointestinal distress.

What to eat before a long run

Fueling for a long run is a delicate balancing act between adequate fueling and keeping a happy gut. As the saying goes, “not too much, not too little…just right.” Here is an example of what this pre-run fueling recommendation might look like for a 60-kilogram (132 pounds) individual who plans to run for over 60 minutes (2):

Nutrition for runners 1 hour before (60kg person):

1 gram (g) carbohydrate per kilogram (kg) body weight 1 hour before activity (~60 g carbohydrate):

Food ItemGrams of Carbohydrate
1 slice whole-wheat toast13 g
2 Tablespoons peanut butter7 g
1 medium banana27 g
1 cup an electrolyte drink (sip before and beginning of run)16 g
Total Carbohydrates: 63 g

Nutrition for runner 4 hours before (60kg person):

This is the highest end of the range – most people don’t consume this much.

4 g carbohydrate per kg body weight 4 hours before activity (~240 g carbohydrate):

Food ItemGrams of Carbohydrate
½ cup oatmeal cooked in 1 cup milk with 1 tbsp raisins, 1 tbsp honey, and 1/4 cup mango70 g
2 slices whole-wheat toast26 g
2 tablespoons peanut butter7 g
1 medium banana27 g
Smoothie (1 cup plant-based milk, ½ cup pomegranate juice, 1 cup frozen fruit like blueberries or cherries)48 g
1 Clif bar44 g
1 cup of an electrolyte drink (sip before and beginning of run)16 grams
Total Carbohydrates: 238 g

Keep in mind that carbohydrate needs will vary between individuals and differ based on body size, weight, exercise duration, and intensity. If you have irritable bowel syndrome, choose maple syrup over honey.

What to drink before running to stay hydrated

Inadequate hydration can hijack your run at a moment’s notice, leaving you feeling fatigued, cramped up, and overheated. Talk about a turn for the worse! But hydration habits are an individualized process that can be influenced by environmental factors, such as temperature and humidity, along with exercise intensity. Sweaty Sally and Dry Daryl have different hydration requirements to hit their PR.

Don’t forget; if you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated. Losing as little as 2% of body weight from fluid loss can negatively impact performance, resulting in increased perceived exertion, increased cardiovascular stress, and lower exercise capacity. (3) In other words, dehydration will make your run mentally and physically more challenging. As if it wasn’t difficult enough!

  • It’s recommended to slowly drink around 5-7 milliliters per kilogram body weight 4 hours before an activity. (4)
  • To get all the details on the right amount of electrolytes and more, buy my book, The Plant-Based Boost, Nutrition Solutions for Athletes and Exercise Enthusiasts.
  • Morning runners tend to be at risk of dehydration since people often avoid fluids before bed out of fear of constant bathroom wakeups. Then, the next morning, it’s out of bed and to the running trails, only to begin already in a state of hydration deficit. Instead, get ahead of your hydration by taking a little extra time in the morning to pump up your fluid intake. For optimal fluid absorption, sip, don’t chug!

Should I eat or drink during my runs?

The longer the duration, the more nutrition for runners comes into play. During your sweat-sesh, you use a combination of carbohydrates, water, and electrolytes. Stay hydrated by drinking about 16-20 ounces (0.4-0.8 liters) of fluid per hour, depending on both the weather conditions and your sweat rate. To make it simple, a mouthful of liquid is approximately equal to approximately 0.75 to 1oz. Don’t forget to complete your hydration needs with the help of a sports drink or electrolyte-containing tablet.

Fueling for runs <45-75 minutes

Your body has enough glycogen stores to slay your exercise regimen without the need for extra fuel. But, if you want an added boost, you can rinse a carbohydrate-rich beverage like Gatorade in your mouth for 5-10 seconds. Then spit it out! Repeat this about every 15 minutes. This “swish and spit” method has shown to activate areas of the brain related to motor control, reward, and pleasure, decreasing your rate of perceived exertion (and thus, likely improve your running performance). It’s also a helpful energy-boosting trick for when a runner cannot stomach additional fuel without exacerbating symptoms of gastrointestinal distress. 

Fueling for runs >60-90 minutes

For events that last between 1 to 2.5 hours, consuming around 30-60 grams of easily digested carbohydrates per hour can help delay fatigue.

Fueling for runs >2.5-3 hours

It’s recommended for these longer runs to consume up to 90 grams of carbohydrate per hour from multiple carbohydrate sources (glucose and fructose). The body can only absorb 60g of glucose an hour, so the mix of the two types of carbohydrates helps maximize your fuel usage and help prevent gastrointestinal distress.

If you have a sensitive stomach, the idea of consuming 90 grams per hour may seem both daunting and unrealistic. Keep in mind that practice makes perfect! Take advantage of your pre-race runs to train the gut to tolerate a larger amount of intra-exercise carbohydrates. Start slow and work your way up! Progress towards your PR step by step and bite by bite!

All good things come with time….and that includes finding your optimal fueling strategy. For an added intra-run boost, experiment with these popular options!  

  • Gels: easy to carry, can be consumed quickly, and come in many flavors.
    • Energy gels come in both caffeinated and non-caffeinated forms. Be sure to read the label carefully to avoid any unwanted ingredients. Consume gels with adequate fluids to avoid drawing too much water much into your gut and possibly causing gastrointestinal distress.
  • Chews: tasty and easy, plus they come in a variety of favorites. Honey Stinger’s pink lemonade won’t disappoint.
  • Energy bites: get creative and create your own, such as these no-cook oat bites!
  • Soft foods: simple foods like bananas or applesauce
  • Sports drinks: aim for 6% carbohydrate solution (i.e., Gatorade -get the dye-free version)
    • Be sure that your sports drinks contain a combination of both sodium and potassium for optimal rehydration. For maximal performance, you need all the pieces of the runner’s puzzle!

Again, the key to a happy gut is diversifying your sugar sources (regardless of the duration). Plus, ingesting a mix of different sugars such as glucose, sucrose, and fructose can lead to higher rates of carbohydrate delivery around the body. (4) For sensitive stomachs, fructose is a common sugar no-no and may increase your need to go-go. Instead, swap the honey for maple syrup or check the ingredient list on your favorite gels.

What should I eat after my runs? 

Congratulations, you are finally done with your run! But your job isn’t over just yet. Now it’s time to focus on replenishing fluids, electrolytes, glycogen stores, and consuming adequate protein to help your body repair muscle damage. (5)

  • Fluids and electrolytes: Weigh yourself before and after your run and rehydrate with 16-24 ounces of fluid per pound lost. Consume food or drinks with some sodium. My personal favorite is fresh mango or cantaloupe with a dash of salt for a rehydrating yet ultra-satisfying snack. It’s abundant in potassium, sodium, carbohydrates, and delicious juices, making it a perfect post-exercise treat.   
  • Carbohydrates: Replenish your glycogen stores, aiming for 1-1.5 grams carbohydrate per kilogram body weight in the first 30 minutes and every 2 hours for 4-6 hours after strenuous exercise. Carb-up with easy-to-digest oatmeal, smoothie bowls, fruit, or toast.
  • Protein: Protein isn’t just for pumping iron! Aim for about 0.25-0.3 grams of protein per kilogram body weight after exercise to help repair muscle tissue damaged during your run. Try these delicious ways to eat Greek yogurt for a protein boost. For delicious yet protein-packed recipes, check out my cookbook, “The Plant-Based Boost: 100+ Recipes for Athletes and Exercise Enthusiasts.”

Remember, every runner has unique fueling and hydrating needs. It’s an individualized process that takes time to develop but can make all the difference in reaching your running goals. Working with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RD or RDN) can help you perform better, recover faster, and prevent or treat conditions that arise from training.

Whether it’s your first 5km race or your latest Iron Man, it’s critical to find the fueling strategy that works for you. After that, don’t fix what isn’t broken. And, most importantly, don’t try anything new on race day. Happy running!

References

  1. Halas M. The Plant Based Boost: Nutrition Solutions for Athletes and Exercise Enthusiasts. Middletown, DE: Super Kids Nutrition Incorporated, 2019.
  2. US Department of Agriculture FoodData Central. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/. Accessed December 2, 2020.
  3. Maughan RJ. Impact of mild dehydration on wellness and on exercise performance. Eur. J. Clin. Nutr. 2003;57:S19-S23.
  4. Sawka MN, Burke LM, Eichner ER, Maughan RJ, Montain SJ, Stachenfeld NS. American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand: Exercise and fluid replacement. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007;39(2): 377-390.
  5. American College of Sports Medicine, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada Joint Position Statement: Nutrition and athletic performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009;41(3): 709-731.

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