One of the most frequently asked questions I get as a running coach, is "What's the best thing for me to eat?" Problem is there is no "best food" for a runner to eat. There are however, some parameters that runners need to keep in mind when fueling for a run. From that point on, it's up to the runner to figure out (by trial and error) what works best for him/her. I always tell my runners that the training period for a race isn't just physical training, it's also mental and the nutritional training. Use those long runs to test out different foods to see what works best to meet your individual hydration and fueling needs.
Often, a runner will come to me exasperated because his/her runs have felt so fatigued and labored. Many times, after talking through various reasons that might be contributing to the lack-luster runs, improper fueling surfaces as the culprit.
Ongoing good daily nutrition is vital to a runner in training for an endurance race, such as a marathon. On a daily basis, runners need a healthy balance of carbohydrate, protein, and fat.
For a while now, carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap. The rising popularity of low- and no-carb diets has given the general public the impression that carbs are their enemy. Carbs are like anything: In excess they can be bad.
Your body needs carbohydrates to function properly. Carbs provide fuel for the body. They also help regulate the metabolism of protein and fat. If the body does not receive sufficient carbohydrates, it could begin breaking down protein for energy production. Protein can be used as fuel, but it’s not very efficient, and when protein is used as fuel, less is available for its main function—rebuilding and repair. The protein-sparing action of carbohydrates protects the body’s stores of protein.
More important, command central—your brain—needs carbohydrates for proper function. Through the digestion process, carbohydrates are converted to glucose. Glucose is the fuel on which the body functions. Unlike other muscles in the body, the brain can’t store glucose. Instead, it depends on a steady supply of glucose from the blood circulating through the body. Ever feel light-headed during an afternoon workout and then realize you skipped lunch? That light-headed feeling might be the result of low blood sugar, which means you’re low on that steady supply of glucose in the blood flowing to the brain. Not a good feeling. When you eat something, that light-headedness usually subsides.
There are “good carbs” and “bad carbs.” It’s the bad (simple) carbs that give the good (complex) carbs a bad rap. Unfortunately, simple carbs are prevalent in our diet. They are found in convenience foods such as cakes, cookies, crackers, breads, and so on. Foods such these are made with refined/processed grains, which are quickly digested and converted to fat in the body unless activity ensues soon after ingestion.
Complex carbs take longer to digest; therefore, the body has more time to use them as fuel. These include vegetables and whole grains. Complex carbs are also high in fiber, which has many benefits for the body.
Forty-five to 65 percent of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates. That’s about 225 to 325 grams of carbs per day. The USDA recommends a minimum of 130 grams of carbohydrates per day. To get a better idea of how that correlates to portion sizes, MyPlate.gov recommends that adults eat 2.5 cups of vegetables, two cups of fruit, and six ounces of grains every day. When working out intensely or training for a race, your carb intake should be closer to 65 percent. On days when you’re not working out or running, your carb intake should be closer to 45 percent.
When shopping for complex carbohydrate products such as bread or pasta, look for 100 percent whole grain or 100 percent whole wheat. If it’s unclear how much whole grain a food contains, check the nutrition label. Low fiber means more refined (or processed) grains. Also check to make sure the sugar content is low. Then check the ingredients list. The ingredients are listed in order of how much the product contains. “Whole grain” or “whole wheat” should be listed as the first ingredient. If you’re still not sure, buy products that have the highest fiber content per serving (at least three grams or more).
Products that contain 100 percent whole wheat will also contain more protein since the grains have not been refined. Try to find products offering at least eight grams of protein. Whole-grain foods also provide many important vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin E, iron, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus, just to name a few.
Avoid products made of “enriched flour” or “enriched bleached flour.” That means refined grains have been used. These grains have been stripped of most of their fiber, vitamins, and minerals. “Enriched” sounds good, but it really means that some of the vitamins and minerals have been added back to the flour. Fiber, however, can’t be added back to the flour.
As previously mentioned, raw or cooked vegetables are great sources of complex carbohydrates. Technically, fruits are a simple carbohydrate, but that doesn’t mean they are bad. Whole fruit is full of fiber and is nutrient dense, so while the body may digest it more quickly, whole fruit is a great source of both carbohydrates and fiber. Go light on fruit juice. Even if it’s 100 percent fruit juice, this very concentrated version of the fruit greatly increases the sugar content. Whole fruit (fresh or frozen) is a better choice. Dried fruits are also a great choice. Dairy products such as skim milk and cheese are more good sources of carbohydrates.
Protein is easily one of the most overused supplements. Supplement advertisements have the public believing that protein makes muscle bigger. This is very misleading. Protein doesn’t zoom to your muscles and magically make them grow bigger. Protein does, however, help rebuild and repair muscle fibers. After a hard workout, protein is a necessary ingredient in the muscle-rebuilding process, which makes muscles stronger. Protein is found in muscles, bone, blood, hormones, antibodies, and enzymes. Protein also helps regulate the body’s water balance and transport nutrients, supports brain function, and makes muscles contract. Protein also helps keep the body healthy by fighting off disease. Important for runners, protein helps produce stamina and energy, which can keep fatigue at bay.
Protein is definitely a key ingredient for a strong, healthy body, especially if you’re in training. Research has shown, however, that the body has a limit at which it stops using extra protein. Studies have found that the body maxes out at two grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. If you take more than that, your body voids it, unused, as waste. Only individuals such as bodybuilders doing heavy resistance training need that higher level of two grams per kilogram of body weight. Endurance runners need protein in the range of .8 to 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight. Sedentary people need only .8 grams per kilogram of body weight.
An average male runner who weighs 175 pounds needs 64 to 119 grams of protein per day. That might still seem like a lot of protein to ingest during a day, but remember that one cup of tuna has almost 40 grams of protein. A cup of black bean soup contains about 12 grams of protein. It doesn't take long to get enough protein just by eating a healthy diet. Vegetarians may have to be a little more diligent in making sure they get the required daily amount of protein.
If you’re eating a well-balanced diet with a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, and healthy fats, then you’re probably getting everything that big canister of powdered protein has to offer. So why not go the natural route?
Below are some suggestions for different types of foods to try for before the run, during the run, and after the run. These are only suggestions and by no means is a comprehensive list.
Before Your Run
90 minutes to 2 hours before running:
Eat 30 to 80 grams of carbs.
- Bagel with peanut or almond butter
- English muffin with peanut butter or almond butter and fruit preserves
- Waffle with peanut butter or almond butter
- Banana sandwich with peanut butter
- Graham crackers with peanut butter or almond butter
- Oatmeal with added nuts and fruit
- One egg on an English muffin
- Hard-boiled egg and toast with preserves
- Dry cereal and fruit (Add milk if dairy doesn’t bother you on the run.)
- Energy bar with sports drink
- Greek or traditional yogurt with fruit and/or granola
- Small container of yogurt and a banana slathered with peanut butter
- Yogurt fruit smoothie
|Oatmeal with added dried fruit, walnuts, banana slices, and a dollop|
of peanut butter mixed in to thicken up the oatmeal and lessen the "slime."
|Toasted English muffins topped with peanut butter and then either|
bananas and honey or preserves.
30 to 60 minutes before running:
Eat foods that are quickly and easily digested.
- Animal crackers or Teddy Grahams with water or sports drink
- Sports drink
- Energy bar (Eat bars that are low in fat/protein soon before running.)
- Energy gel
- Fruit (A medium orange is great; choose whole fruit over juice.)
- Small container of traditional yogurt with fruit and/or granola
- Handful of pretzels
- Peanut butter crackers (two or three)
- Fig bar
|Greek yogurt (I like the pineapple) with added walnuts|
and banana slices.
During Your Run
Typically during a long run, it's recommended that a runner ingest about 100 cals about every 45-60 minutes. The individual prepackaged gels, chews, beans, chomps, etc. each have around 100 calories. The chews and sport beans are great because they can be rationed out, but the entire contents of the chew or bean packet needs to be ingested within that 45-60 mins. Runners often make the mistake eating one packet over the course of the entire run (say like 15 miles). That means they're only getting an extra 100 calories in during that 15 mile run. Not going to be enough.
Keep energy stores topped off during long runs with the following:
- Energy gels, chews, beans
- Sports drink (drink water when washing down an energy gels, chews, or beans)
- Gummy bears or jelly beans
- Tootsie Rolls
- Energy bars (low-fat, low-protein varieties)
- Fig bars
- Rice Krispie treats
|A few examples of pre-packaged "during-the-run" fuel. Remember,|
other foods like pretzels, ginger snaps, and fig bars work
After Your Run
Refueling within 30 minutes after running is vital for providing your body with the energy required to begin rebuilding. Select foods that provide a four-to-one ratio of carbs to protein (about 40 to 80 grams of carbs and 10 to 20 grams of protein).
- Eight ounces skim or low-fat chocolate milk (Note: Alternative milk products such as soy, almond, etc. can be used, but check the label, many do not have the same ratio of carbs to protein as dairy milk. Some alternative milk products have versions with extra protein added that may be a better choice, but still read the label to be sure that what you're purchasing is what you want.)
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich and skim milk
- Bagel with peanut butter, almond butter, or Nutella
- Whole-wheat crackers and peanut or almond butter
- Brown rice pudding and a banana
- Bowl of cereal and milk
- Turkey sandwich
- Hard-boiled egg, toast, and fruit or juice
- Peanut butter and banana sandwich
- Fruit and yogurt smoothie
- Fruit smoothie with protein powder
- Energy bar and sports drink
- Trail mix
|Chocolate fruit smoothie with 1% chocolate milk, Greek yogurt,|
and fresh fruit like strawberries and/or bananas, and ice. Frozen
fruit works great too and then you don't have to add ice!