A common question that new runners have is what they should eat before, during, and after running. While everyone is different, there are some basic guidelines for a runner’s diet that can help you get started. Pay attention to how you feel and make adjustments as needed.
Nutrients Runners Need
This means that you should eat a variety of foods from each food group every day. If you want to have the energy you need to run, you should eat a balanced diet that includes all the essentials: carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals. You should eat a variety of foods from each food group every day in order to be healthy.
There is no doubt that carbs are the best source of energy for athletes. Most runners need carbohydrates to make up 60% to 65% of their total calorie intake, but this varies depending on the type of runner. Sprinters may need more than 70% of their calories from carbohydrates, while endurance runners may only need 50%.
Research has shown that our bodies work more efficiently with carbs than they do with proteins or fats for both quick and long-lasting energy. Good choices include:
- Starchy vegetables
- Steamed or boiled rice
- Whole grain bread
- Whole grain pasta
Whole grain foods are less processed and contain more of the natural nutrients that the grain provides. For example, choosing whole grain pasta over white pasta provides more nutrients, including B vitamins (niacin, thiamine, folate), fiber, zinc, iron, magnesium, and manganese. Whole grains also tend to contain more fiber, which can help you feel fuller for a longer period of time.
Protein provides energy and helps repair tissue damaged during training. It is also an essential nutrient that makes you feel full, which can help with weight loss.
Simply take your weight in pounds, multiply by 0.36, and divide by 2.2. This number is your recommended grams of protein per day. The amount of protein you should consume each day should be 10-35% of your daily intake, according to USDA guidelines. However, a more accurate amount can be determined by using a formula based on weight, as recommended by exercise physiologists. To use this formula, take your weight in pounds and multiply by 0.36, then divide by 2.2. This will give you the number of grams of protein you should consume daily.
Endurance athletes need more protein than sedentary individuals. Try to concentrate on protein sources that are low in fat and cholesterol, such as:
- Lean meats
- Low-fat dairy products
- Whole grains
One egg provides a significant amount of protein and helpful amino acids for repairing and recovering muscles. Two eggs per day covers a significant portion of all human vitamin requirements, with the exception of vitamin C.
You should try to limit the amount of fat in your diet to 20-35%. Eating foods that are low in saturated fats and cholesterol can help you avoid packing on the pounds.
Foods such as nuts, oils, and cold-water fish contain essential fats and omega-3s, which are key for good health and preventing certain diseases. For adults, the National Institutes of Health recommends consuming 500 mg to 1,600 mg of omega-3 fatty acids daily (1,100 mg for females ages 18 and up and 1,600 mg for adult males).
Vitamins and Minerals
While runners may not get their energy from vitamins, these micronutrients are still essential to their health. Exercise can produce free radicals, which can damage cells, and vitamins C and E help to neutralize these substances. Important ones include:
- Calcium: A calcium-rich diet is essential for runners to prevent osteoporosis and stress fractures. Good sources of calcium include low-fat dairy products, calcium-fortified juices, dark leafy vegetables, beans, and eggs. Calcium guidelines vary. Most adults between the ages of 19 and 50 should aim for 1,000mg/day. Women over 50 need 1,200 mg/day. Younger runners (ages 9 to 18) need 1,300 mg/day.
- Iron: You need this nutrient to deliver oxygen to your cells. If you don’t get enough iron in your diet, you’ll feel weak and fatigued, especially when you run. Men aged 19 to 50 should consume 8 mg of iron per day, while women of the same age should be consuming 18 mg. Good natural sources of iron include lean meats, leafy green vegetables, nuts, shrimp, and scallops.
- Sodium and other electrolytes: Small amounts of sodium and other electrolytes are lost through sweat during exercise. Usually, electrolytes are replaced if you follow a balanced diet. But if you find yourself craving salty foods, it may be your body’s way of telling you to get more sodium. Try drinking a sports drink or eating some pretzels after exercise. Particularly if you’re running longer than 90 minutes, you need to replace some of the electrolytes you’re losing through sweat by drinking sports drinks or taking in salt during your runs.
Why Does Your Pre-Race Meal Matter?
Many people, myself included, love running because it allows us to eat a lot of carbs.
However, I found that I actually gained weight when I ran more frequently. If you run frequently, you might actually gain weight. This is because when you run, you burn a lot of calories in a short amount of time. When I was in college, I took this as a license to eat carb-heavy foods. However, I found that this didn’t work well for me.
I have always eaten healthy food, so I have never eaten too many sweets or refined carbohydrates. However, I have realized that not all carbs are the same. Some complex carbohydrates can actually be bad for your body and your running.
There are few things more unpleasant than having gastrointestinal distress during a race or a normal training run. Chances are that repeated episodes of side cramps, the runner’s trots (aka runner’s diarrhea), and the like are an indicator that something is wrong with your gut or your diet.
The food you consume before and during a run can affect how your stomach feels during your workout. Eating and fueling properly during your training can also impact your GI system on race day.
The types of carbs you eat can help you reach your goals for race day, and it’s also important to enjoy the race itself.
What Should I Focus on for My Pre-Race Meal?
The meal you eat before a race is more important than any other meal.
This meal should be mostly carbohydrates because the goal is to refill the liver’s glycogen stores and keep blood sugar levels stable after not eating overnight.
A small amount of protein can help stabilize blood sugar and prevent muscle breakdown. Additionally, a small amount of fat will help you burn fat more efficiently and make you feel fuller after eating.
Although it is important to eat food that is easy to digest, it is more important to focus on food that will not cause any gastrointestinal issues on race day.
Best Pre-Race Meal Tips for Runners Before Any Race
There are some things to keep in mind no matter how long the race you are running is.
The length of your race will also determine how much you need to eat to make sure your glycogen stores are sufficient.
Your pre-race meal the night before the race is just as important as the one you have the morning of the race!
So, in order to have the best race experience possible, here’s what you need to do:
What to Eat the Night Before a Race?
What you eat the night before a long run during training and coming up to your race is just as important as what you eat the morning of the race.
What you consume before a race will have a significant impact on how your stomach reacts the following day. I am not a nutrition expert, but I would strongly suggest avoiding eating heavy pasta or bread dishes prior to running a race.
Why You Should Skip Heavy Pasta and Bread the Night Before
You’ve probably heard a lot of people say that it’s a good idea to eat a filling pasta dish the night before. Here’s why:
- Refined flours have a high glycemic index, which will result in a spike and then crash in your blood glucose levels.
- Whole wheat flours are high in fiber, which you should incorporate into your normal healthy eating, but may not want before a race.
- Even if you do not have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, you may have a minor gluten sensitivity that leads to inflammation, especially when you may be already experiencing more inflammation than usual from high training volume and intensity.
When you have inflammation, it’s not just your stomach that can feel the effects. Your whole body can suffer from the negative consequences of inflammation, including bloating, constipation, nausea, and indigestion.
The text is saying that if you are feeling stressed or anxious before a race, eating gluten is likely to make your stomach more sensitive and may actually hurt your performance.
What to Eat Before a Run
Choose something high in carbohydrates and lower in fat, fiber, and protein. Some examples include:
- A bagel with peanut butter
- A banana and an energy bar
- A bowl of cold cereal with a cup of milk
- Oatmeal with berries
- A turkey and cheese sandwich on whole-wheat bread
If you decide to run on an empty stomach, you won’t have as much energy as you would if you had eaten beforehand. A light snack like toast with jam or half an energy bar can help give you the energy you need. Focus on carbohydrates and easy-to-digest foods when choosing a pre-run snack.
If you are planning on going for a run in the evening, and it has been a few hours since lunch, you should try and have a healthy snack that is around 100 calories, 60 to 90 minutes before the run. If you are closer to the 60-minute mark, then you should choose an easy carbohydrate that doesn’t have more than 30 grams of carbohydrates, like a banana.
What to Eat
- Whole grains (bread, pasta, quinoa)
- Lean proteins (eggs, salmon)
- Fresh fruit (bananas, berries, oranges)
- Low-fat yogurt
- Peanut butter
What to Avoid
- Sugar-filled drinks (especially soda)
- Spicy food
- High-fiber veggies (e.g., broccoli)
- Lactose-rich foods
Avoiding Runner’s Trots
If you’ve had issues with gastrointestinal distress (also known as runner’s trots) during or after your runs, the foods you’re eating the 24 hours before your runs may be the culprit. Try limiting or eliminating some of these foods before running to see if it makes a difference:
- High-fat foods: Foods with a lot of fat, such as fried foods, cheese, hamburgers, or bacon, digest slowly and will feel like they’re sitting in your stomach.
- Caffeine: Coffee or other caffeinated beverages can cause stomach issues or diarrhea in a long run.
- Dairy foods: If you are lactose-intolerant, dairy foods can set off a runner’s trots. If you have a mild intolerance, it may only show up with the stress you place on your body with running. Try eliminating dairy 24 hours before your run.
Safer pre-run foods to avoid runner’s diarrhea include:
- Refined carbs: Processed white foods, like regular pasta, white rice, and plain bagels, are good choices. Although they’re not as nutritious as whole grain and unprocessed foods, they’re easier on your stomach because the whole grain is already broken down. A plain bagel with some peanut butter (and a glass of water) would be a safe choice before a long run.
- Low-fiber fruits and veggies: If you want to eat fruits or vegetables before runs, zucchini, tomatoes, olives, grapes, and grapefruit are low in fiber.
- Dairy substitutes: Some people have issues when consuming dairy products before runs. Soy, rice, and almond milk are generally safe because they don’t contain lactose, which can be tough to digest. You can also try acidophilus milk and yogurts with live cultures, which have bacteria that help digestion.
A recent study has found that the best way to ensure optimal performance is to create a personalized hydration plan based on how much you sweat. The American College of Sports Medicine has also released a statement recommending that people take an individualized approach to hydration during exercise.
Before You Run
ACSM advises that you slowly drink fluids four hours before exercise, at a rate of 5-7ml per kilogram of body weight.
If you do not produce urine or if the urine is dark or highly concentrated, you should drink more gradually about two hours before the event.
If you find it too complex to calculate your exact hydration levels, you can use general guidelines that have been around for a long time. If you’re planning to run for around 45 minutes, drink 17-20 ounces of fluid two hours before your run, and 10-12 ounces of water or a sports drink 0-10 minutes before exercise.
During Your Run
To stay hydrated during exercise, the ACSM recommends fluid consumption at regular intervals. They do not provide a specific volume guideline, as clothing, duration, weather, and other factors can affect how much you sweat. They recommend using your sweat rate to determine your personalized needs.
A good starting point for how much water to drink during exercise is 0.4 to 0.8 liters per hour. The amount you need to drink depends on how fast and heavy you are, and whether you’re exercising in a warm or cool environment. Drinks with electrolytes and carbohydrates can help you maintain a balance of fluids and electrolytes, and improve your performance.