Top 10 nutrition tips for runners

What, where and when to eat

As a runner your energy requirements can be high – after all, you will typically burn an extra 100 calories for every mile that you run. To make sure you meet your energy requirements, it is important to eat the correct fuel, eat it at the correct time and balance it with the other foods in your diet.

There’s a lot more to good running nutrition than simply stocking up on carbohydrate – so to guide you through the sports nutrition maze the team have put together our top ten nutrition tips, which will ensure that you are fuelling your body correctly to support your training and racing.

This guide includes tips on optimum timing of meals, smart snacking strategies, and fuelling on the go.

Don’t neglect protein
It’s a surprising fact that a runner in heavy training can need as much protein as a strength athlete who is trying to build muscle. Whether you are racking up the miles or the weights in the gym, your body is being stressed during the training process and will need to repair itself. Runners will often train day after day without rest, and in so doing the muscle damage will become cumulative. To combat the effects of heavy training, make sure that you eat plenty of protein – ideally around 1.5g per kg of bodyweight. So a 60kg runner may need as much as 90g of protein each day!

Go for glucose
Directly after a training session, try to drink a glucose energy replacement drink within 15 minutes of exercising. During this short 15-minute period, your muscles are most receptive to restocking with fuel – and a glucose drink is an ideal for this purpose, as it will rapidly enter the bloodstream and be absorbed, thus accelerating the recovery process. Additionally, because you are fuelling in liquid form, you are also re-hydrating – so it’s doubly good for you!

Keep it complex
At times other than the first 15 minutes after your session, concentrate on meals containing complex carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, rice and pulses. These will release energy into the bloodstream at a slower rate, giving you sustained energy, which will help you avoid being tempted to snack on high calorie foods such as biscuits, sweets and chocolate.

Eat en route
For a longer race or training run, mid-session refuelling can keep your energy levels high and help you through to the finish. One of the easiest ways to keep your energy levels topped up is to carry a couple of energy gels with you. Small and light, gels are extremely portable and contain concentrated hits of both slow and rapid release energy. Always remember to consume one before a water station so that you can wash it down with approximately 250ml of water – this is to ensure the gel dilutes to the correct consistency and can be absorbed quickly.

Train on a full stomach
Runners preparing for longer distance events such as the half and full marathon will typically do a long run on a Sunday morning when they have more free time. They will also often omit breakfast and set off very early so as not to take too much time out of the day. The problem here is that, having fasted all night, the runner will be embarking on a challenging run with only a partially full fuel tank – which is likely to find them out later into the run. The solution is to eat breakfast before you set off (allowing sufficient time for digestion) so that you don’t run out of energy. If breakfast proves too unpalatable, try one of the proprietary complex carbohydrate drinks instead. Either way, always make sure you are fuelled before you go.

Balance out your meals
Ensure that you eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and, as a runner’s rule of thumb, focus on the three primary food groups in the following proportions: 60% complex carbohydrate, 20% protein and 20% fat. If you do this, your diet will be balanced and you will also be consuming enough fuel for your running.

Snack attack!
When you run regularly, in addition to your generally higher calorie requirements you will find that your metabolic engine (the speed at which you burn calories whether you are exercising or not) increases. To avoid energy lows throughout the day, make sure you keep a selection of healthy snacks to hand so you can keep your energy levels topped up. Good snack choices include fruit, sandwiches, fruit smoothies and healthy cereal bars. By avoiding energy lows resulting from low blood sugar, you will have more energy for everyday activities and will keep your muscles and liver primed for your next training session.

Suits you!
For your pre-race or training meals and your fuel supply during a race, experiment with what you enjoy, what you find palatable and what works best for you. One of the best pre-race meals is porridge: with its blend of low fat and unprocessed complex carbohydrate, it makes a great runner’s meal. If you don’t enjoy porridge, choose something that you do like instead that gives you similar fuelling benefits. Experiment with different types of drinks and gels as well until you find the ones that are right for you. If you do this, your performance can improve simply because you enjoy what you consume!

Don’t overdose on supplements
During your running training, your body’s requirements for all nutrients (including vitamins and minerals) will increase. However, it is a mistake to substitute good nutritional practice for pill popping in order to maintain your intake of the necessary vitamins and minerals. Instead, look to eat a non-processed, whole-food diet, containing as much fresh produce as possible – and try to eat a wide a range of different produce each day. This way you are giving your body the best opportunity to get the necessary vitamins, minerals and trace elements that it needs, without over-relying on pills. Any supplementation should be seen as an insurance policy, not a foundation.

Timing is everything
It’s not just what you eat that’s important – it’s also when you eat it. Eating too close to a training session or allowing too long a gap between your last meal and your workout will result in impaired performances. Similarly, not refuelling after your run will result in fatigue, slower recovery and subsequent reduced performances. Allow for a two-to-three-hour gap between eating and running – and, after refuelling with a glucose drink following your training session, eat a more substantial meal containing both complex carbohydrate and protein (for repair) within two hours of finishing. This way you will optimise your recovery in readiness for your next session.

Running away with it
Running nutrition differs slightly from the requirements of less active people, because as a runner you need to eat more carbohydrate for fuel, more protein for repair and more food as a whole. Additionally, you need to carefully consider when to eat your meals and snacks so that your fuel tank doesn’t run low and affect your training – and also what types of food you need to eat in order to optimise your performances.

Stick to the top ten nutrition tips and your nutrition plan will be healthy, balanced and in tune with your running. Enjoy your runs – and enjoy your food!