Your nutrition should follow a standard diet rules – focus on whole grains, nuts, fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy and lean meats. Of course this is an ideal that most of us will stray from, but providing your body an adequate supply of nutrition is necessary for energy and recovery.
When taking upon a dietary plan for running you don’t need to enact a strict calorie-counting meal-plan (although this is not necessarily a bad thing). However keeping track of what you are eating in a looser sense by writing down what you are eating everyday whilst you eat it is a good idea. Most of us can be ignorant of what we actually consume, forgetting the little snacks and treats we consume every day. When tracking what you consume, remember to also include oils, calorific drinks and dressings which often contain large amounts of calories that we fail to take heed of.
When you are mindful of what you are actually consuming you can create the space to enjoy a treat every now and then, otherwise your cravings can build up and make you break your healthy habits.
In terms of more detailed eating habits for running, your running nutrition largely depends on the type of running you are working towards. A runner who focuses on sprinting and sport sprints need to consider their diet in a different way from someone who is working towards a half-marathon, who in turn should be different from people who run full marathons.
For long-distance runners, your focus should be on managing your stores of carbohydrates. Your body can only store so much carbohydrate in your system at once, some of which you will gain from digesting carbohydrates in your stomach but some of which will be stored in your muscles as a source of energy.
When your carbohydrate supply runs dry, your body will be forced to burn fat for energy. This sounds appealing, especially for people looking to lose weight, but it can lead to an energy ‘wall’ that is incredibly hard to push past. The current research suggests that your body will run out of carbohydrate stores around 2 hours into an intense workout, which is often notably before the end-goal in a marathon or similar length run.
Therefore you should look to eat meals high in carbohydrate before long-distance runs – whole grain bread, cereals, or grains are good choices. However, don’t eat your meal immediately before you run. When you run your body diverts energy away from digestion and towards your muscles and your respiratory system. Therefore if you’ve eaten a large meal just before a run it won’t be digested in time and it might uncomfortably bounce in your stomach. Allow yourself at least a 1-2 hour window between eating a meal and running any length of distance. Generally speaking, the closer to your run the lighter your meal should be – you don’t want your stomach to be full during your run.
There is some evidence that for novice runners whose glycogen stores are not as well developed as better-trained runners that running in a carbohydrate deprived state can help them develop better glycogen stores in the future. Nonetheless, for experienced runners you should always ensure an adequate carbohydrate supply to avoid an energy deficit.
When you feel that you hit that energy wall then you should start to consume glucose drinks to allow you to refresh your stores of carbohydrate and maintain your pace.
Post-workout is an entirely different story. Post-workout your focus should be primarily consuming proteins to allow your muscles to rebuild any damage they sustain during your session. You should also consume a light snack so your muscles can build up a store of glycogen – the carbohydrate stored in your muscles – otherwise you might feel a distinct lag and energy deficit in a few hours.
For faster runs and sprints your dietary focus is different. You want to eat carbs before your sprints, but the carbs you want to eat should be easily digestible and rapidly absorbed rather than complex carbohydrates that are broken down over the course of an hour or so. Evidence suggests that within the 30 minutes of recovery there is a window where nutrients are absorbed quicker and more efficiently, but only for relatively intense workouts. Intense workouts should be understood as relative to your usual level of activity – that might be a few hours for a trained runner, but 30 minutes for a complete novice.
Furthermore, post-workout for speed running, you want to eat more or less immediately. It is recommended that you eat in a proportion of roughly 4: 1 of carbohydrates to proteins, with a particularly good and tasty source being chocolate milk, which matches these proportions. In fact several studies suggest that chocolate milk outperforms most post-workout drinks manufactured to help improve recovery and helping yourself to a little treat can lighten the mood when your exercise starts to feel less rewarding. Other good choices include a banana with two tablespoons of peanut butter, half a cup of natural yogurt with some fruit or a fried egg with a little spinach.
Although it might seem best to consume a higher amount of protein, your body needs the carbohydrates to help break down the protein quicker and absorb these nutrients within the recovery window. Higher levels of protein actually limit digestion, resulting in less protein absorbed by the body within a short time frame.
Some people find that they have an unsettled stomach after running and that they struggle to eat food for a few hours. Eating food in the correct carbohydrate to protein ratio will be beneficial but you can also try having a smoothie or a shake instead, as liquid food will be easier to tolerate.
There is also a recovery window between 1-3 hours after your session. During this recovery window your nutrition should be slightly different – you should favor a higher protein meal which also includes a healthy fat, such as olive oil or avocados, whilst cutting down a little of the carbohydrates. Good suggestions for this meal include a salad with grilled chicken, a vegetable omelet with a piece of fruit or a serving of chili.
The number of calories you will burn will depend upon your mass and the intensity of your workout, although for most people of an average weight 100 calories per mile is a good estimation of how much energy you will burn. The intention in terms of calories should be to eat only what your body needs to recover, neither depriving yourself nor gorging yourself.
Of course if you are running to lose weight you may go without a post-workout meal, but you should expect this to influence both your performance and your recovery time for future sessions.
Therefore you need to plan to get an adequate calorie count, as if you burn too many calories you might end up losing muscle mass or recovering too slowly from your sessions.
There is some research to suggest that consuming caffeine is beneficial to runners, as studies have reported that runners who drink coffee or another caffeinated drink generally receive better 5k running times, perform better in higher temperatures, increasing power and speed and help your body metabolize and burn fat. There is some concern that as caffeine is a diuretic – a substance that helps you lose water – that is might have an adverse effect on performance during elongated runs, however the research literature suggests that mild to moderate caffeine consumption doesn’t impact water loss during exercise.
The ideal level of caffeine consumption was found to be around 5mg per lb of bodyweight, which amounts to a large cup of filtered coffee for an average weight person, although this will obviously depend upon the brand of coffee you use. Caffeine lasts in the body for several hours whilst also being consumed quickly, which makes caffeine a good choice for consumption immediately before a run but also during your meal earlier in the day.
With that being established, it is best to experiment and find what works for you. It is especially important to be familiar with the effects before you start changing your diet – drinking a huge cup of coffee before a marathon for example might improve performance, but it might just make your body go haywire. It’s best just to play it safe.
If you are running for weight loss you should employ different dietary principles. The important aspect about losing weight and retaining performance is that you need to be informed about what is the correct weight for your body. It is better to think less in terms of weight and more about body composition. If you have more muscle or you are taller than your peers then weighing more is natural and you shouldn’t force yourself to try and reach a designated weight just for the sake of it.
Your percentage body fat is usually a better indication of your health and whether you should be looking to gain or lose weight. For men a health body fat percentage is between 5-15%, with the lower spectrum being more specifically aimed towards athletes and bodybuilders. For women, who naturally have a higher percentage of body fat and less muscle, a range between 7 -28% is healthy, again with the lower spectrum being more towards professional athletes and people who train intensively.
It is relatively popular in recent years to cut carbohydrates in order to lose weight in a variation of a ketogenic diet, which forces your body to burn fat or protein. Nonetheless as running depends on glycogen and carbohydrate burning this will notably impair your performance and make it harder to run. If you are using running as your primary method of exercise and weight loss, do not cut carbohydrates!
Also bear in mind that you might gain weight whilst running because you gain muscle. This is not a bad thing! As mentioned earlier you should be more concerned about your body composition rather than your weight value. Muscle actually weighs more than fat in terms of the space it requires on your body as muscle is denser than fat. As a result even if you lose substantial levels of fat, muscle gain can actually counteract this in terms of weight quite easily. Overall, if you don’t have an easy method to measure your body composition than use how you feel, how you look and how your clothes feel as indicators of whether running is being successful for you.
Another factor you need to consider is the weight of your glycogen reserves. For new runners, there glycogen reserves can increase up to 70% over the first few months of endurance running. It is thought that for every 1oz of glycogen your body stores, it also retains 3oz of water. As water is obviously heavy, this might lead to a misleading number of the scale.
The final piece of advice is that you shouldn’t use running as an excuse to increase the amount that you eat. This sounds obvious but for endurance runners it is often all too true that we gorge ourselves after a gruesome run because we feel like we deserve it or we somehow believe that a faster metabolism will make everything alright. Worthiness or metabolism magic aside, calories are calories and if you consume more calories than you expend you will not lose weight.
Therefore try to stick to the post-workout nutrition recommended in this guide. As mentioned earlier, 100 calories per mile is a good rough estimate of your calorie expenditure, with that figure being slightly less for slower and lighter runners and slightly more for heavier and faster runners. Therefore if you just ran a 5 mile run, you’ve built a 500 calorie deficit. If you’ve only run 3 miles that a 300 calorie deficit, which will be more or less consumed by an overzealous post-workout snack.
As a side note, your body is manipulative. If you attempt to deny it energy after a run, it will produce cravings that will make sugary and fatty foods more attractive. The harder you try and deny yourself, the stronger these cravings will be. Therefore it isn’t just about what you eat, but how fast you eat it – satiating these energy demands earlier will generally cause less temptation and influence to consume junk food later on in the day.
There is often a great deal of confusion about what cross-training is and how it relates to running. Cross-training is the practice of incorporating numerous different athletic training exercises into one program or regime. Cross-training is useful as different exercises work on different muscles resulting in a balanced and well-rounded practice.
In particular cross-training can help you develop stamina, which is a different concept to fitness. Fitness, or more specifically, cardiovascular fitness, the type of fitness involved in running, is the ability of the body to absorb and distribute oxygen around your body during exercise. Running is a fantastic way to build up cardiovascular fitness and long-distances runners will often have the best cardiovascular fitness out of any group of athletes.
Stamina or endurance is a more nuanced concept however. Stamina refers to your body’s ability to sustain prolonged effort and exertion, which involves more than just oxygen supply and often relates to the strength and condition of the muscles. Undoubtedly there is a small overlap between these two concepts, yet nonetheless they remain their own distinct entities. Therefore it is possible to have high levels of stamina with low levels of fitness and high levels of fitness but with low levels of endurance.
The relevant point here is that running requires fitness but also endurance. However your endurance when running is often dependent on muscles that you may not be building when running itself. A powerful core and back helps maintain posture that can make your running more efficient and less tiresome whilst strong, resilient legs are needed to keep speed steady over longer distances.
Cross-training allows you to remedy this by building muscle and strength in ways that normal running wouldn’t. Therefore if you want to make running more successful, try another sports such as swimming or weight lifting.