Nutrition For Distance Running
Ah, distance running. That singular pursuit of suffering - nothing like it!
If you're a runner, you know that weekday miles can be a slog and Sunday long runs are your nemesis. But you also know that nothing compares to being out on a hard run, finding your groove, and achieving that "runner's high.".
You also know that nutrition is crucial for optimum performance. Some of the factors that go into a runner's nutrition include: balancing total calories in vs calories out; what to eat pre-run vs post-run; nutrient timing; and what you need on a recovery day.
Here's a basic guide to nutrition for long distance running.
For a run lasting under an hour but that is moderate-hard intensity, you'll want to EITHER have a balanced meal composed mostly of carbs and protein about 90 minutes to 2 hours before your run, OR an easily digestible snack like a shake or smoothie about 45 minutes to 1 hour before your run.
What you choose to eat depends partly on your own preferences and what sits well with you, but here are a few suggestions:
- Meal: Grilled chicken breast, sweet potato, small side salad with olive oil, glass of low fat milk.
- Snack: Low fat greek yogurt with a banana.
For a run lasting more than an hour, the same theory applies, but you may want to ramp up your carb intake in the meal/snack. And after 90 minutes of running, you will want to consider taking some carbs during your run so you don't hit the proverbial wall.
During your run
There are many products on the market these days for fueling during a run. These include gels, powders, drinks, gummies, cookies, and more.
Look for something that provides 10-20 grams of carbohydrates in a serving, and aim to have one of those for every 60 to 90 minutes of running.
Again, you'll want to try out a few different ones and see what sits well with you, and play with the serving size a bit - this is where keeping a training journal and making notes of how you felt during your run can be really helpful.
And remember, never ever try out a new product on race day.
Assuming you had a hard training run, make sure to get in a recovery snack within 30 - 60 minutes of finishing up your run. (If you just went out for a 30 minute jog, this won't be necessary.)
The goal is to replenish your stored glycogen that was depleted during your run, and to jump start the recovery and rebuilding process. Your body is maximally efficient at taking carbs and storing them as glycogen in that window immediately after a hard workout, but don't worry if you miss that window - your body will still benefit from a nutritious snack or meal whenever you can get it in.
So what should you reach for? About 200-300 calories with a 2:1 carb:protein ratio is ideal. Some suggestions:
- Easy recovery drink: Mix up a glass of lowfat chocolate milk! It really is a perfect (and cheap!) recovery drink for runners.
- Another post run snack alternative: Shake with 1 cup milk, 1 banana, 1 scoop (~15 grams) protein powder, 1/2 cup canned pumpkin
Then within the next few hours, enjoy a larger, balanced meal with plenty of protein and veggies to continue the recovery process.
The quantity of food will depend on your body size, activity level, and your goal. Pay attention to your hunger levels when you are ramping up your training to make sure you are getting enough calories. Running does a number on your neuromuscular system with all those foot strikes into hard ground, which means a lot of muscle breakdown - the rebuilding process can last up to 48 hours!
Good general tips for runners:
- Don't underestimate how many calories - and especially carbs - your body needs while you are training hard.
If you are in a large calorie or carb deficit, your performance will greatly suffer. Listen to your body - if you frequently feel very hungry between meals, that could be a sign that you aren't eating enough.
If one of your primary goals is weight loss while you are in training, then it is important that you speak with a sports dietitian to make sure you dial in your numbers very precisely to achieve the dual goal of losing fat without losing muscle/impeding your performance.)
- Rest and recovery are SO IMPORTANT.
Many long distance runners believe they must hit a certain number of miles per week, and that simply does not leave much room for recovery days. Many people are finding greater success by cutting back on longer "easy" days, and instead just focusing on nutrition, resting, or cross-training with mobility/rehab exercises on those days. Give it a try!
- Get enough sleep!
Think about your sleep as your system reboot. This is when the most crucial recovery and rebuilding happens, because your physical body is at complete rest. If you aren't getting enough of it, you will struggle!
Lastly, here are a few "superfoods" for runners:
- Chia seeds
The book "Born to Run" was a bestseller that launched the barefoot running movement, and it described the lifestyle of the Tarahumara people in Mexico. The Tarahumara are natural-born distance runners who are known for running 50 - 100 miles for fun, and chia is a staple in their diet. They mix chia seeds with water, a little sweetener, and lemon juice to make a refreshing and nutritious drink called iskiate. You could also try chia seed pudding; or overnight oats with chia.
- Veggies galore!
Distance running can do a number to your immune system, and if you aren't careful about rest and recovery you will find yourself battling one head cold after the next.
It's extra important to get plenty of veggies into your daily diet to give your body the antioxidants and micronutrients it needs to keep your immune system strong. Leafy greens in particular are high in vitamins A, C, K and folate - aim for at least 2 cups of leafy greens (measured raw, but you can always steam or saute them down) each day.
- Coffee and tea
Packed with antioxidants, both coffee and tea as part of a daily diet can support your immune system, speed up recovery, and even boost performance. But the caffeine is where the real performance benefits come in.
Many studies have shown that moderate to high doses of caffeine taken about an hour before a race can have significant positive results. The recommended dose of caffeine for performance benefits is 3 - 6 mg/kg of bodyweight. For a 150 pound person, that averages out to 300mg of caffeine, or the same amount found in about 2 shots of espresso. (Many energy gels also contain caffeine, if you are wary of pounding Starbucks right before a run.)
Results are more pronounced for individuals who don't regularly consume a lot of caffeine, so if you want a big race day boost, try and restrict your caffeine intake for at least a few days before your event.