Running nutrition, like anything to do with eating these days, can be mired in fads. It really doesn’t have to be complicated, and you don’t need to stop eating carbs and start eating all the fat, or be carb loading with buckets of pasta for a 10k (or any k!). You just need to keep your gut nice and calm and make sure you have enough fuel, and eat well enough to stay robust and healthy.
I’m going to tell you how to take the worry, risk and fads out of your training and race nutrition.
Who is this article for?
It’s for anyone who runs and eats! Both at the same time and separately. High level competitive running nutrition may need a slightly more tailored approach provided via a fitnaturally bespoke sports nutrition plan. If you’re into low carb high fat or any other form of dietary restriction or funny biz this is not your blog but there are lots of blogs out there for you to enjoy and agree with.
Scroll down for advice on fuelling every distance
What runners should eat is much the same as what we should all eat. A good range of vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds, whole milk, yoghurt cheese, fruit, fish, poultry and meat. As with all good eating it’s best to eat as wide a variety of real foods as possible, that’s the simplest, least obsessive way to make sure you get all the nutrients you need. What do I mean by real food? Food that doesn’t contain artificial additives and hasn’t been over-messed-with; food you make yourself using natural ingredients. That’s not to say you can’t eat doughnuts, crisps or burgers sometimes, cos that would just be a bore, we’re talking here about the main framework of your diet. Everyone knows a burger or some chips after a loooong run tastes like heaven, and who wouldn’t want to live with a bit of cake? 🙂
Eat calmly and happily from all food groups, the last thing you want to do as a runner is mess about missing whole groups such as carbs and be scared of a jacket potato. Glycogen is an easy fuel source, a GOOD fuel source, and starving your body of it will raise cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone that wreaks havoc if levels are continually high. Despite what the low-carb brigade say carb is pretty damn fantastic as a fuel. You know that in your heart of hearts, right?
What is carbohydrate?
It’s chains of sugars that break down in the body to make glucose. Glucose is the main source of immediate energy for the muscles, brain and other cells. There are two main types of carbohydrate, simple and complex. Simple carbs are sweet foods like sugar and sweets, complex carbs are starches such as bread rice and pasta. Vegetables are also classed as carbs, but are mainly non-starchy.
Well-timed quality carbs are a fantastic energy source. Aim for an appropriate balance of carbs, protein and fat and try to time them to fit your training. Eat your carbs around and during training rather than loading them at times when you’re relatively inactive.
If you’re new to a sport then don’t stress the timing too much, just make sure you eat what feels like a comfortable amount from all food groups without overeating.
Do runners need more carbohydrate than sedentary people?
Carbs are the preferred fuel source for exercise and are absolutely what runners should eat. They will not make you fat or diabetic unless you overeat them and generally throw to much food into your body, especially the refined carb type (although it has its place in a runner’s diet). And here’s a thing, blood sugar is MEANT to be raised after we eat! To stay healthy long term and particularly to save yourself from overtraining syndrome, eat carbohydrate in amounts appropriate for your level of activity and training. And that is never zero.
I don’t want you to cut carbs from your diet. Humans are designed to use carbs for energy.
How much carb?
Recommendation for sedentary people: I’m going to make this rough as I don’t know how sedentary you are. As a guideline your meal should have a portion of carbs about the size of your fist. Make one meal a day low carb such as omelette and beans with salad, or steak and stir fried vegetables.
Recommendation for endurance training: Endurance athletes such as runners should follow the guidelines for sedentary people but increase carbs around training. A pre training meal should be roughly 1g of carb per kilo body weight. During training again go for about 0.8 to 1g of carb per kilo and afterwards about 2g per kilo.
There’s not too much need to stress the numbers though, just base your fuelling on the run scenarios I give you below and pack a bit spare in case you need it. As long as you feel strong and well and have a happy gut everything is good.
Real food as running nutrition, or gel and sports drinks?
We all know about runner’s trots don’t we, even if it’s a bit of a taboo subject? You know if you eat a giant bowl of muesli with extra dried fruit before a run you’re gonna be doing a bush recce pretty sharpish. May as well just chuck a load of ballast down you first, it’s only going one way, down and out as fast as poss! The jolting action of running creates a bit of a washing machine situation inside you. Whatever is in there gets bounced around, and your brain thinks “Hmm, I’d really like to just eject this load thanks.” Hey presto ‘Paula-moment’. So pick your real food carefully if you pick it at all (ultra runners you will prob/deffo need some). It should be refined carbs, easily chewable – because not chewing something and swallowing great lumps of it will cause the eject button to be pressed, plus you know how your brain forgets how to chew when you’ve been running for a few hours? So stuff like nuts, seeds and dried fruit are out and oaty bars, Jaffa Cakes and even boiled potatoes are in.
It’s good to get some of your running carbs from drink, we suggest cloudy apple juice and water mixed 50/50. Cloudy apple juice releases its carbs more slowly than some other fruit juices and doesn’t have such a sharp taste. You could use commercial energy drinks if they’re easier for you to carry in the form of powder you can mix with water you pick up along the way. I’d say try to minimise your intake of commercial sports products because they’re usually packaged with additives and you’ll ingest a lot of them over the course of your running life; not the best for good health. If you can alternate a sweet drink with plain water it will also be better for your teeth, cos slooshing your gnashers in fruit juice or sugar repeatedly is not the best route to keeping them in your head.
Gels and gel bloks are handy to carry, again they can have artificial additives so beware of overuse. They can also be cloyingly sweet and the sudden sugar rush of gels can leave you feeling, or actually being, sick. When using gel try decanting several into a hand-sized squeezy bottle and just have sips throughout the run, with water; you can stash the bottle in a belt like this. Bloks are *OK* just you have to chew them pretty well and if you don’t they can end up sitting in a blob inside you, because blood flow to the gut is decreased so digestion is compromised so by all means have them but chew chew chew, and have with water – same for any chewy sweets, including Jelly Babies.
Gels, bloks and drinks are obviously sugary and can badly damage teeth over time. We recommend regular sips of water slooshed around the mouth.
Getting some of your carbs from real food is great on long runs for a palate change, is more natural and can increase calorie intake for long hard runs as well as adding a little bit of protein. A few things to try are:
- Peanut butter or marmite sandwiches. Eat in small bites throughout.
- Mini cheddars
- Jaffa cakes
- Boiled salted potatoes
- Scotch pancakes
- Peanut butter sachets
When is the best time to take on carbohydrate?
Just before, during and just after training. Simple!
While I’m talking about food timing, it’s best to pre-fuel about 75-90 mins before the session. People vary in their ability to exercise on a full stomach, so play this as an individual but try not to leave more than 90 mins between pre-food and exercise.
An excellent strategy for refuelling is to finish the run at a main mealtime, that saves you having to add extra food to your day.
What is protein?
It’s a chain of amino acids strung together to make ‘building blocks’ to be used for manufacturing components such as hormones, muscles, tissues, enzymes and antibodies. There are 20 amino acids and nine can’t be made by the body, we have to ingest them. These nine are called ‘essential amino acids’.
A food which has all nine is called a complete protein, this includes meat, fish, dairy and eggs. Incomplete protein foods can be eaten together to provide all essential amino acids; for instance something as simple as beans on toast gives you the full set. Have a glass of milk with it and you have no worries about that meal’s protein content.
Do runners need more protein than sedentary people?
Serious regular running will break down muscle and need extra protein for repair and growth. If you’re just running recreationally, like steady runs of less than 90 mins a few times a week, a normal diet and regular protein intake will be totally fine.
How much protein?
Recommendation for sedentary people: Everyday-people need about 0.8g of protein per kilo of body weight per day. It’s rare as hen’s teeth for people in the western world to be protein deficient because we eat so much food from a wide range of sources and base our diets on heavily on meat and poultry. Almost all foods contain protein, even vegetables.
Recommendation for endurance training: Endurance athletes such as runners need about 1.2 to 1.4g of protein per kilo body weight a day.
I’m 63kg (10st), give me a day’s combination of foods that make up the 1.4g of protein per kilo body weight?
- One egg
- A regular tin of tuna
- One chicken breast
- A regular 170g pot of Greek yoghurt
- 400g of beans
So you can see it’s not that difficult to eat enough protein without resorting to manufactured, expensive protein shakes and powders. Don’t forget that all the other foods that go alongside these high protein foods contain protein too.
Are you beginning to wonder why people stress so much over protein? Good running nutrition doesn’t need loads of stressing about numbers and macros, it just needs a little more attention than a regular diet.
Real food, or shakes and powders?
The jury is still out as to whether protein from powders and shakes is a help or a hindrance, as with most nutrition stuff you can find research supporting both theories. It’s certainly a popular approach and if you go down that route it’s important to be aware of how much manufactured protein product you’ll ingest over the course of your running career. Protein supplements usually come packaged with artificial sweeteners, flavourings, thickeners and other additives, not substances recommended by fitnaturally, and neither are they what runners should eat, in our opinion. Yes they can be convenient at times when you can’t get real food, or enough real food, but getting your nutrients from real food gives you the other multiple benefits that real food offers, not least enjoyment. If you’re into protein supplements there’s lots you can read about them elsewhere on the internet, fitnat is about real and tasty food.
When is the best time to eat protein?
The amino acids from protein are pooled by the body and called on when the body is focusing on growth and repair. This largely happens during the night so eating protein straight after a run is not critical to recovery but will help you feel satisfied and stop you grazing on unnecessary calories later on. There is a theory that increased blood circulation during and after exercise helps the amino acids into the muscles and with our suggested fuelling you’ll be using that potential opportunity. Eating or drinking some protein during long runs may help you go for longer more comfortably and will add much-needed calories; it’s also a nice change from sweet tastes if you choose real food.
We often prescribe a milky drink or kefir before bed, as a protein boost using natural food.
Does running mean you can eat all the food and stay lean and mean?
No! In fact this is such a common issue; people overcompensate for their run by eating more calories than they burned, not just on that day but for days afterwards. That’s very nice and tasty but a lighter machine with a strong engine is a faster machine. YOU are that machine, your muscles are the engine and they need good fuel and not to be carrying around a lot of extra bodywork. That’s if you want to go faster, if you don’t then of course you can eat what you damn well like and enjoy it!
Nutrition for running sessions of varying frequency, duration and intensity
Here we’ll look at some of the most common run sessions and talk about how to fuel them, I’ll give you a few ideas for meals but remember it’s vital that you vary your food intake at other times of the day/week. That’s the knowledge you get with our sports nutrition plans, we show you how, you learn and apply, forever.
It’s not rocket science but getting it right will help you to get the most out of each run and to recover well in-between without breaking down valuable lean tissue and without adding strain to each run by carrying too much body fat.
Bear in mind that these sessions will always be affected by the sessions you do around them. So if it’s an easy recovery run of 30 mins ask yourself what you did the day before and what’s coming up the next day. That should always influence your food choice; if the day before was hard, or tomorrow morning is, then you might need to account for that with what you eat today.
Get your running nutrition fully dialled in with a couple of weeks on our bespoke sports nutrition plans.
30 min recovery run
Before: Either fasted if it’s early morning or some plain yoghurt and honey before, and water or tea/coffee.
After: A regular breakfast such as muesli with whole milk or one slice of sourdough toast with a poached egg or some peanut butter, and a banana.
Before: Either fasted or a piece of toast and butter or a Weetabix with milk and sugar.
After: A regular breakfast such as muesli with whole milk or sourdough toast with poached eggs or some peanut butter, and a glass of milk.
Before: Some easy carbs, like porridge or plain toast and butter. Nothing that sits too heavy.
During: Nothing, or sips of water.
60-90 minutes steady run
If you’re a seasoned runner this session won’t tax you, just regular everyday breakfast lunch and dinner is good. If you’re new to running, been putting in a lot of extra miles, or you feel tired (in which case it’s better to rest) or you just don’t operate well on fasted exercise have a small meal beforehand.
Before: If you’re used to it you can run this at breakfast time on just a cuppa or some water then enjoy breakfast afterwards. If you haven’t built up to fasted morning exercise, or you trained hard the day before or have a long race the following day or are just generally training hard then have a few spoons of Greek yoghurt and honey or a piece of toast and butter before running. If it’s later in the day and a few hours since eating have a 50g plain flapjack and water beforehand, we recommend Stoats porridge bars, and our clients get a discount on the bars.
Note: We only use fasted early morning training at fitnaturally as a way of calorie-sparing when an athlete wants to hone body composition or as a way of minimising gut distress during a run. Never for exercise longer than 90 mins or of it’s high intensity for more than 30 mins.
During: Nothing, or sips of water if the weather is very hot or you’re at high altitude.
After: Some carb and protein, nothing out of the ordinary, a bowl of our Cool Porridge would be perfect or some eggs and toast, or finish the run at lunch or dinnertime and have a regular meals with carbs and protein such as spaghetti bolognese or a jacket potato with Chilli beans. A glass of milk adds fluid with some great recovery and general nutrients.
There’s no need to drink during a 60-90 min session unless the weather is absolutely boiling or you’re generally dehydrated.
30-60 minutes hard run
A hard run will need pre-fuelling but no in-run nutrition. There will be more muscle damage so some protein afterwards is in order.
Before: 1 toast, butter and peanut butter or honey or 1-2 Weetabix a couple of spoons of oats and some milk and sugar.
During: Nothing, or sips of water
Afterwards: Cool porridge with sliced banana, or Sultana Bran, couple dessert spoons of oats, a few chopped brazil nuts, tablespoon of ground flax, whole milk, sliced banana. Eggs or peanut butter on toast and a glass of milk are also good.
Long steady run – 90 mins plus, including a half marathon race
Absolutely needs pre-fuelling with carbs. You’ll need fluids and carbs/sugar during the run and starchy carb and protein afterwards. If it’s a very long run, say practising for an ultra, you will likely need solid food during.
Before: Porridge made with milk and honey, or try our Athlete’s porridge .
After: Immediately afterwards have a glass of milk or kefir or a bottle of pre-made choc milk. Then:
Two thick sourdough toast with 3 scrambled eggs, and fruit salad. Or two slices of sourdough toast with Chilli beans, and fruit salad. Of course there are other options like fish finger sandwich or a warm pitta with burger and salad! Or finish at a main meal time and have something like veggie chilli with sour cream or avocado, or on a Sunday a roast dinner with meat/nut roast, potatoes and lots of veg.
A marathon needs a few days of forethought as far as fuelling goes; not that you have to load with *all* the carbs but you do need to reduce fibre and increase the percentage of carbs in your diet for a couple of days before the event, and avoid anything that has a food poisoning risk.
From 2 days before: Reduce fibre and spice and omit any foods that might give you gyppy tum, like shellfish, reheated rice, poorly cooked chicken or pork or anything else that’s been known to set you off. No need to increase calories but do increase the percentage of carbs in your diet; so where you might normally have spag bol make it a tomato-based sauce; if you’d normally have chicken salad for lunch have a sandwich; if you’d have yoghurt for breakfast have Weetabix or similar. The day before the race cut out fibre as much as you possibly can, enjoy a decent slab of cake in the afternoon and have some bland carbs in the evening – nothing you haven’t tried before the night before a long run, everything should have been tested. We do a very effective marathon-week eating plan for just a tenner if you’d like a helping hand. Good to try it during training, maybe in the week before you start taper.
On the morning: Porridge made with milk and honey, or try our Athlete’s porridge . Or anything you have tried and tested in training – this is no time to change habits!
During: Whatever you practised with and works! Obviously you need to be able to carry or have access to your regular fuel choice. Gels are probably the easiest; one every 25 mins works nicely for most people; again you can decant the required number of gels into small bottles on a holster and just sip throughout – saves opening packets and having a big hit all at once, I’m sure most of us have thrown a gel up at one point or another, I know I have! Drink water to thirst, it’s actually safer to under-drink than over drink as over-drinking water without taking on electrolytes can end up in hyponatremia. That’s not to encourage dehydration but to offer a word of serious caution about just drinking plain water.
Super-fast marathon runners are probably OK with just electrolyte drink throughout, as the speed and intensity can make gels hard to stomach.
If you’re going for energy drink rather than gels you’ll need to make sure you have guaranteed access to the drink throughout the marathon.
After: Immediately afterwards you will very likely feel quite shellshocked and not at all hungry. Ignore that, you need to get something down you. A packet of salty crisps and some chocolate works well, with water. Then get a good meal as soon as you can, and within and hour or two – anything you fancy, deffo with carbs! For the following week there’s absolutely no need to eat any more than usual but be especially careful to get plenty of fruit and veg in, as immunity will be hit hard and your body will need al the fighters it can get. Sleep too!
Same lead-up as the marathon but increase percentage of carbs for 4-5 days before the race. During the race you will need solid foods in order to get enough calories on board. Again it’s important to practise, and people vary in the types of food hey can tolerate but some generally well tolerated foods are these:
- Oat cakes
- Malt loaf (though can be hard to chew)
- Scotch pancakes
- Boiled or roasted salted potatoes
- Thai sticky rice (but needs to be kept cool)
- Mini pots of rice pudding
- Madeira cake
- Mini Cheddars
- Scrunched up crisps (careful not to inhale)
- Marmite, peanut butter or cheese sandwiches on white bread
- Peanut butter sachets
- Cooked gnocchi
- Potato pancakes
I wouldn’t advise all of those in one race 🙂 but practise with a few and work out the logistics of carrying them or getting access to them en route. Of course there’ll probably be feed stations with soup and so on, I’d suggest avoiding fresh or dried fruit (bananas are often given out) as it tends to like to fall out of yr bottom fairly sharpish 🙂
Try to eat some solid food every hour, drink plain water with solids and between solids drink sports drink. A lot of our ultra runners like Tailwind. I advise drinking to thirst rather than stressing about how much to take on board, in the later stages of the event yoru brain won’t be functioning that well anyway!
The lowdown on running nutrition
- Eat a good varied diet
- Use your hand size as a rough portion guide
- Don’t cut carbs from your diet
- Time carbs mostly around training
- Fuel with real food whenever possible but remember processed food isn’t necessarily bad and has its place!
- Keep your gut happy during runs
- Stay at a good healthy body composition to be strong and fast
A note about bread
After a run you want some easy fast food. Sometimes you won’t have time to cook potatoes or rice so it’s easiest to have bread or toast. Don’t listen to the bread police! Good bread is fantastic. Even the pappy kind is *ok* occasionally (only occasionally mind!)
What is good bread?
No more than flour, water, yeast and salt; even better is sourdough as it makes your gut a happier place.
Lastly, if in doubt, ask me!