You’ve been running for a little while now, and things are going well. You’ve increased your mileage, maybe even run a 5K and actually enjoyed it. Now you’ve officially been bitten by the running bug, and you’ve set your sights on the next challenge: a half-marathon.
Before you start tackling your new training plan, it’s important to also formulate a nutrition plan. If you take on the responsibility of running more miles, you need to take on the responsibility of fueling your body better. Sure, you could run longer distances and maybe feel OK, but having a solid nutrition plan will keep you feeling your best and ultimately help you take your training and race performance to the next level.
As your mileage increases, gone are the days when you could just go run on an empty stomach. Why? Because your muscles will need additional fuel to power you through a longer run. While you could muscle through a short run or workout and be fine, your performance on a long run will suffer without fuel. In addition, not fueling your body properly can put you at greater risk for injury and may even compromise your immune system.
Glucose, a simple sugar, is the preferred source of energy for endurance sports. If you run early in the morning, which is when most long-distance races are, then your body is already fairly depleted of glucose from your overnight “fast.” It’s important to eat an adequate amount of glucose, which comes from the carbohydrate food group, both the morning of and leading up to long runs and races.
You don’t have to eat a large meal before you run. A small meal is sufficient, as the goal is to get a little boost of glucose into your blood so you have energy to get you started. Then you can continue fueling throughout your run.
If you’re not used to eating before a run, start simple. The last thing you want to do is end up with an upset stomach. If you are used to eating before working out but you’re wondering how much you should eat, the rule of thumb is the more time you have before a run, the more you should eat. If you have 30 minutes, then a small snack consisting mostly of carbs is best. If you have 1-2 hours, a small meal containing carbohydrates, lean protein and a touch of fat is OK.
Loading your diet with carbohydrates in the days leading up to an endurance event like a longer run or half-marathon may boost your muscles’ energy reserves, but it’s not a license to kill. It’s easy to overconsume food in the name of “carb loading.” This technique is most beneficial for performance when runs are about 90 minutes or more. A true carb loading starts about six days out from an endurance event and is paired with energy-depleting exercise. As you taper runs in the week leading up to a race, gradually increase your intake of carbs. Practically, this can look like eating an extra 1-3 servings of carbohydrates daily in the 3-4 days leading up to your event.
As you experiment with different food and beverage combinations, you’ll probably be able to narrow down a couple of food and beverage combinations that work particularly well for you. Make note of them, as these are foods you can and should rely on regularly to fuel future runs.
Some foods, particularly those high in fiber, are best to avoid before a run. Tummy trouble can occur on longer runs for a variety of reasons, but eating too much fiber beforehand is an all-too-common culprit, since fiber is tougher and slower to digest. For this reason, it’s best to avoid high-fiber foods in the 12 hours leading up to a long run. Examples include leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli and cabbage), beans, and high-fiber bars and cereals.
Of course, you may discover other foods upset your stomach while running that aren’t high in fiber. If so, make a mental note to avoid those before long runs as well.
A tight-knit sports nutrition plan can give you a serious competitive advantage, no matter how serious or seasoned you may (or may not) be. Runners with no fuel strategies are easy to pick out in a race — you can see the fatigue on their faces and in their posture, and they certainly don’t look like they are enjoying the race. Why even chance this situation when you can almost ensure a positive running experience with the right fuel?
The basis of a good fueling plan starts with determining your best frequency. One motto you should embrace is “fuel early and often.” You should not wait until you feel your energy start to crash. By then, it’s really too late to get the maximum benefits. Why? From a digestive perspective, your body will more easily absorb and utilize glucose and fluid when you keep a small amount in your stomach from the get-go. If you wait too long to fuel, digestion becomes more challenging as your moving body demands all the attention.
To determine your optimal fueling frequency, practice eating or drinking every 15-30 minutes from the beginning during a longer training run. After completing your run, really think through how it went for you by asking these kinds of questions:
- How did my body feel on this run?
- How was my energy throughout the run?
- Did I experience anything positive or negative on this run that I haven’t experienced in the past?
- Did I enjoy my run more, or was it more difficult?
- How did my stomach feel on this run?
Once you answer these questions after trying out your fueling plan on a few runs, you can narrow down the frequency at which you need to fuel. Then, if needed, set your watch to beep at that time interval to remind you.
The goal is to get in 45-90 grams of carbohydrates per hour of training or competing. This is the amount of energy that science suggests is required to preserve performance during endurance events. Truly, your best fuel option is the one you like and will actually eat, sits well in your stomach and enhances your performance. The key, once again, is to practice with different options to determine which works best for you.
Sport supplements — including gels, beans, bars and goos — make fueling while running very convenient. They provide the quick and easy-to-digest carbohydrates in a convenient, portable package and can be purchased either in running stores or online. If you don’t love supplements or find you’re getting tired of the taste, real food can certainly be used as a substitute for or in combination with these quick energy products to keep you well-fueled.
Here are some ideas to help you get started, with each serving providing 15-30 grams of carbohydrates:
- 3 Clif Shot Bloks
- 1 ounce animal crackers
- 1 pouch Annie’s organic fruit bites
- 1 fig cookie
- 1 Gu Gel
- 1 pouch Clif Organic Energy Food
- 1 ounce (about 20) mini salted pretzels
- 3 mini peppermint patties
- 8 ounces of sports drink
Remember, your goal is to take in 45-90 grams of carbohydrate per hour of running, and take in some sort of energy at least every 30 minutes.
Staying hydrated while running is another critical key to your success. This area also needs to be practiced before race day. The goal for your hydration plan is to reduce significant fluid losses from sweat and prevent fatigue, muscle cramping and dehydration or overhydration.
It’s important to figure out how much fluid you actually need for long runs. The more scientific way to assess your fluid needs is to weigh yourself before and after a run.
- If you gain weight, you drank too much fluid and run the risk for hyponatremia (basically diluting your blood). While this may sound far-fetched, slower-paced runners can easily drink more than they need because they don’t sweat as much and and are on the course longer.
- If you lose more than 2% of your body weight, you probably didn’t drink quite enough. Work on drinking at more frequent intervals regardless of thirst. (There is a little debate on this issue. Read more about it: Is Drinking for Thirst the Best Hydration Advice?)
A good rule of thumb is to drink 3-4 sips of fluid every 15-20 minutes. Water is sufficient so long as you get carbohydrates from fuel. If you do choose a sports drink, it can do double duty by providing both fluids and carbohydrates.
It’s also important to start your run well-hydrated. Try drinking 12-16 ounces of fluid in the 2 hours leading up to your run. You will know you’re hydrated if your urine is pale yellow.
Electrolytes are charged elements that play critical roles in the body, like muscle function and digestion. The main electrolyte of concern for athletes is sodium because it is lost in the highest amounts in sweat. You do lose some potassium and a little magnesium but typically not in large enough amounts to impact performance, although it is possible.
Each runner is individualized in their approach to replacing electrolytes. As with fluids, slower runners may not lose as much sodium, even on longer runs, and therefore don’t need to replace sodium above what they eat in their typical diet. For runners who have a quicker pace, are heavy or salty sweaters or exercise in hot and humid conditions, replacing sodium during runs is likely going to be very important.
For most of us, sport supplements like drinks, gummies and goos that include sodium provide adequate amounts. Eating a salty snack like pretzels during your run could also give you enough. For some runners, however, these options are not enough and they may need an electrolyte tablet to replace losses. If you experience cramping or an upset digestive tract during your runs, you may be suffering from high electrolyte loss and need a better plan for replacing them.
Once your run is over, it many be tempting to scarf down anything and everything in sight. While replacing calories burned during your run is important for recovery, it doesn’t give you a license to binge. Here are some important things to implement in your post-run refueling plan that will optimize muscle repair and recovery:
Within 30-45 minutes of finishing your long runs, have at least a snack consisting of carbs and some protein. This is an important window of time when your muscles are very responsive to nutrition and will quickly use the nutrients to rebuild and repair muscles. This translates to potentially less soreness and injury prevention. Chocolate milk is a great science-based option for recovery, but you can choose other sports drinks designed for recovery or even something simple like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
In order to fully replace all nutrients for optimal recovery, you will need to eat a larger amount of food. Choose a meal with healthy carbs, lean protein, produce and fats.
Produce provides key phytonutrients that can help reduce inflammation in your muscles and joints. Some types, like tart cherries, have been shown to significantly reduce muscle soreness in the 24 hours after exercise. This Chocolate Tart Cherry Recovery Smoothie makes a huge, positive impact in reducing soreness after long runs and has become a staple in my recovery plan.
A moderate amount of monounsaturated and omega-3 fats can also help reduce inflammation. Include avocado, olives, olive oil, nuts or salmon in your post-run meal.
Be vigilant about rehydrating by focusing on replacing losses in the 24 hours after a run. It may take a full day to fully rehydrate. Focus on water (or recovery beverages if desired) first, although all fluids can contribute. And while that frosty finish-line brew might be tasty, be mindful of alcohol intake, as it can interfere with your body’s recovery and rehydration process.