Updated: Jul 9, 2018
Here is my recent blog on nutrition for runners - I get to the nitty gritty about food and running, what to eat before a run, after a run, when to eat it, what foods to avoid if you have bowel issues and even what foods to eat that make you faster.
1. Should you eat before you run, or should you run 'fasted'?
It depends on your training goal – do you want to enhance performance, maximise adaptations, lose weight? The goal of training is to prepare the runner to perform at their best during major competitions. Whatever the event, nutrition plays a substantial role in the achievement of various factors that will see a runner take the starting line in the best possible form. Everyday eating patterns must supply runners with the fuel and nutrients needed to optimize their performance during training sessions and to recover quickly afterward. The runner must also eat to stay in good health and in good shape. Special strategies of food and fluid intake before, during, and after a workout may help to reduce fatigue and enhance performance. These will be important in the competition setting but must be practiced and fine-tuned during training so that successful strategies can be identified.
Short-distance events (800-1500m) – the main limitation to performance is the disturbance in acid-base balance, which results from high rates of anaerobic glycolysis, rather than substrate depletion. An adequate supply of muscle glycogen in needed for such races, and runners should avoid training and dietary strategies that would cause them to commence a race with depleted muscle glycogen stores. There is some evidence that supercompensation of muscle glycogen levels may enhance the capacity for high-intensity workloads, although it is not clear where this results from.
Middle-distance events (5000m) to long-distance events (marathons) – it is usually suggested that substrate needs can be met by normalizing muscle carbohydrate stores before the race. In the absence of muscle damage, such fuelling up can be achieved with 24hr of a relative exercise taper and a carbohydrate intake of 7 to 12 g/kg BM.
In races of longer duration fuelled by moderate to high rates of carbohydrate oxidation, the muscles carbohydrate requirement is greater than its normal storage capacity. The depletion of muscle glycogen stores is associated with a feeling of fatigue and the necessity to reduce race pace.
As a runner myself, the decision to eat or not before my runs can be difficult. For me, and I am sure you as well, it is often dictated by our schedules, the availability of food in the fridge and cupboards, our level of hunger and anxiety about the training or race. Having had the opportunity to treat many varying abilities of athletes throughout the years and having noticed the eating practices of runners differs just as much as the running style. Some of my colleagues, who also run, always eat before a run, no matter how short or easy, whereas, others don’t seem to eat a thingBasically, pre-exercise nutrition will vary from person to person, workout to workout and season to season. Here is a quick checklist to consider:
Type of run – is it a hard workout, a long training run or just an easy recovery run?
Timing of the run – is it early in the morning, mid-day or late in the evening after a full day of work?
What can your stomach tolerate – do you usually eat before a run or are you trying to train your stomach to tolerate a pre-run meal?
Fasted state training - simply means exercising after having not eaten for several hours, typically early in the morning when your last meal was dinner. Blood sugar and liver glycogen levels are compromised, so you are likelier to burn body fat as fuel. This sounds great doesn’t it? It’s a great tool for endurance athletes, especially those wanting to train their bodies to regulate fuel stores more efficiently. Its benefits for everyone else aren’t clear – even for those wanting to shed a couple of pounds. Although there are studies confirming that fasting in general increases fat oxidation and decreases glycogen turnover, hard scientific evidence supporting its benefits for training is somewhat sparse.
2. What are the best things to eat after a run?
The main goals of post-run fuelling are to replenish glycogen (stored glucose) supplies and facilitate muscle repair and recovery. If you're doing a shorter run (under 90 minutes) at low to moderate intensity, you should be able to achieve those goals with your normal eating habits (assuming you're already following a balanced diet) and there's no need to eat specifically to recover. But after long runs or a very intense workout, you'll want to replenish energy as quickly as possible. Studies have shown that muscles are most receptive to rebuilding glycogen stores within the first 30 minutes after exercise. If you eat soon after your long run or intense workout, you can minimize muscle stiffness and soreness.So, carbohydrates in the form of glucose are the easiest to break down and be used as fuel. High-glycemic index foods like potatoes, pasta, bread, and rice are good choices for refuelling muscles. Pair one of those foods with a protein such as lean chicken or turkey breast (3 oz.), salmon (3 oz.), or a large egg and you've got yourself a solid post-run recovery meal.However, you may not always have the time or energy to prepare a meal after a run. Nutrition bars, such as Power bars, are convenient, healthy options. Look for bars that have the 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein. Other examples of quick nutrient replacement would be a bagel with peanut butter, a protein shake, a banana and yogurt, or a fruit and yogurt smoothie. (Get smoothie recipes from www.caitlintinnnutrition.co.uk)If you feel like you can't stomach solid food immediately after a long run, try drinking some chocolate milk. Chocolate milk provides the right amount of protein and carbohydrates, and also contains B vitamins —- making it a great recovery drink. And cold chocolate milk tastes pretty refreshing after a run. 3. When should I be eating after a run to maximise recovery?
The sooner the better – ideally within 30 minutes after running as your body needs essential nutrients to kick start the growth and repair process after a hard training session.
4. Is protein or carbohydrate more important for recovery?
Both are critical for full recovery after training. Carbohydrates are the body's main fuel source for high intensity work and are stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver. As the body can only store a certain amount of carbohydrate, once reduced through a harder training session these stores need to be replaced before your next workout.
Protein is vital for the growth and repair of muscle tissue and after hard training this remodelling can continue for over 24 hours. Starting with the post-training snack, regular protein intake helps to provide the building blocks (amino acids), for ongoing muscle growth and repair. 20g of protein is the magic number that you need to hit to kick-start the recovery process after training (slightly more for bigger athletes and less for smaller).
5. Are there any types of food that you should avoid before running?
Try limiting or eliminating some of these foods before running:
High-fibre foods – whole-grain foods, vegetables (e.g. broccoli), legumes, fruits and lentil loafs that are high in fibre can cause gastrointestinal distress or diarrhoea. Yes, although they are healthy foods for runner, they may cause digestive issues in runners who consume them the night before or the morning of a long run. So, while you shouldn't eliminate those healthy options from your diet, you're probably better off eating them when you don't have a long run the next day. Trade the multigrain breads and cereals for simpler carbs, such as white-flour pasta and bagels, days before a race.
High-fat foods - foods with a lot of fat, such as fried foods, cheese, burgers, or bacon, digest slowly and will feel like they're sitting in your stomach. In many cases, these will be foods you'll want to limit in your diet for your overall health and nutrition, in addition to the digestive troubles they may cause before a long run.
Caffeine – coffee or other caffeinated drinks can cause stomach issues or diarrhoea on a long run. Some runners, especially regular coffee drinkers, can tolerate it without problems and appreciate the potential benefits of a caffeine boost. It's important to test your body's reactions to caffeine and other potential trouble foods, so that you can figure out the best and worst pre-run food options for you.
Lactose – this is difficult for the stomach to digest. Eliminating dairy 24-hours before running is a simple solution for runners with stomach problems.
Spicy foods – some spicy foods can speed up your metabolism; however, too much of it can lead to heartburn and indigestion.
Refined sugars – Although sugar is important, certain types and how much can alter performance. The main reason is the feeling of fatigue. Research has proven that athletes performed significantly faster 45 minutes after eating a low GI meal (glycemic index) rather than a high-GI meal. An example of a low-GI meal would be something simple with minimal sugar, like an apple with peanut butter. High-GI foods include white bread, high-sugar energy bars and ice cream.
But remember – it is what works for your body – this is just a guideline.
6. If a runner has a race on a Sunday morning, what would you suggest they consume the morning of the race?
If you're training for a big race, such as a half or full marathon, it's important that you figure out what foods work for you before the race day. You don't want to eat new foods the morning of your race, because you never know how it will affect you. Your training runs, especially your long runs, are the time to try different foods and figure out what works best for you. Every runner is different, so what works for someone else may not necessarily work for you, and vice versa. Experiment with different foods the night before and the morning of long runs and pay attention to how you feel during the run. Once you've figured out foods that don't cause you any GI issues, and seem to help you achieve optimal performance, stick with those choices. These are the best types of pre-run foods to help avoid gastrointestinal distress during or after running:
Refined Carbs: Processed white foods, like regular pasta, white rice, and plain bagels are good choices. Although they're not as nutritious as whole grain and unprocessed foods, they're easier on your stomach because the whole grain is already broken down. A plain bagel with some peanut butter (and a glass of water) would be a safe choice before a long run.
Low-Fibre Fruits and Veggies: If you really want to eat fruits or vegetables before runs, zucchini, tomatoes, olives, grapes, and grapefruit are all low in fibre.
Dairy Substitutes: Soy, rice, and almond milks are generally safe because they don't contain the sugar lactose, which can be tough to digest. You can also try acidophilus milk and yogurts with live cultures, which contain bacteria that help with digestion.
7. What are the best sources of carbs, protein, and fat for a 1/2 marathon or marathon runner?
Bananas – Easy to eat and digest and are loading with fast-acting carbohydrates (1 large banana = 31g of carbohydrates). Perfect for pre or post-exercise snacks.
Berries – Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries are the most nutritious sources of carbohydrates. They are rich in vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that promote health and performance. They are not the most concentrated source of carbohydrates but 1 cup contains 12g of carbohydrates.
Brown rice – the richest sources of carbohydrates. One cup of brown rice contains 45g of carbohydrate. They are healthier than refined grains (white rice) because they contain more fibre, vitamins and minerals. They are absorbed more slowly so they provide long lasting energy whilst promoting fat storage.
Energy bars – real energy bars (the ones designed specifically for pre, during and post exercise)are great for fuelling and refuelling around workouts as they provide abundant, fast energy. Before and after workout choose bars high in carbohydrates, moderate in protein and low in fat and fibre. Powerbar Performance are a good example (44g carb, 9g protein, 3.5g fat and 1g fibre).
Low far yogurt – A rich source of carbohydrate (6oz pot of blueberry yoghurt provides 26g of carbohydrate). Better choice for before and after exercise because it has a high-GI, ensuring the carbohydrates work quickly. But try to find a brand with no added sugar.