Nutrition for Performance

By Ryan Warrenburg, ZAP Fitness

As our ZAP-Reebok resident athletes transition from college to the professional ranks we talk to them about doing all the little things right in order to take their performance to the next level. There are a lot of components to training that slip by the wayside when you’re in college: eating in a dining hall, cramming all night for exams, and living in a dormitory among others. Coming from 4 years of daily meal options consisting of french fries, burgers, and pizza new professional athletes often over look the role nutrition can play in performance.

In the professional world we try to capitalize on all those little things to help runners recover better so that they can train harder and race faster. I’m not a nutritionist, nor do I play one on TV, but as coaches we look at how nutrition before, during, and after competition can improve your performance. Improving performance by improving your nutrition isn’t just for professional runners; there are a few practical tips any runner can easily implement into their daily routine to feel better and perform better on a daily basis.


Our ZAP-Reebok athletes receive nutritional consultation from one of the country’s foremost experts in sports nutrition, Dr. Dan Benardot. In 2013 Dr. Benardot authored a study that looked at energy intake strategies for optimizing body composition. This study changed the way we at ZAP look at nutrition for our athletes. The study looks at some of the hormonal responses that occur when you eat a big meal versus a small meal, and the results advocate easting smaller meals throughout the day to keep your energy levels in balance. When you eat large, infrequent meals your bloodstream becomes flooded with insulin, most likely resulting in an increase in body fat.

Additionally, going long periods of time between meals creates a caloric deficit and leads the body to use lean muscle tissue as fuel rather than fat stores. The concept is that the body activates a self-preservation mode, similar to if you were starving, where it tries to shed the body tissue that costs the most energy to maintain, muscle, while preserving the tissue that has the lowest anabolic cost to maintain, fat. The study goes into far more depth than that, and at the risk of over simplifying things, the big takeaway is spreading caloric intake evenly throughout the day has a dramatic impact on body composition. Without even changing your overall caloric intake for the day you can improve your power to weight ratio by decreasing fat tissue and increasing muscle mass.

It’s amazing to think that you can improve your body composition without reducing the number or type of calories you take in during the day, and this new information is a far cry from the traditional belief that calories in equals calories out. Obviously eating a well-balanced diet and limiting junk food could have a more dramatic impact depending on how bad your eating habits are, but with a little bit of planning and change in habits you could improve your energy levels throughout the day and your running performance.

Pre & Post Run

The other aspects of nutrition we talk a lot about are fueling before and after the run. Even if you run in the morning you should eat something before you go out the door for a run; this plays into the negative impacts of caloric deficiency discussed in the Benardot study. You want to make sure your body is burning fat and carbohydrate during the run, and in order to do that you have to keep your caloric intake and output in balance throughout the day. If you’re running in the morning it’s imperative to eat before you run because your body is almost certainly calorically deficient after a full night’s sleep. If you are running for more than 90 minutes you should be taking 100-120 calories in during the run every 40-45 minutes. This will help maintain that caloric balance better and leave you feeling stronger later in the run or race.

Marathon Fueling

In training for a marathon you want to be sure to practice your fueling pattern during training. Find something that works well for you whether it is a sports drink, a gel, jelly beans, or one of a variety of other options. You should aim to take in 100-120 calories a few minutes before the start and then every 40-45 minutes throughout the remainder of the run. In addition to those calories make sure you are consuming a few ounces of water every 20-25 minutes, and on a hot day drink a little bit more.

Post run and post race caloric intake is an after thought for many of us, whether it’s because you’re rushing off to shower before work or your stomach is upset and you don’t feel like eating for hours. As a result post run nutrition is an under utilized, yet important, recovery tool. Eating a few hundred calories within 30 minutes of finishing your run is critical in the recovery process. Those calories should include both carbohydrate and protein for glycogen replacement and muscle rebuilding. As a part of our daily training routine all of our athletes eat a few hundred calories immediately after they run.

Fluid Intake

Fluid intake in important as well, particularly this time of year, and losses of 1-2% body weight have a dramatic impact on performance. You should be replacing fluids immediately, at the rate of 3 cups for every pound of weight loss. For runs over 60 minutes you should be replacing fluid during the run.

You don’t have to be an elite athlete to take care of your body like an elite athlete. You may not have time for a 90-minute nap in the middle of the day like many professional athletes, but proper nutrition is simply a matter of reprioritizing the way you consume your food throughout the day in order to run faster and live healthier.

Click for More Articles on Recovery & Nutrition

*This Article Originally Appeared in the July 2015 Issue of Running Journal