Nutrition for Runners

As our ZAP athletes transition from college to the professional ranks we discuss doing the little things 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, focusing on nutrition for runners is a big lever to pull regarding performance.

In the professional world we put a heavy emphasis on recovery. Recovery allows athletes to 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 performance. Improving performance by focusing on nutrition for runners isn’t just for professional runners. There are a few practical tips any runner can implement into their routine to perform better on a daily basis.

Caloric Timing

Fueling during long runs is an important part of nutrition for performance.

Dr. Dan Benardot is one of the foremost sports nutritionists in the country. 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 runners. The study looks at some of the hormonal responses that occur when you eat a big meal versus a small meal. 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. This can lead to an increase in body fat. Additionally, going long periods of time between meals creates a caloric deficit. That deficit can cause 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. As a result, 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 (which you can find here) goes into far more depth than that. 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 changing your overall caloric intake you can improve your power to weight ratio by decreasing fat and increasing muscle.

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. This 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.) However, this change in caloric timing could improve your energy levels throughout the day and running performance.

Pre/Post Run Nutrition for Runners

The other aspects of nutrition for runners we emphasize 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. In order to do that you have to keep your caloric intake and output in balance throughout the day.

Your body is almost certainly calorically deficient after a full night’s sleep so morning nutrition is imperative. 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. There are some training strategies that can be helpful and don’t adhere to this rule. But overall, fueling during the run should be the rule rather than the exception.

Nutrition for Runners During the Run

UCAN can play an important role in nutrition for runners.

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’s a drink, gel, or one of a variety of other options. Aim to take in 100-120 calories a few minutes before the start. UCAN is a great option in the 30min leading up to the race start. After the race begins you want to fuel every 40-45 minutes throughout the remainder of the run. Additionally, make sure you are consuming 15-25 ounces of water every hour. Break that total up among the water stops on the course. And recognize that on a hot day drink you’ll need more.

Post run caloric intake is an after thought for many of us. Whether it’s because we’re rushing off to work or have tempo tummy and don’t feel like eating. 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, the ZAP athletes eat a few hundred calories immediately after they run.

Fluid Intake

Fluid intake in important as well, particularly this time of year. Losses of 2-3% body weight have a dramatic impact on performance. You should replace fluids immediately after the run, at the rate of 3 cups for every pound of weight loss. For runs over 90 minutes you replace 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.