If you run regularly, whether it’s an easy jog around the block to stay fit or an intense training regimen to prepare for a marathon, you need proper nutrition.
Shelby Eidel, a clinical dietitian at Johns Hopkins Medicine, is passionate about distance running and training. She shares some tips to help keep runners well-nourished and ready to win.
Foods for Runners and Joggers
A good diet can boost your physical health and help you meet your fitness goals. Make sure your meals emphasize the following basic components:
- Fruit and vegetables for vitamins, minerals and antioxidants
- Lean protein such as fish, poultry, beans, lentils and tofu
- Healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado and nuts
- Healthy carbohydrates such as rice, whole grain breads/pastas and oatmeal
Eidel stresses that individuals may have different optimal balances, but in general, she says, people who include running or jogging as part of their fitness regimen should get 60% to 70% of their calories from carbohydrates, with lean protein and healthy fats each accounting for 15% to 20% of their remaining calories.
Don’t skimp on carbohydrates
Although low carbohydrate diets are popular go-to’s for people wanting to lose weight, they’re not ideal for distance runners, who thrive on carbohydrates for endurance.
“Very low carbohydrate diets, such as the ketogenic diet, plus running is not a good idea,” Eidel says. “I would not recommend keto to anyone unless they have been told by their doctor that this a medically safe option for them and they are being monitored while in ketosis.
“Distance runners need more carbs than people who aren’t training. Undereating carbohydrates can be hard on your body and affect your recovery after your run.”
Here’s why: Running uses both glucose in the blood and your stores of glycogen. Glucose is the form of sugar that circulates in the bloodstream, and glycogen, Eidel explains, is the sugar stored in your liver and muscles that acts as the primary fuel for endurance exercise.
Eating plenty of carbs helps ensure that these energy stores are ready to support your training. When those stores get too low, runners are more likely to run out of energy and “burn out” or “hit a wall” while training.
Running Diet — Vitamins and Minerals
Running changes your body and your nutritional needs. “Often when people start a running regimen, they are trying to lose weight or get in shape quickly, and they don’t realize they need to adjust their diet,” says Eidel.
“Especially in women runners, we see a tendency to overdo the running while not eating enough,” she says, “and this can have an effect on health if they do not adequately replenish lost vitamins and minerals in their diet.
“For women in particular, calcium and vitamin D are essential for bone health to avoid loss of bone mineral density and the risk of stress fractures.”
For more vitamin D, include these foods in your meals:
- Vitamin D-fortified dairy and almond, soy or rice based beverages
- Cereal fortified with vitamin D
For more calcium, try:
- Yogurt and cheese
- Canned fish with bones (such as sardines)
Iron deficiency can affect women and even have an impact on their running performance. “Menstruation puts people at higher risk of iron deficiency, and if iron isn’t replenished in the diet, you can see decreases in hemoglobin and development of anemia,” Eidel explains. “Hemoglobin is what carries oxygen throughout the body, including the muscles, so if there is a deficit, the muscles may feel the effect of insufficient oxygen during exercise.”
Iron-rich foods include:
- Poultry and other meat
- Legumes, such as peas and beans
- Dark, leafy green vegetables such as kale
- Dried fruits and raisins
- Iron-fortified breads and cereals
Eidel offers this tip: “Eat iron rich foods in combination with foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus, bell peppers or berries. Vitamin C helps increase the body’s absorption of iron.”
The Truth Behind 'Runners High' and Other Mental Benefits of Running
You may have experienced it — that relaxing feeling after a good run. Often referred to as “runner’s high,” the experience is usually attributed to a burst of endorphins released during exercise. But is that truly an endorphin rush you’re feeling, or something else?
David Linden, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, breaks down the phenomenon of runner’s high and other effects running has on the brain.
What to Eat Before Running ― and When
Eidel says the best time to eat a full meal is about two to three hours before you hit the road, track or trail. “Have a good source of carbs paired with protein, making sure the meal focuses on a healthy carb source,” she suggests.
“If it’s been more than three to four hours since you’ve eaten, a carbohydrate-rich snack a half-hour before running can ensure you have adequate glucose available before you head out,” Eidel says. “Directly before a run, it’s best to stick with easy-to-digest carbohydrates to avoid gastrointestinal [GI] distress such as cramping or diarrhea.”
- Crackers, pretzels or cereal
- White bread
Glucose Boosters for Long Distance Runners
If you are training for a marathon or distance event and are going to be out for over an hour, you will want to bring some fuel with you. Energy drinks, gel tubes and other sources of quick blood-glucose boosters are available, but you can also use something as simple as fruit snacks.
Eidel recommends practicing with these items as you train so you can pick the formulas that are best for you, and you can work on accessing and ingesting them smoothly without breaking stride.
What foods should runners avoid?
Before a run or the night before a big race, Eidel recommends going easy on:
- Spicy foods or foods overly high in fat, which can cause GI upset
- Foods that are very high in fiber, which can cause gas and cramping
- Caffeine ― Eidel says that although it is tempting to grab a caffeine boost right before a run, runners should remember that for some people, caffeine can stimulate the GI tract, which can result in diarrhea or the need for an emergency bathroom break
Does carb-loading work?
It might. Carb loading is the practice of eating a lot of carbohydrates ― particularly those that are easily absorbed, such as white bread, pasta and rice ― for 24 to 48 hours before a big race or distance run, to shore up your body’s stores of glycogen and lessen the risk of burnout before finishing the event.
“Some studies show carb loading is beneficial for people preparing for a race, but it’s important to make sure during that time you’re also allowing your body to rest and giving it time to store what you are ingesting,” Eidel says. “The number of carbohydrate grams will be different from person to person, but in general, evidence shows carb loading can be beneficial prior to a distance event.”
She adds that casual runners likely do not need to carb load. Ensuring that their day-to-day diets include extra carbohydrates can be sufficient.
What to Eat After a Run
It’s common for people not to feel hungry after a run, but Eidel recommends a snack or light meal of complex carbohydrates and protein within the first hour after running to help replenish glycogen stores and to support recovery and rebuild stressed muscles. For example:
- Peanut butter and banana
- Egg on toast
- Sandwich with deli meat
- Pasta with meat or plant-based protein
- Veggie burger on a bun
- Protein shake or smoothie
Running to Lose Weight
“If you’re interested in running as part of a weight loss plan, getting adequate nutrition is a must,” Eidel says. “Even casual running or jogging burns calories and can be hard on the body. Runners can become undernourished at first because they don’t understand how much energy they’re burning when they run and what they need to properly recover.”
She adds that eating enough is also essential to building muscles, which can aid in fat burning ― a plus for people working on achieving or maintaining a healthy weight.
“For optimal weight loss, you want a plan that doesn’t rely on running alone but also includes strength training and proper nutrition,” Eidel says. “Working with a dietitian can be helpful.”
Listen to your body
Eidel says that if you run regularly, you should pay attention to the effects of what you eat and when, especially on running performance. Learning what works best for you can take some time and a little trial and error, but it is worth it, since running, jogging and other regular aerobic exercise offers so many health advantages.
“Always feel free to consult a dietitian or doctor, and listen to your body if you’re not keeping up with your training goals,” she says.