By Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, CSSD, LMHC
Healthy running begins with great preparation — proper fitting shoes, environmentally-suited clothing and safe running routes. But, a successful running program also means eating well to support daily, and additional, exercise energy needs. Running short on calories and other vital nutrients, such as carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and fluids, can mean the difference in the long run.
Calculating just enough calories to support your new training regimen, but not too many where you’ll gain extra weight and run the risk of injury, is a process. Start by adding an additional 100 calories for each mile you run to your normal daily diet.
Carbohydrates, fats and, to a lesser extent, protein are all sources of fuel for running. Your running intensity and duration, fitness level, gender and diet all impact what fuels you use. Without a diet high in carbohydrates you’ll run on empty. Opt for carbs such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, because they are higher in vitamins, minerals, fiber and compounds called phytonutrients than their sugary counterparts.
To fuel longer runs, healthy unsaturated fats (including peanuts, olives and their monounsaturated oils), soy foods, nuts (such as almonds and pistachios), omega-3s — found in flaxseed oil and fatty fish (salmon), and trans-fat-free unprocessed baked goods and prepared meals are highly recommended.
And, while protein is not your primary fuel for the actual run, it is part of your nutrient support team. Protein is important for runners because it helps to build and repair muscle, aids muscles in contracting and relaxing, builds ligaments and tendons that hold muscles and support bone, and assists with recovery by preventing muscle breakdown. Good sources include chicken, fish, turkey, lean meat, eggs, low-fat dairy or plant-based tofu, beans, peas, nuts, vegetables and whole grains.
Pre-run snacks help to maintain optimal levels of blood sugar for muscles, and can help restore suboptimal carbohydrate stores called glycogen. To avoid gut issues like gas, nausea and cramping, pre-run snacks should be high in carbohydrates, low in fiber, unseasoned and low in fat, and consumed 45 minutes to 1 hour before your run. Plain spaghetti, toast, cereal, pretzels, bagel, English muffin, breakfast bars or beverages like sports drinks, coconut water and fruit smoothies are all examples of easy-to-digest, high-carbohydrate choices. It’s not necessary to eat during your run, unless it is longer than 1 hour; water is sufficient.
The key to a fast recovery is to replace 1 ½ times the amount of fluids lost on the run and to get a high carbohydrate, high quality snack within 30 minutes of finishing — losing 1 pound of sweat (16 ounces) means replacing 24 ounces of fluids. Weighing in before and after workouts can help gauge fluid loss and help determine how much fluid is needed post run. Sports drinks, chocolate milk, smoothies and mixed fresh vegetable and/or fruit juices are ideal post-run recovery choices.
Healthy eating equals healthy running, so make the grocery store your first stop in preparing your kitchen for the long run with nutritious, tasty, portable foods — breakfast bars, beverages and high-quality protein snacks — to make your new program successful for the long run.
Reviewed November 2013
Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, CSSD, LMHC, is known nationally as "The Running Nutritionist" and is CEO of Food Fitness International, Inc., a consulting firm that works with industry, medical communities and the public and press. Dorfman is a former Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson and personal nutritionist to Olympian, elite and professional athletes worldwide.