March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Strong 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. Consuming enough calories and other vital nutrients — such as carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and fluids — can make a difference in the long run.
Calculating the perfect amount of calories you need to support a new training regimen — but not adding too many, which could cancel out your calorie burn and cause weight gain and a greater risk of injury — is a process. Start by adding an additional 100 calories to your normal daily diet for each mile you run.
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 from whole grains, fruits and vegetables, because those are higher in vitamins, minerals, fiber and compounds called phytonutrients compared to 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 including 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 such as gas, nausea and cramping, pre-run snacks should be high in carbohydrates, low in fiber, unseasoned and low in fat. Plan to consume this snack 45 minutes to 1 hour before your run. Plain spaghetti, toast, cereal, pretzels, a bagel, English muffin, breakfast bar or beverages including 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 to keep your body hydrated.
The key to a fast recovery is to replace 1½ 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 a run can help gauge fluid loss and help determine how much fluid is needed. 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! Choose nutritious, tasty, portable foods to make your new program a success, and consult a registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in sports nutrition for a more tailored plan.
Reviewed February 2015 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.