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May. 30 2010 - 11:03 am | 722 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

I’m a runner. What should I eat?

Banana and cross section

Image via Wikipedia

A balanced diet will go far in helping you feel your best, but endurance runners have some special dietary needs to consider. Consuming enough calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc is essential for maintaining healthy bones, muscles, and immune system.

If you run 3 miles or so a few times a week, you probably don’t need to do anything out of the ordinary. Just make sure you’re eating a balanced breakfast, drinking enough water, and including veggies, whole grains, and lean protein/dairy whenever you can. You certainly don’t need to carbo-load for a 5K. If, however, you are training for an endurance race such as a triathlon, half-marathon, or marathon you’re going to need to really focus on fueling properly.

How Many Calories Should I Eat?

First things first, everyone’s body is different. What works for me, might not work for you. Eating enough to fuel your running takes a lot of trial and error – I’ve been running for 10 years and I still haven’t figured it all out yet! To get a base line calorie goal, check out the Mayo Clinic’s interactive tool. I don’t count calories everyday, but sometimes on long run days I will estimate to make sure that I’m eating enough to maintain my weight. For me, that could mean close to 3,000 calories. It can be tough to eat that much without feeling overstuffed, so I try to focus on energy-dense, low-volume foods such as: peanut butter, trail mix, homemade granola, olive oil, whole grain, seed bread, avocado, Clif bars, 2% greek yogurt, whole grain banana pancakes, etc. These foods are packed with nutrients AND the calories you need.

If, on the other hand, you are trying to lose weight, you might want to fill up on low-calorie, high volume foods such as melon, berries, apples, raw veggies, salsa, soup, high fiber cereal, fruit & yogurt smoothies, etc.

However, I would not recommend trying to lose weight while training for a marathon. It can be done, but the high amounts of mileage you’ll need to complete will require a lot of energy. Doing a long run when you’re hungry and cranky is a recipe for disaster! In fact, many marathoners actually gain a few pounds during their highest mileage weeks – it happened to me! Some researchers theorize that this uptick in body weight comes from the muscles retaining glycogen/extra water while others attribute it to the increase in appetite. In any case, asking your body to run 26.2 miles (or even 13.1!) is intense. Please don’t hesitate to give it what it wants – FUEL.

Fueling Before/After Exercise

Although I still haven’t figured out the perfect formula, I’ve noticed that I feel a lot better when I have a small snack before an early morning run. Ideally, I’d eat a light meal 2-3 hours before running, but on days when I can’t do that I try to eat a 100-150 calorie snack about 20-30 minutes before heading out the door. Food that is low in fiber/fat and high in carbs while minimize tummy troubles. Some of my fav pre-run options:

  • slice of toast with nut butter
  • 1/2 luna or clif bar
  • small bowl of cereal and soymilk
  • handful of raisins
  • banana
  • 1/2 cup plain yogurt with honey

After you finish running, try to drink some water ASAP and have a combo of protein + carbs within an hour (preferably 30 minutes).

Some examples of post-run food:

  • smoothie made with yogurt, frozen fruit, spinach, almond butter, and ice
  • bagel with banana, peanut butter, and honey
  • turkey and hummus sammie on whole wheat
  • veggie soup (perfect for replacing sodium) and whole grain crackers
  • oatmeal with chopped apple and cinnamon
  • hot latte or hot chocolate (it has protein + carbs!) and trail mix
  • homemade english muffin “pizza”

Fueling During Long Runs and Races

If you have a big race coming up, you’ll want to try out your breakfast and mid-run snacks in advance. Nothing worse than finding out your scrambled eggs aren’t going to agree with a 10 mile long run. Ugh.

Before my last two marathons, I had basically the same pre-race breakfast: coffee, banana with 2 Tbs peanut butter, cinnamon raisin bagel, and gatorade. I started eating my breakfast about 4 hours before the race start – next time I would add a small snack (1/2 an energy bar) about 30-45 minutes before the gun goes off. If you’re worried about having to use the porta-potties during the race, stop drinking water/gatorade at least an hour before the start. The time buffer will allow your kidneys to empty before you start running. Inside tip: I chew gum while running to keep my mouth from getting too dry.

During the race, a good rule of thumb is to consume 100 calories for every 60 minutes of running. I personally like powergels (chocolate flavor!) and clif shot bloks, but jelly beans, fig newtons, and gummie candy could also work. The key is to get simple sugars into your body ASAP. Most gels are concentrated carbs, so make sure to have a few sips of water or diluted gatorade with your mid-run fuel. As always, practice-practice-practice with this kind of stuff before the big day!  When I was training for Boston, I had no problem digesting gels/shot bloks during slower-paced long runs. However, since my race pace was a minute faster than long run pace, I had a MUCH harder time with fueling during the marathon (think: low blood sugar, nausea, etc). Practice eating gels/drinking gatorade while running your projected race pace – it will prevent any unwanted surprises!

Happy Running!

Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor or registered dietitian, just a runner interested in nutrition! The tips provided above are things I’ve learned from personal experiences.


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Running Shorts is a part of the True/Slant network specializing in Running News, Trends, Insights and Perspectives. This blog is maintained by Megan Kretz (megan [dot] kretz [at] gmail [dot] com) and Geoff Decker (geoffreydecker [at] gmail [dot] com). Email either us with tips, suggestions or feedback. And thanks for reading!

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