Whether you want to lose weight or learn the best way to fuel your workouts, there can be a lot of confusion about the best nutrition strategy for beginners.
If you're feeling overwhelmed, we're here to help. Before you stock up on protein powders and strip your cupboard of carbs, get the facts on fuel so you can set yourself up for nutritional success.
Be Proactive and Don't Deprive Yourself
No matter your caloric needs or training goals, it's important to stay ahead of your hunger, and eat enough to make it through your workouts.
"As a new runner, the most important thing you can do is be proactive to your hunger," says Tara Coleman, a San Diego-based clinical nutritionist. "Your appetite is going to increase with your activity level, but when you react to hunger cues, you tend to wait until you're starving and end up overeating."
New runners often make the mistake of cutting out food groups or severely restricting calories. This can be problematic because food provides the energy you need to work out. If you feel fatigued during a run, a lack of fuel could be the culprit.
"I'm not a proponent of cutting out food groups," says Jennifer Gill, a Road Runner's Club of America-certified distance running coach. "Unless you have health concerns, cutting out carbs is ridiculous. You need carbs for energy. Whether you're a runner or you're sedentary, you need carbs to live."
Just because carbs deliver necessary energy doesn't mean you should load up on sugary, high-carb foods. It's important to pick healthy, nutrient-dense carbohydrates.
"You want to choose foods like whole grains, fruits and vegetables, not white breads, pastas, doughnuts and that sort of thing," says Gill. "There are good carbs out there. Pay attention to the types of foods you're eating and when you're eating them."
It's also important to distribute your carbs throughout the day rather than eating large carb servings for your pre- and post-run meals.
"Make sure there's some sort of carbohydrate present each time you eat," says Coleman. "This is going to make sure you have enough vitamins and minerals. An example would be an apple and almond butter as a snack."
Learn How Many Calories You Really Need
While there are some general guidelines that can help you determine your caloric needs, if you're new to nutrition and meal plans, you may want to consult a professional.
"When it comes to running and calorie requirements, your daily calories need to be high enough to provide energy for your regular daily tasks (from breathing and thinking to actual physical activity) in addition to any workout you may do," says Gill. "Running burns approximately 100 calories per mile, so you'll need to provide enough calories in preparation for your run and enough calories to recover.
The timing of your calories is just as important as the quantity. This can be confusing for new runners, so if you take in about 2,000 calories (for women) on days you run and about 1,800 calories on your rest days, you should be fine. Again, your personal goals can change this number, so it's best to speak with a professional to ensure you're getting the right amount calories."
There are also several online resources that can help you determine your needs and an ideal meal plan that fits your goals.
Eat to Fuel Your Workouts
Regardless of your weight-loss or training goals, you need to consume enough of the right types of food to power your workouts. This may sound simple, but there's still some confusion about when and what to eat before a run.
"Your pre-workout meal is really important," Coleman says. "This is going to be unique to each person. Some people can eat a steak and run a marathon; other people can't even think about eating prior to running."
Your pre-run meal should be based on how much time you have before your workout, what foods work best for you and your individual goals.
"Your activity level determines how many calories you need before and after your workout," says Gill. "The longer your run, the more pre- and post-run fuel you'll need. What changes the amount of food you need before a workout is how much time you have. If you're getting ready to run and only have 30 minutes to prepare, have something that's easy to digest because it's going to give you fast fuel to get you through your run. If it's been a while since your last meal, say you run first thing in the morning or at night about 3 to 4 hours after lunch, you'll want to have some easily digestible carbs to give you energy to get through your run."
If you're eating within 45 minutes to an hour before your workout, choose foods that are easily digestible like fruits, which provide simple sugars, metabolize quickly, and give you an energy boost.
Stay away from foods that are high in protein, fat and fiber, as these are not as easy to digest, and will sit in your stomach.
Here are some great pre-run snacks:
*Fruit (fresh or dried)
*Smoothie (with water or coconut water as a base instead of milk or other dairy options)
*Whole-grain toast or whole-grain tortilla with almond butter and fruit
Eat for Recovery
Just as pre-workout nutrition is essential to help you get through a run, the foods you eat after a workout can help you get stronger, recover faster, and be more inclined to get back out there for your next workout.
"Your post-workout meal is the ideal time for starchy carbohydrates like bread, pasta, rice, or beans," says Coleman. "This will help refuel your glycogen stores and help you recover for the following day."
Keep in mind that your pre- and post-run fueling needs will vary depending on the duration of your workout, your activity level and your weight-loss goals. While a marathoner may require a post-run meal to replenish glycogen stores, a beginner who runs 30 minutes or less will require less food. This is why it's important to assess what works best for you and another reason you may want to consult a professional.
Here are some post-run snacks that Gill and Coleman recommend:
* Apple with a tablespoon of peanut butter
* Toast with peanut butter and a piece of fruit (apple or banana)
* A protein shake with mixed fruit
* A smoothie
* Oatmeal and nuts
* Chocolate milk
The Bottom Line
When you increase your activity level, your appetite will most likely increase as well. While it's important to eat enough to support your efforts, it's all too easy to overestimate the amount of calories you're burning and overeat as a result.
The best thing you can do to eliminate the guesswork is to consult a professional or use reliable tools to establish a meal plan and calculate your caloric needs.
By starting a running program, you're taking a positive step towards health and longevity. Make sure your nutrition supports your new active lifestyle. All the resources are there for you if you're willing to put in the work.
So grab a pre-run snack, stock up on healthy fuel, then gear up and get out there.
Sign up for your next race.
Maile Proctor is an editor for ACTIVE.com and a basketball and fitness enthusiast. In addition to playing and officiating basketball, she enjoys running, hiking, and trying new, fun and challenging fitness activities. Follow Maile on Twitter @Mailekp5.
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