What To Eat Before, During, and After Running

What you consume—and when you have it—can help improve your running game.

Even if you only jog the occasional few miles, you've likely heard about marathoners loading up on carbohydrates the night before a long run or race. But pasta is one of many foods that can help you run well. And it's not only endurance athletes who benefit from proper fueling. 

What you eat before your run—as well as during and after—is crucial to helping you feel good, pick up your pace, and recover quickly.

"Nutrition throughout the entire day, weeks, and months has an impact on all your workouts," explained Kyle Pfaffenbach, PhD, assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at Eastern Oregon University and nutrition consultant for the Brooks Beast Track Club. "Thinking about it as an aspect of training will help optimize all your runs and allow your muscles to recover and adapt, too." 

Here's what you should know about what to eat and drink—and when—to train like a serious runner.

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Macronutrients for Runners

Macronutrients


Macronutrients: Carbohydrates, proteins, fats, cholesterol, fiber, and water. Your body needs large quantities of macronutrients in your diet.

Runners need the usual three macronutrients: Carbohydrates, fats, and protein

Carbohydrates are your body's preferred fuel source, so they are the primary macronutrient you should base your diet around. A high-carbohydrate diet helps maintain essential glycogen (sugar) stores in the muscles. Glycogen is your body's primary energy source during exercise.

But fat and protein are also essential. Fat insulates organs and provides an energy reserve. And proteins build, repair, and maintain body tissues, among other functions.

The amount of those macronutrients you need in your diet is often expressed as a percentage combination. Or a ratio of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats rather than the total calorie count may be helpful.

If you are running at a medium to high-intensity training level or about one to two hours per day and four to six days per week, you will need the following:

  • Carbohydrates: 55% to 65%
  • Protein: 20% to 30% (which is equivalent to five to 10 servings of quality protein sources)
  • Fat: 30%

Sprinters' abilities to generate explosive muscle power and optimize their power-to-weight ratio are critical to their training. Nutrition-wise, some experts suggest that a carbohydrate intake of three to six grams per kilogram of body weight per day is optimal. 

The protein needs of sprinting athletes may be twice that of the general population. Sprinters should consume meals containing about 0.4 grams per kilogram of easily digested, amino-acid-rich proteins every three to five hours.

Forty-eight hours after a particularly strenuous run or race, focus on complex carbohydrates for rebuilding glycogen stores. Complex carbohydrates include legumes, nuts, seeds, and fruits and vegetables.

In general, experts recommend consuming carbohydrates and protein in a three-to-one ratio after a workout. Some experts suggest one to 1.5 grams per kilogram of carbohydrates post-workout. And 0.3 to 0.5 grams per kilogram of protein post-workout. 

Minimal- to low-fat pre-and post-workout nutrition allows for better digestion and absorption of carbohydrates and proteins.

What To Eat and Drink Before and During a Run

If You’re Running an Easy-Paced Three to Four Miles (Or Less Than an Hour)

Skip a pre-run meal. Your muscles will have enough glycogen to power you through.

"If it's just a few miles, you don't need to eat before," said Vishal Patel, chief sports nutritionist at Nuun. 

Drink eight ounces of water or a low-calorie sports drink before you head out, especially if you're running first thing in the morning. Overnight, your body becomes dehydrated.

Water is sufficient unless it's especially hot or humid. In that case, it's essential to sip a sports drink that contains electrolytes. According to Patel, electrolytes like sodium and potassium help muscles retain fluids, receive oxygen, and function properly.

"Getting them in fluids, rather than a solid snack, helps deliver the electrolytes to your muscles faster," said Patel.

If You’re Running More Than Four Miles or Any Speed Work

Muscles store enough glycogen to fuel about a 60-minute run. After that, you'll need 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour—from sports drinks, gels, or chews—to maintain your intensity. 

So, before you head out on a particularly long run, eat 50 to 60 grams of complex carbohydrates, like oatmeal and a banana. 

"This tops off glycogen stores," said Pfaffenbach. "Eat early and often for a regular flow of nutrients."

So, eat 1.5 to two hours before running to give your body time to digest and soak up the nutrients.

Also, your brain realizes you're low on fuel before your muscles do and will start to slow you down as a precaution. So, during runs of 90 minutes or more, sports drinks with carbohydrates and electrolytes can help you maintain pace and delay fatigue.

For a Tough Tempo Workout or Sprint Intervals

The night before, eat a meal rich in carbohydrates. Stick to supper with foods such as:

  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Lentils
  • Potatoes
  • Dried beans 

Balanced with protein and vegetables, a carbohydrates-rich meal before a particularly strenuous workout day will up glycogen stores. Glycogen is essential for high-intensity performances at all distances, noted Pfaffenbach.

What To Eat Toward the End and After Your Run

Swish a sports drink around in your mouth, then spit it out. Just rinsing with a sugary drink can trick your brain into recruiting more muscles and enhancing your performance. No tummy pain, all gain.

Once you've logged the miles, have a bite within an hour to reap the most rewards. 

"When you're running, you're breaking down and stressing your muscles. The time when you get stronger is during the recovery period," said Patel.

Grab a meal with a two-to-one or three-to-one ratio of carbohydrates to protein, depending on the length and intensity of your run. For example, if you run for an hour or less, a two-to-one balance will do. 

Already know the power of chugging chocolate milk post-workout? Other options with the correct ratio include the following: 

If You Get Stomach Cramps

Even with a thorough nutrition plan before, during, and after you run, you still might experience gastrointestinal (GI) distress, like:

  • Cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Bloating
  • Heartburn
  • Severe stomach pain 

About 30% to 90% of runners and endurance athletes experience GI symptoms during training and racing events. GI distress can stem from many reasons. Still, the usual culprits are less-than-ideal nutrition and hydration habits before and during exercise.

To avoid GI symptoms during and after your run, try some of the following tips:

  • Stay hydrated: The more fluid in the stomach, the faster gastric empties and less GI distress.
  • Get fit: More physically-fit athletes have faster gastric emptying, which means decreased GI discomfort following fueling.
  • Practice drinking during training: This may help improve race-day comfort.
  • Avoid over-eating before and during exercise: The more you eat, the harder your stomach will work.
  • Avoid high-energy drinks: Steer clear of these drinks before (within 30 to 60 minutes) and after exercise.
  • Go for a high-energy, high-carbohydrate diet: Protein and fat take longer to digest and absorb, contributing to GI pains.
  • Limit certain items: These include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), alcohol, caffeine, antibiotics, and nutritional supplements, all of which can upset your stomach.

Also, avoid high-fiber foods and empty your bladder and bowels before exercising.

And if your GI problems persist, consult with your healthcare provider. There may be an underlying health issue. 

A Quick Review

You don't have to be a competitive runner to benefit from proper fueling. Your nutrition choices before, during, and after a run can help you get the most out of your run.

Particularly, macronutrients can have a significant effect on your running goals. Following expert recommendations for macronutrients can fuel your body and muscles, ideally during the type of running you like.

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Sources
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