The diet of a runner can seem complicated. Depending on the person, the distance, and the number of days spent running, the dietary needs can vary drastically. But regardless of where you are on your running journey, brand new to the sport or a long time runner, there are some dietary strategies that apply to everyone.
Focus on your hunger levels
As you begin running or increasing intensity, you may find yourself wondering if you are eating enough or if you are getting the proper proportions of macronutrients. One of the easiest ways to determine if you’re getting enough isn’t to track your calories, but instead to tune into your bodies signals.
Our body has internal regulation centres for energy balance that influence our hormones and subsequently our feelings of hunger and fullness. Therefore, if you are expending more energy, you will become hungrier and are more likely to eat more to maintain energy balance. Pay attention to the days you run or perhaps the day after and note how your hunger signals change. Aim to eat when you begin to feel hungry and stop when you’re comfortably full. Patterns of meals and snacks throughout the day will vary based on each person's needs, there is no one right way, only the way that’s right for your own body.
Additionally, if you really pay attention, you may also note that your cravings for foods change. The foods that sound better to you might be higher in protein, salty snacks, or high carbohydrate foods depending on your bodies needs. Again, without going through the hassle of tracking our macros, our body can keep us in tune with our needs. While an athlete may require more in-depth tracking of their intake, using this method is perfectly suitable for the recreational runner.
Find out what foods work best for your digestion
Running can be fickle for digestion. Cramps and runners trots are not uncommon but they can be prevented most of the time by managing when and what to eat before a run.
Prior to running, it’s important to be fuelled up which means eating carbohydrate-containing foods such as grains, fruit, or dairy. It’s best to avoid foods higher in fat and fibre which slow down digestion. It’s also important to give our body enough time to complete digestion. While we run, our body diverts its attention away from the gastrointestinal tract. Therefore, undigested food may feel like a rock in the stomach or cause some stops at the porta potty. Guidelines for pre-run fuelling vary from 1-4 hours due to diversity in digestion times and food choices.1
As a runner, it can be a period of trial and error to determine the foods and timeline that works best for your guts. It may be helpful to keep a food and symptom log to notice patterns. Record the time and food ate prior to a run. Them record symptoms during the run including energy levels, cramps, bathroom stops, speed, etc.. Over time with this data you can determine which foods give you energy, digest quickly, and at what time suits you best to eat them.
Some foods that are often well tolerated by runner pre-run include bagels, fruit, yogurt, waffles/pancakes, peanut butter and banana sandwich, or cereal.
As distances increase or time between workouts decreases, recovery becomes more and more important. If you haven’t fully recovered from one run it will be challenging to perform in the next. Post workout, ideally you want to eat within 30 minutes.2 This time frame is most important for someone who is running multiple days per week or perhaps multiple times per day in the case of some athletes to maximize glycogen (carbohydrate storage) restoration. The timing is less important in a recreational athlete. However, it is still a good idea to plan out a post-run snack or meal.
In the meal or snack following a run, you want to ensure you have carbohydrates to refuel your glycogen and protein to repair and rebuild your muscles.
Sample Recovery Snacks
-Fruit and nuts
-Fruit smoothie made with greek yogurt
-Apple and peanut butter
-Cottage cheese and fruit
-Pita with hummus
Alternatively, if you are having a meal post run, balance your plate by having half your plate filled with vegetables, a quarter with a carbohydrate portion such as rice, quinoa, bread, pasta, etc. and a quarter filled with protein sources such as meat, eggs, fish, or beans. A plate set up in this way will ensure a balance of macronutrients and a variety of vitamins and minerals.
When it comes to a runner's diet, people often make it more complicated than it has to be. Simply using your bodies cues takes away a lot of the stress of wondering how much or what to eat. Tracking symptoms will ensure you know what foods work best for your body and performance. And planning recovery snacks will ensure you are feeling good the next time you lace up your shoes.
Jen Rawson is a Registered Dietitian from Calgary, Alberta who works in a private practice specializing in intuitive eating, sports nutrition and gut health. She is passionate about running and travelling, often combining the two at destination races.
Chad Kerksick, Shawn Arent, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Nutrient timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2017; 29;(14):33