Running burns a lot of calories. A person who weighs 150 pounds will easily burn off 375 calories by finishing a 5km run in 30 minutes. The same person who runs a half-marathon in 4 hours will burn off 1,715 calories!
Of course, you cannot run a half-marathon every day. Whether you are doing road work or building strength in the gym, your body will need enough calories to get the job done and to help you recover.
Your body’s number one source of calories comes from the food you eat. If you want to perform well, you must feed your body with clean-burning fuel.
Before you go grocery shopping, take a few minutes to read our article on the top 20 food choices for runners.
Carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel for runners because they are easily converted to glycogen.
When you ingest carbohydrates, your pancreas releases a hormone called insulin which creates a “spike” in your blood sugar. The job of insulin is to drive carbohydrates into your muscle cells where it is converted to glycogen.
For long- distance runners, glycogen helps break down fat so that it can be used as a source of sustainable energy.
However, not all carbohydrates are created equal. Some sources are converted into glycogen faster than others. If you want to find out which carbohydrates are converted fastest into glycogen, you should consult the Glycemic Index (GI).
Generally, the higher the GI number, the faster the carbohydrate will be converted into glycogen. Simple carbohydrates or sources which are high in sugar have a high GI score.
Examples of simple carbohydrates are refined sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, white rice, white pasta, white bread, fruit juices, electrolyte drinks, and certain fruits such as watermelon, bananas, and pineapples.
In contrast, complex carbohydrates take a longer time to digest because they contain fiber. Complex carbohydrates have a lower GI score.
Examples of complex carbohydrates include whole grains, brown rice, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, broccoli, blueberries, and some varieties of beans.
Which carbohydrates should runners eat and when?
We recommend consuming complex carbohydrates before running. Because complex carbohydrates are harder to digest, you will be assured of sustained energy for long runs.
Simple carbohydrates can be consumed during the run for a quick pick-me-up when you feel fatigue starting to set in.
However, simple carbohydrates have their greatest value after the run. By eating simple carbohydrates after a long run, you can immediately fill up your depleted muscles with glycogen which will help jump-start the recovery process.
Here is a list of the 9 best choices for complex and simple carbohydrates for runners:
- Whole Grain Pasta
- Whole Grain Bread
- Sweet Potatoes
- Frozen Vegetables
- Fresh Vegetables
- Frozen Berries
Please keep in mind that some of these complex carbohydrate choices such as oatmeal and sweet potatoes are quite high in fiber.
While they may provide you with sustained energy, consuming too manyfiber-rich foods may lead to gastrointestinal distress during your run.
As a general guideline, eat foods that “agree with you”. It may not be a good idea to try something new a few days before the race. You may find yourself running for the first restroom than the finish line!
Protein is a macronutrient that plays a vital role in supporting many key functions of the human body. These functions include:
- Muscle growth
- Bone strength and density
- Immune system
- Transport of nutrients
- Maintain fluid balance
- Skin health
- Energy production
- Muscle contraction
When you bite into a protein, it is broken down into amino acids. Your skin, bones, muscle tissues, and hair are made up of amino acids.
An important substance in your body, collagen, is made up of the amino acids hydroxyproline, glycine, and proline. Collagen is primarily found in your ligaments, bones, and tendons. Approximately 30% of the proteins in your body are composed of collagen.
The wear and tear from running in combination with aging contribute to a significant loss in collagen. With a decline in collagen, your bones become more brittle and prone to injury.
Protein sources such as oysters, beef, and chicken have the right amino acid profile that can help boost collagen production.
Another benefit of including protein in your diet is that it fast-tracks post-training recovery.
Similar to carbohydrates, proteins vary in terms of absorption. Leaner protein choices are less complex and easier to digest compared to fattier sources of protein.
The best post-training meal would be to combine a simple carbohydrate with a lean protein source.
The insulin spike will deliver carbohydrates and amino acids into the depleted muscle cells. The carbohydrates will replenish lost glycogen while the amino acids will repair damaged muscle tissue.
Examples of good post-training meals are the following:
- Chicken on pita bread with a slice of apple
- Greek Yogurt with pineapple chunks
- Watermelon Juice and a tuna sandwich on white bread
Here is our list of the top 6 protein choices for runners:
- Canned Black Beans
Should you eat pork?
Pork is sometimes called “The Other White Meat”. Over the years, pork has been vilified as the “bad protein”.
Pork is not a bad source of protein. 3 ounces of lean pork is enough to give you the daily recommended requirement of niacin, thiamine, vitamin B6, and selenium.
Compared to steak which is marbled meat, fat on pork is found on the outside. All you have to do is trim out the fat and you have a lean source of protein.
For years, “fats” was considered a four-letter word. People assumed that eating fat would make you fat. The truth is, being fat is a result of constantly being in a caloric surplus.
We get our calories from the 3 macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Even if you follow a carbohydrate and protein-rich diet that is low in fat, you will get fat if you don’t burn off the excess calories.
Fat serves many valuable functions in your body:
- Promote healthy brain function
- Reduce inflammation
- Improve cellular health
- Strengthen the immune system
- Provide natural insulation
There are 4 types of fat; 2 of them are good and 2 of them are bad.
Saturated fats and trans-fats are bad because they can increase the level of Low- Density Lipoproteins (LDLs) in your body. LDLs are also called the “bad cholesterol”.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are packed with healthy Omega-3 fatty acids which help lower LDLs and increase your levels of “good cholesterol” or High-Density Lipoproteins (HDLs).
The best sources of healthy fats are the following:
- Peanut Butter
For runners, these fat sources make for an excellent snack or as a meal compliment.
You can eat a few ounces of almonds just before a race to give you extra calories. For breakfast, spread avocado on a piece of whole- wheat toast and top it with a poached egg. Your carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats in one meal!
Some protein sources are rich in Omega-3s. These protein sources include Salmon, grass-fed beef, sardines, and mackerel.
Keep in mind that fat has 8 grams of calories compared to carbohydrates and protein which each has only 4 grams. If you are watching your weight, monitor the number of fat calories in your diet.
D. Sweet Treats
Are there sweet treats that runners can indulge in? Yes! The best way to stay on a healthy meal plan is to include a sweet treat to brighten up the palate.
Here is our shortlist of best sweet treats for runners:
- Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants which help remove destructive free radicals in our body. Yogurt contains probiotics which promote healthy digestion. It is also a good source of protein.
Proper nutrition is an important component of an effective running program. You should have a nice balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fats in your diet to sustain effort and performance.
And let’s not forget to take moments to thoroughly unwind on occasion with your favorite bottle of wine. Wine is rich in healthy antioxidants that can fight off free radical damage which occurs during high intensity or long- duration exercises.
If you enjoyed this article, feel free to share it with your community. Also, check out our selection of fine California wines (www.wine4runners.com). You may want to gift a friend – or yourself – after a tremendous race event!