With summer almost here and the weather getting nicer, a lot more people (including myself) are taking their exercise sessions outside and hitting the pavement for a run. Running is a great form of physical activity for our hearts as well as our brains – runner’s high is a real thing! But whether you are an elite marathon runner, or you just enjoy a casual jog a few times a week, nutrition is key for getting the most out of your runs.
To eat well for running, it’s important to have a dietary plan for before and after your run, as well as during – depending on how long you’re planning on hitting the pavement.
Before your run
One of the main factors that causes fatigue during exercise, running included, is carbohydrate depletion. Our bodies literally run on carbohydrates (like the pun?), and adequate storage of muscle fuel (called glycogen) from carbohydrates is required if you want to keep running for more than a few minutes, with obviously more glycogen required for longer runs. I’m sure many of you have heard of “carbohydrate-loading”, which means consuming a high quantity of carbohydrate-rich foods 24-48 hours before a race! For the non-elite runner, this is of course not necessary, but eating something with good quality carbohydrates before a run is always important.
Of course, timing also matters. Running can cause gastrointestinal upset, so many people prefer to run on an empty stomach. For early morning runs, I recommend a light, carbohydrate-rich snack 1-2 hours before – this could look like a piece of toast with peanut butter, or an English muffin with banana and honey. This snack should also be low fiber – probably one of the only situations where I recommend LESS fiber – as it is slower to digest and can cause stomach discomfort. For an afternoon run, it’s best to consume a regular (still carbohydrate-rich) meal 3-4 hours before and then a smaller snack or carbohydrate-containing fluid closer to your run. Oatmeal made with milk and a side of fruit, a rice or pasta dish, and a smoothie made with a banana are all great choices. Be mindful of fat intake as well – while fat is an important part of our diet, it can also cause GI discomfort if consumed too close to exercise.
During your run
Eating or drinking anything but water during your run isn’t necessary unless you plan on running long distances, such as a half marathon or more. In these situations, it’s recommended to consume 30-60 grams of easily-digestible carbohydrate each hour – this is why gels, energy chews and sports drinks are common in long distance runners.
After your run
Proper nutrition and hydration is vital after any type of exercise to maximize recovery. Now is the time to focus on all the macronutrients – carbs, fat and protein! Running significantly depletes muscle glycogen stores, so consuming a carbohydrate-rich meal or snack soon after you finish your run is very important. For muscle repair and adaptation, as well as to build new red blood cells, consuming an adequate source of protein post-run is also recommended, and healthy fat is helpful to reduce inflammation (which can occur after intense exercise). Try a sandwich on whole grain bread with tuna and avocado, poached eggs on toast with veggies, or Greek yogurt with muesli and fresh fruit are all great options.
Last but not least – hydration. Dehydration is another major reason for fatigue during running. Fluid needs are based on many factors, including the temperature, sweat rate, exercise intensity, duration and altitude. We need to replace these losses, and the guideline for avid runners is to replace 150% of the fluid volume lost over the 4-6 hours following the run. For the more casual runner, ensuring you get your baseline 2L of fluid per day (what I recommend for everyone regardless of activity level) plus an additional 1L minimum, depending on the amount you sweat. Choose mostly water, but other good fluid choices include milk and non-caffeinated tea.
Ready to hit the pavement now? If you’re still not sure how and what to eat to get the most out of your runs, connect with me or talk to a Registered Dietitian who specializes in Sports Nutrition.
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Julia Burt, M.Sc(A), RD