Nutrition for Running
Welcome to our comprehensive guide on the vital role nutrition plays in supporting your running goals. Whether you're a seasoned marathoner or a casual jogger, what you eat before, during, and after your run significantly impacts your performance, endurance, and recovery. We'll delve into the key nutritional principles and strategies that can help you achieve your running milestones.
Fueling Your Body For RUNNING
Runners should consume a balanced diet rich in carbohydrates, proteins, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. A balanced diet provides sustained energy, supports muscle recovery, and ensures overall well-being. However runners who are training at a high intensity for a specific event coming up, they will require more carbohydrates and protein than normal.
The most critical macronutrient for providing energy when running is carbohydrates. Carbohydrates can be rapidly broken down making them the primary source of energy during high-intensity exercise, especially when fast-twitch muscle fibers are predominantly engaged (1). There are two main forms of carbohydrates, complex and simple.
Complex carbohydrates, also known as polysaccharides, are long chains of sugar molecules that consist of multiple sugar units (glucose molecules) linked together and are digested slowly. Simple carbohydrates, on the other hand, are composed of one or two sugar molecules and are often referred to as sugars. They are quickly digested and lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar levels. Complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, oatmeal, starchy vegetables, and brown rice are ideal for consumption a couple hours before a run. These carbohydrates release energy slowly and steadily, providing a sustained source of fuel to help maintain endurance and prevent sudden energy crashes. On the other hand, simple carbohydrates, like fruits or energy gels, can be valuable during a run. They offer a quick energy boost, rapidly replenishing glycogen stores assisting in maintaining pace and focus during intense moments. The strategic combination of both complex and simple carbohydrates in a runner's nutrition plan can ensure that they have the right energy at the right time to optimize their performance.
Protein holds immense importance in a runner's diet as it supports overall performance and recovery. In particular it aids in the repair and growth of muscles, helping runners to maintain lean muscle mass and recover from the micro-tears that occur during training. Sources of lean protein include poultry, fish, lean cuts of meat (like sirloin), pork loin, eggs, low-fat dairy products, beans, legumes, and soy-based products like tofu and tempeh. A small 2017 study found that elite runners benefited from supplementing with whey protein as participants experienced improved endurance, muscle development and fewer injuries (2). A great option to help support recovery after a hard run is Sci-Mx’s Ultra Whey protein powder. The Ultra Whey provides 3 sources of premium whey protein – concentrate, isolate and hydrolysate.
Healthy unsaturated fats play a significant role in a runner's diet, offering essential benefits for performance and overall well-being. These fats, found in sources like avocados, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish, provide a concentrated source of energy, particularly during endurance runs. They also aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, support joint health, and contribute to sustained energy levels by serving as an alternate fuel source when carbohydrates become depleted during long runs.
Vitamins and minerals
Vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin D, Calcium, Vitamin B’s, Vitamin C, Iron and so forth are crucial micronutrients essential for various physiological processes in the body. A diverse intake of fruits and vegetables typically supplies an adequate amount of these micronutrients for most individuals. However, when individuals begin running, they often overlook the need to adjust their dietary intake to accommodate increased energy demands. Inadequate consumption of protein, carbohydrates, fruit, vegetables and healthy fats can result in micronutrient deficiencies. Micronutrients are particularly vital for individuals engaged in high-intensity training as they support immune function and help prevent exhaustion and illness.
Hydration is paramount to a runner's nutrition strategy, as it directly impacts performance, recovery, and overall health. Adequate fluid intake helps regulate body temperature, facilitates nutrient transport to muscles, and supports efficient metabolic processes. Dehydration can lead to decreased endurance, muscle cramps, and heat-related illnesses. Runners must balance their fluid intake to replace the sweat lost during exercise and maintain optimal hydration levels. Proper hydration not only enhances running performance but also aids in preventing fatigue and injury.
Supplementing with caffeine can offer several performance benefits for runners. Caffeine acts as a central nervous system stimulant, helping to increase alertness and reduce perceived effort during exercise. It can enhance endurance by improving the body's ability to burn fat for fuel, sparing glycogen stores for later stages of a run. Caffeine may also reduce the perception of pain and effort, allowing runners to push through challenging moments. Moreover, it can improve mental focus and reaction time, which is crucial during races. However, it's essential for runners to individualize their caffeine intake, as tolerance levels vary, and excessive consumption can lead to negative side effects like jitters or gastrointestinal discomfort.
A 2019 article from the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, recommends approximately 3 milligrams per kilogram (up to 6 milligrams per kilogram) of caffeine can be consumed before and/or during distance events. Sources of caffeine intake may include dietary options like coffee, carbonated beverages, energy drinks, sports-specific products such as caffeinated gels, or pharmaceutical items such as caffeine tablets (3). Sci-Mx Xplode Pre-workout contains 250mg of caffeine per serving and would be a great option for those looking to supplement with caffeine pre or during run.
Fatigue during running or race events often stems from two primary factors: carbohydrate depletion and dehydration. Maintaining sufficient muscle fuel, in the form of glycogen, is crucial to ensure runners can sustain their desired intensity throughout their events. For longer distances like half marathons and beyond, strategic carbohydrate loading in the 24-48 hours before the race can significantly boost glycogen stores, enhancing fuel availability during the competition. To reduce the risk of stomach discomfort, it's advisable to choose low-fiber foods, limit high-protein or high-fat intake, and opt for compact liquid carbohydrate sources in the final 12-24 hours leading up to the race. The pre-event meal offers a vital opportunity for glycogen replenishment and hydration optimization. In cases of early morning races, a light, low-fiber, carbohydrate-rich snack 1-2 hours prior can prove beneficial. For later race times, a larger meal consumed 3-4 hours before, followed by a small carbohydrate-containing snack closer to the start, may be more suitable. These nutritional strategies should be practiced during training to ensure optimal race-day performance. Some examples of suitable pre-event snacks include flavored milk with a muesli bar, peanut butter on toast, crumpets with banana and honey, creamed rice like the Sci-Mx Cream of Rice. Examples of pre race meals are as follows, porridge with milk and fruit, a rice or pasta dish, or a sandwich with a lean protein and salad filling and a banana smoothie (4).
When training for or competing in a long distance event, and you will be out for over an hour, it’s important to bring fuel with you. Find what works best for you and what won’t interrupt your stride or upset your stomach. For half marathons or longer races, it's advisable to aim for an intake of 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour. This strategy is essential to stave off muscle fatigue and maintain both pace and cognitive function. To ensure efficient digestion, opt for easily digestible carbohydrate-rich options with minimal fat, fiber, and protein content, as these can slow down the digestive process. Sports foods like gels, energy chews, sports bars, and sports drinks are convenient choices that are easy to carry during a run (4).
Following high-intensity training sessions, or races, glycogen stores are significantly depleted, making it crucial to prioritize recovery through a carbohydrate-rich meal or snack shortly after finishing. This aids in maximizing glycogen replenishment. Additionally, incorporating approximately 20-25 grams of high-quality protein into the recovery meal or snack is essential for effective muscle repair. To further reduce inflammation, including healthy fats in the recovery meal is advisable. Proper rehydration using water and electrolytes is crucial to aid in recovery and replenish sweat losses (4). The Sci-Mx protein shake Total Mass provides 32g of protein and 81g of carbs per serving. Alternatively for those who follow a vegan diet, we have the Ultra Plant Protein shake which offers 33g of plant-based protein per serving.
- Kanter, M. (2018) High-quality carbohydrates and physical performance: Expert panel report, Nutrition today. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5794245/ (Accessed: 27 September 2023).
- Huang, W.-C. et al. (2017) Whey protein improves marathon-induced injury and exercise performance in Elite Track Runners, International journal of medical sciences. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5562115/ (Accessed: 27 September 2023).
- Burke, L.M. et al. (2019) Contemporary nutrition strategies to optimize performance in distance runners and Race Walkers, Human Kinetics. Available at: https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/ijsnem/29/2/article-p117.xml?ref=blog.supersapiens.com (Accessed: 27 September 2023).
- Food for distance running (2018) Sports Dietitians Australia (SDA). Available at: https://www.sportsdietitians.com.au/factsheets/food-for-your-sport/food-for-your-sport-distance-running/#:~:text=Nutrient%20dense%20carbohydrate%20rich%20foods,around%20training%20to%20improve%20performance (Accessed: 27 September 2023).