Running Nutrition: A Guide to Fueling for Performance
Fueling to perform at your physical and mental best is a very different cup of tea than simply fueling to be a healthy individual. Running nutrition is one crucial piece of being a good runner, and we are constantly learning new things in the area from both scientific research and from tuning in with our own body.
A couple of things inspired me to write this post. The first was my teammate Bella (@bella_brickner), who wanted some ideas on what to eat before running (we often run in the mornings together), and asked me what my personal race nutrition strategies were. The second was experiencing some altitude effects on a recent ascent and descent of Mt Superior in Utah I completed. To be the complete athlete, you can’t skimp on nutrition. It’s fuel. There are a lot of diets out there (not the kind that involves needs based on food allergies or intolerance purposes) – keto, paleo, gluten-free etc, however, whilst these may work for the occasional athlete and ones we hear promoting their nutritional choices on social media, more often than not, a well-balanced and diverse diet will suit best. A good friend said if you’re driving yourself crazy planning and overthinking food, you’ll often make worse choices in the long term because it’s not sustainable to be in that mindset. I’ve learned this the hard way as a younger athlete, but lessons are there to be learned. The earlier, the better.
What to eat before running?
Nutrition can improve an athlete’s performance immensely. For example, maintaining optimal fluid balance levels, and providing the body with more fuel (carbohydrate) to perform better and help with “lactate accumulation from anaerobic efforts”. Anaerobic meaning the high-end, very high-intensity efforts.
I always eat before I run, normally a bowl of cereal or toast. It tides me over to breakfast, I don’t get distracted mid-run by sudden onset hunger, and I feel more energized. After all, if it is a morning run, you’ve fasted all night, so your body will thank you when you give it a little boost. Thus, I tend to get up a bit earlier to have some digestion time and sip my coffee or tea.
It’s recommended that you eat before you run if the session falls into any of the following:
- Over 60 minutes in length
- High-intensity work
- A long run of some sort
- Training at higher altitudes
- You have multiple sessions or events across the day
Note: This list is not limited to the following, just a quick guide.
I typically eat any of the following before a run…
45 – 60 minutes before:
- Dry oat, quinoa, or wheat-based cereal. My favorite is pumpkin and flaxseed granola (you can often get this in the bulk food section or Nature’s Path brand in a box, which you can get at Winco, Wholefoods, Albertsons, Trader Joe’s etc). I eat it dry because the extra liquid or dairy can sometimes cause stomach upset). You could even make your own.
- Cornflakes or oats with almond or another type of non-dairy based milk. In my overall eating habits, I normally have a mix of dairy milk for some things, and non-dairy based for others just to ensure my calcium levels remain in check. Before a run, I go for a non-dairy based option. I don’t need to explain why!
- Whole-wheat or white toast (Sourdough is the better option here) with jam/jelly or peanut/almond butter. Here you get a little bit of protein and healthy fats mixed in with the necessary carbohydrates to top up the muscle glycogen stores pre-run. Being very easy to make, it’s a no-fuss option.
- Rice cakes with nut butter, jam/jelly, or honey and butter. If you’re celiac, gluten-free, or don’t typically pick a bread-based option pre-run, rice cakes can be a good alternative.
2+ hours before:
You can generally eat a more substantial meal if you have more time before you head out for a run. Some of my favourite options are:
- Oatmeal with banana, peanut butter and cinnamon. This is my pre-race go to meal, as I can replicate it at home, and it is always at the event hotel buffets. I’ll generally do 1-2 cups of oatmeal, a scoop of almond or PB, slice the banana on top, and dash with cinnamon/maple syrup. It’s delicious, and it ticks the boxes in terms of endurance training based nutritional needs.
- Scrambled eggs on toast (maybe with some sneaky sides like avocado, mushrooms, salsa, arugula or spinach)
- Bagel with cream cheese/nut butter/avocado etc – Bagels are a great source of quick carbohydrates and with the amount of bagel flavor varieties on market, there’s something for everyone.
Want to know some handy tips and tricks for your next grocery shop? Check out my post on Grocery Shopping For Runners – Click here.
What to eat the night before a run?
Deciding what to eat the night before a run will be dependent on what type of running session you have the next day. If it is a more endurance-based session, make the ratio of carbohydrates to other components on the plate slightly higher.
For a shorter, intensity-based session, you can keep it a bit more balanced.
My all-time favorite dinner time meal if I have to run early the next morning is homemade pizza with a side salad such as Caesar Salad, see photo below. Yes, there is a glass of pinot grigio to accompany because we all need a bit of fun and indulgence- Barefoot does an affordable, decently tasting option. This hits my CHO, Protein, Fats, and taste requirements on all levels.
Home-made Pizza Night + the works!
The great thing about the meal a night before a run is that you don’t have to stress as much about pre-planning it, due to the digestion time you’ll have. The morning is slightly different.
However, if we are discussing a pre-race dinner meal, I follow the KISS method (Keep it simple stupid). What works best for me personally is:
- Rice (white, long-grain) – I want a source of carbohydrates that doesn’t upset my stomach but gives me a good bang for my buck. I was told by my sports dieticians in Australia many times that Rice has more bang for your buck than pasta. I stick true to this.
- Shredded chicken with light seasoning, or canned lemon tuna in oil. I like to keep my proteins on the lighter side of things.
- A mix of roast vegetables. I chop up a bunch of broccoli, beans, a variety of purple, white and sweet potatoes and mushrooms, drizzle with a bit of olive oil, salt, and bbq seasoning, and chuck it in the oven.
I throw all these ingredients together, and sometimes have a side of Italian season, sweet chili sauce, soy sauce (it just depends on the mood I’m in).
Remember to practice your meals prior to race day, as this is the best way to avoid stomach upset. You can afford to have a few uncomfortable sessions here and there, to learn what works for you, rather than make a mistake on the important event day.
What to eat after a long run, and what to eat during a long run?
What to eat during a run
A long run can be the most energy-draining session of the week, especially if you’re running beyond the 80-90 minute mark, where the body’s glycogen stores are depleted. It is recommended that the athlete intake some form of carbohydrate and fluid to rehydrate if running longer than this. SDA states that generally, you won’t need fuel (CHO) “during exercise sessions lasting less than 60 minutes.”
So why do we need to top up our carbohydrate stores after the 80-90 minute mark?
- Keep blood glucose levels on track as this “fuels your muscles and brain during exercise”
- “Get the most out of your training session by sustaining intensity for longer”
- Curb simple sugar cravings later in the day, as the metabolism is likely to be high for the rest of the day post long run
Many runners don’t top up their carb stores, but establishing a common practice or habit could benefit you in the long term, and create a more tolerant stomach. Food for thought. This reigns especially true if you are training for a half marathon distance or further, where taking on fuel whilst on the run is essential.
Hiking up Mt Superior, Snowbird, Utah
Some quick carbohydrate top up food ideas that I have tried and tested:
- CLIF Shot Bloks – There’s no crap in these, no preservatives or additives, which is a must for me. They come in lots of flavors and you can get caffeinated bloks too. My favourites are the ginger ale, citrus flavor, or orange flavor with caffeine. There are 33 calories per blok, and I tend to pop 3 bloks before I run, and 3 at the 80-90 minute mark, and I’m right to go.
- Chopped up CLIF Bars – I also enjoy CLIF Bars because there are no preservatives or added artificial ingredients. These bars pack a punch in terms of energy provision and can be hard on the gut if digested all at once, without water. That’s why I chop them up into around 6 smaller pieces. I used this nutrition method on a half-marathon XC Ski race, and a 22km hilly trail race, and never had a stomach upset or issue. My favourites are the Cool Mint Caffeinated bar or the White Choc Macadamia flavor (non-caffeinated).
- Tailwind Nutrition Endurance fuel – I love putting this in my water, no preservatives or nasty added ingredients. My favourite is the lemon flavor. Not only does it hydrate and replace necessary electrolytes, but there is 25g of Carbohydrates per scoop. Tailwind recommends: “For endurance workouts, mix 2-3 scoops per 24 oz of water per hour.”
- Banana Chips – you can get these at pretty much any good supermarket. Think Trader Joe’s, Winco, Albertsons, Wholefoods, Safeway etc. I’ve included the link to Bare Snacks simply Banana Chips if you want to bulk order them online.
What to eat after a long run
Every runner I know looks forward to the post long run refuel. Many of us finish this final session of the week on the hangrier side of things. I have a few key go-to’s which really hit the spot. I’ll generally choose one over another based on what time of day it is. For example, if it’s closer to brunch/lunch, I’ll make a savory option, whilst if it’s in the morning a sweeter option works better for me.
- Oatmeal with the works.
- Mixed in egg whites x2 (yes, it does work, it doesn’t taste bad, and you’re gonna get some extra protein for your fatigued muscles)
- If you’re not into trying what I just mentioned above, you could always stir in a scoop of protein powder. Just watch that it is in accordance with WADA (World Anti-Doping Guidelines) in your sport. You can check your substances on GlobalDro. Just be aware, that sometimes substances can be contaminated.
- Peanut butter or almond butter stirred in.
- Fruit: Chopped banana and berries on top – I like to always keep frozen berries and bananas in the house
- Finished off with a dash of cinnamon, honey, brown rice syrup or maple syrup.
- Omelet with the works + toast or roast potatoes
- I normally do a 3 egg omelet, which I make by combining it with a dash of milk and TJ’s “nothing but the elote” seasoning + Chilli Lime seasoning, and a handful of Mexican cheese blend or mozzarella. I’ll then stir it with a whisk, then pour the mixture into a small preheated skillet with oil. Put it on medium-high, and keep an eye on it.
- In a separate pan, I’ll be roasting/frying up the veg to put inside the omelet. Bell peppers, corn, a green de-seeded jalapeno, mushrooms, onion, tomatoes, and spinach are my normal go-to’s.
Seasoned veg in the skillet
- Once the omelet is looking well cooked on the outside and starting to cook nicely in the middle, pop the veggies from one pan into the omelet pan, on top of one side of the omelet, and fold the omelet over. Top with more cheese or whatever you like.
- Lamb/Beef/Chicken Gryo
- I honestly never make these myself, I always buy them, but they’re delicious and really hit the spot. If you haven’t tried a Gyro, you haven’t truly lived.
- Smashed Avo on toast with feta, tomatoes and poached eggs, with a drizzle of sweet balsamic and olive oil. Exactly what it says, no need for further explanation.
These are just a few of my favourites. All provide a good balance of carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats, and good flavour for optimal post-long run recovery. Timing-wise, I tend to have a snack 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein within 30 minutes of running, and a meal from above within the hour. I’ll probably be hungry again in 2-3 hrs time and have another meal. Listen to your body here.
Want to know some handy tips and tricks for your next grocery shop? Check out my post on Grocery Shopping Tips For Runners (especially good if you’re budgeting too!) – Click here.