Runners Nutrition Tips

Read these 31 Runners Nutrition Tips tips to make your life smarter, better, faster and wiser. Each tip is approved by our Editors and created by expert writers so great we call them Gurus. LifeTips is the place to go when you need to know about Running tips and hundreds of other topics.

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Get More from Salad: Mix it Up

Are you making salad with one type of lettuce? Although green is always good, mixing several types of greens in your salad is even better. If you are making salad for a family of four, or if you just really like salad, buy bunches of several different greens, such as romaine, radicchio, curly endive, kale, and spinach, and you'll probably use them before they get wilted.

If you are planning meals for just one or two people, there has been a vast improvement in the quality of packaged mixed green salads available in the produce departments of most grocery stores. Look for the organic varieties; they are less likely to have any type of preservatives that might cause digestive troubles. But do pay attention to the expiration date--and try to eat these salads within a week of purchase.

Should I eat before I run?

Don't Run On Empty

To prepare for daily runs, even for distances of 5 miles or so, you'll probably feel better if you eat something before you go out. What you have, and how much, depends in part on the time of day when you run. I'm a morning runner, and so most of the time I have a banana, and I confess that I do sometimes eat something sugary if it's available. I have a sweet tooth, and I know a piece or two of Halloween candy won't bother me on a short run.

Before my long training runs, I like to squirt some honey on the banana for extra quick energy. Bananas have long been a favorite of endurance athletes because they digest easily and provide potassium for your hard-working muscles. And the honey provides sugar and carbs for quick energy and nice flavor.

Try some different snacks during your training runs to see what makes you feel the most energetic. If caffeine disagrees with you, avoid it, or introduce caffeinated gels or drinks gradually.

What is beta carotene and how can it help runners?

Don't Forget Your Beta Carotene

Although it has not been widely studied, evidence suggests that beta carotene may enhance athletic performance. Runner's World has published several stories about recommended foods for runners, and most of those stories include a few beta carotene-rich foods. They can't hurt and beta carotene is good for you from a nutritional standpoint, even if it doesn't shave minutes off your marathon time.

Pumpkin is a great source of beta carotene, and you can find many pumpkin-filled foods to enjoy in the fall when you're training for a fall marathon. Carrots and papaya are other good sources (think orange), so carrot cake and carrot muffins count, too. Quick breads and muffins, especially if they are made in part with whole-wheat flour, are a great snack for runners while marathon training or at any time, but add the carrot or pumpkin and the nutritional payoff is even bigger. If you like to cook, quick breads and muffins are easy to make and most cookbooks and websites have a variety of recipes, depending on your personal taste. Not a cook? Look for pumpkin items at your favorite bakery.


Asparagus: Why To Love It

I always know that right after the Boston marathon I can start looking forward to asparagus season. Asparagus is a great source of vitamins, fiber, and other good things runners need.

Some tips on asparagus:

-Look for firm stalks, ideally kept with their bottom ends in water.

-Keep asparagus in the crisper drawer of your fridge, and it is good for a solid week.

-Ways to enjoy asparagus: cut stalks into bite-sized pieces for steaming, or saute in olive oil. Or, the small, tenderest stalks are great raw, in your favorite vegetable dip or sprinkled with a little pepper.

What should I eat during long training runs?

Eating On The Run: Helpful For Marathons And Marathon Training

Some studies have shown that honey is just as effective as gel in providing energy during endurance events, but since it's not well packaged for carrying on the run, the preference is energy gel. During long training runs, which I define as more than 13 miles, I usually carry 1-2 gel packets with me, but I know some runners who go through 3-4 gel packs on a 16-20 mile run. Take more with you than you think you'll need. You can save the unopened packs for the next run.

When I ran my first marathon, energy bars and gels were in their infancy, and all I consumed during my first marathon was water every 5 miles or so. But research has shown, and my experience agrees, that eating something during the marathon can help stave off muscle cramps and give you a boost of energy. Of course, if you haven't trained well, don't expect 10 packs of gel to save you from fatigue, but strategically slurping one or two, especially in the first half of the marathon, before you think you need them, has helped me in many marathons.


Say Yes to Cinnamon

Add some extra spice to your holiday cooking, and your running will reap the benefits.

Believe it or not, cinnamon is good for runners in several ways. First, it promotes blood circulation, which means more oxygen to your running muscles.

Second, cinnamon's anti-inflammatory properties can help reduce post-workout stiffness.

Some easy ways to add cinnamon to your diet:

-Sprinkle it on oatmeal.

-Sprinkle it on your toast or bagel.

-Sprinkle it on yogurt or add to a fruit smoothie.

-Are you a baker? Add extra cinnamon to recipes for pie, cookies, or other treats that call for it.

Enjoy good flavor and good running!

Are energy drinks better than water ?

Energy Drinks vs. Water: Your Choice

Many marathoners prefer to replace lost nutrients during long runs and marathons by consuming energy drinks such as Gatorade, Excel, or other products. These drinks provide the same benefits as energy bars or gels. But a gel is more concentrated, and you may have to drink more of an energy drink to get the same amount of nutrients as you would get from a slurp of gel. But as with other marathon day activities, don't drink something during the marathon that you haven't tried during training. Many marathons offer lesser-known brands of sports drinks, rather than a big name like Gatorade. The formulas for these drinks are similar, but not identical, and just because you like Gatorade on your training runs, doesn't mean that the unfamiliar sports drink available at the marathon water stop will agree with you

You can have both gel and sports drinks; there's no rule against that. But be sure to consume some liquid along with the energy gel to promote the absorption of the nutrients into your body. I do recommend drinking some type of sports drink after a very long run (16-20 miles) to help replenish lost nutrients immediately. In my experience, a post-run sports drink tastes good and makes me feel better after a long run, and that's enough of a reason to try it.

Are energy bars and gels helpful for marathoners?

Energy Gels And Bars: Experiment To Find Your Favorite

Once upon a time, there were no energy bars and gels. My father ran a marathon in 1980 and recalls carrying lime slices tucked into his headband. Today, you can choose from an array of brands and flavors of energy bars and gels. The gels may not be as tasty as the bars, but they are easier to slurp down and chase with water a water stop during a marathon, rather then trying to chew something. Besides, an energy bar can freeze solid on winter training runs and you don't need to spend your time (and energy) gnawing at a frozen bar. That said, many of the energy bars make great snacks, especially if you're looking for something in the afternoon to see you through a late-day workout.

Which bar or gel is the best for marathons? The best one is the one that agrees with your stomach, and comes in a flavor that you like. Honestly, we aren't eating these things because they are delicious, we're eating them for the nutrition replacement. But the flavors of energy bars and gels continue to improve, so try different flavors and brands on long runs to see what suits your stomach. My personal favorite is Power Gel, in either the chocolate or tangerine flavors (both have caffeine).

Read the labels on bars and gels. Some contain caffeine, some even contain “double caffeine” and some have no caffeine. Although caffeine has been shown to have some benefits for endurance athletes, some people are sensitive to it, and if you don't regularly consume caffeine, you may want to try a caffeine-free gel or bar first.

How much water should I drink while running?

Good, Good, Good, Good Hydration

You may have heard about runners dying from hyponatremia (excessive hydration), but that doesn't mean you should go to the other extreme and not drink enough water. Even in cold weather, if you are running much more than 10-12 miles, be sure to have at least a few sips of water a few times during the run. Cold air, especially wind, is dehydrating, and you will get thirsty during a 16-20 mile run, even if it's only 20 degrees outside.

Remember that most energy gels and bars need to be eaten with some water to help the nutrients get into the bloodstream and do you some good. The amount of water you drink is individual, and as you do longer runs, try drinking 1/2 cup of water every 4-8 miles. If it's hot, you will need more, if it's cold, you'll need less, but everyone's hydration needs are different and it's important to experiment during training so you know what works for marathon day. There are formulas to calculate how much you should drink based on weighing yourself before and after workouts, but I find that listening to your body, plus some trial and error, works just as well, especially because the weather will have a significant impact on your hydration needs.

Do I have to give up my favorite foods while training for a marathon?

Indulgences: Don't Demonize Food

I am a devout runner, but I also have a huge sweet tooth, and I have great respect for the late chef and food-lover Julia Child, who advocated moderate amounts of “real food” such as real butter, and exhorted people to enjoy their food. “Fat gives things flavor,” she reportedly said. Of course, people with specific health and food issues need to be mindful of those issues, and if you are on a weight-loss diet different rules apply, but this is a marathon training book, not a diet book. In fact, with all the energy you're expending, it's OK to indulge in pretty much anything you like, with a dash of common sense.

You don't need to make a habit out of eating a whole pint of ice cream daily, but in my experience most runners, especially marathoners, can splurge on weekends and it won't show up on the scale. Some of your favorite things may have little or no nutritional value, so keep those things to a minimum and don't neglect the genuinely healthy food. I tend to indulge in dessert and peanut butter. By contrast, one of my training partners, who shall remain anonymous, likes to indulge in a trip to KFC periodically for a bucket of chicken and biscuits.

Disclaimer: I am not a professional nutritionist, but it's ok to enjoy a drink or dessert. If you over-indulge, forgive yourself and go for a nice run the next day.


Enjoy Late Summer Produce: Tomato Tips

If your tomato plants are thriving, or if you have access to a local farm stand, don't miss out on fresh summer tomatoes.

Tomatoes are great sources of nutrition for runners and anyone else. Some ideas for enjoying fresh tomatoes:

-Straight: Just wash, slice, sprinkle with a little salt and pepper, and enjoy.

-BLT: The classic bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich is classic for a reason. Note: Toast your bread to better support the juicy tomatoes. Not a bacon eater? A lettuce and tomato sandwich in summer is equally good. Add a slice of cheese for some protein.

-Pasta: Instead of spaghetti sauce from a jar, slather your summertime spaghetti with chopped tomatoes and parmesan cheese. Add some basil for effect.


Don't Miss Out On Seasonal Fruit

Summer is a great time to seek out fresh, local produce. It's great for runners' nutrition, and for everyone. Buying local produce means that you are not only supporting local businesses, but you are getting fresher food that hasn't had to travel across the country.

I try to eat as much fresh produce as I can in the summer, and I wish I had room to freeze more, but I always freeze some blueberries and zucchini.

If you are ambitious, and you have the freezer space, buy extra squash, peaches, berries, or whatever you like best, and freeze it.

When the midwinter blues set in, pull out some of those frozen blueberries for a smoothie, make a fresh peach cobbler in January, or toss some grated zucchini into an omelette or add it to lasagna.

Evmiddle of winter to make a smoothie or fruit dessert.

What should I eat while training for a marathon?

Don't Fall for Fad Diets: Use Common Sense

Running in general--and training for a marathon in particular--takes energy, and that comes from food. The important thing is not to obsess about food, and try to eat a balanced diet, and the most important thing is to eat. Eat plenty of carbohydrates; they remain a marathoner's first-line energy source. Some fat is important, too, so it's OK to put real butter or cream cheese on your bagel if that's what you like, and be sure to incorporate healthy fats (aka monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats), into your food plan. Some easy sources of these healthy fats are olive oil, flaxseed, walnuts and most other nuts, and cold-water fish such as salmon and herring.

Should I carbo-load before a marathon?

Carbo-Loading: Not Just For Marathon Day

The principle of loading up on carbohydrates the night before a marathon is a good one in theory, but it's important not to get carried away. I recommend having a high-carbohydrate meal, such as pasta or pizza (I usually have pizza) the night before your weekly long training runs. A high-carb dinner will stay with you through the run the next morning. If you do your long runs in the afternoon or evening, have a high-carb snack, such as a bagel or leftover pizza (if there is any) a few hours before you run.

Experiment with different foods now and then, or see how you feel if you go out to dinner the night before a long training run and have something unusual. If you know what makes you feel energized but not bloated or sluggish because you've eaten it before your long runs, you can eat that same thing, or something similar, the night before the marathon.

During the week prior to the marathon, eat as you normally do. It's not really necessary to load up on pasta 3 days before the marathon, because it will be out of your system. Also, since you will be running much less than usual during the last week before the race, eating as usual will create some carbo-loading by default because you aren't burning as many carbohydrates by running.

What should vegetarians eat while training for marathons?

Vegetarian Marathoners: Know Your Proteins

If you're a vegetarian training for a marathon, be sure to read up on your alternative proteins, because protein is important for muscle maintenance and recovery (see Protein Power tip). Vitamins and supplements won't hurt, but don't depend on them. Most nutritionists agree that it's best not to rely on vitamins or nutritional supplements at the expense of real food, because there are components of foods that interact with each other in ways we don't fully understand.

From a marathon training perspective, the most important thing is to eat enough, and try to eat a variety of foods. As you increase your mileage, you may find yourself craving more protein, whether it is peanut butter or something else, so have some! Your muscles will thank you. Runner's World is a great nutrition information resource for runners, and includes vegetarian recipes and snacks that appeal to non-vegetarians, too.

How much protein do I need while training for a marathon?

Protein Power

Protein is essential for distance running (and for good health in general), but use common sense and don't abandon carbohydrates and fats in favor of a high-protein diet. Nutritionist Liz Applegate, Ph.D., a regular contributor to Runner's World magazine, has a sensible approach to nutrition. She suggests that runners consume about 15 percent of their daily calories as protein, which is about half the amount of protein suggested by high-protein diets. Most marathoners will burn carbohydrates and fats first during long runs, but after an hour or so of running your body will be looking for another energy source and will start burning protein, so you do need it in your diet. If you're a vegetarian, know your alternative protein sources. Protein is essential to muscle recovery as well, so it's not only tasty, but healthy, to indulge that post-workout craving for peanut butter, or a hamburger, or your favorite protein to help your muscles refuel and prepare for the next workout.

What are some key tips to proper running nutrition?

Balance Your Nutrition

Carbohydrates are the fuel that our muscles burn, so it stands to reason that active people need more carbohydrates than sedentary people. A low-carb diet is simply not a good idea for an athlete.

In general, runners should get about 50% - 65% of their calories from carbohydrates, about 15% - 20% from protein, and no more than 30% from fats. As much of the fat as possible should come from healthy sources such as fish and nuts.


Top Runners' Snacks

As a runner, you can get away with eating some junk food… but an empty calorie is an empty calorie. Your body runs best of quality fuel, so the next time hunger strikes, consider one of these snacks instead of chips or a fast food burger:
• Bagel with peanut butter. Carbs, quality protein and heart-healthy fats. What's not to like?
• Plain yogurt with fresh fruit. Live cultures and fiber are good for the digestive system.
• Homemade trail mix. This'll satisfy your sweet tooth. Make it with unsalted nuts, and there's no sodium penalty.
• Banana. Quality carbs – and the potassium helps prevent cramps. Add a peanut butter for protein.
• Soy smoothie. Vanilla soy milk, your favorite fresh fruit, ice and a dash of honey, all in a blender.


How Many Calories Do You Need?

Many runners are concerned with their weight. After all, extra pounds are tough to carry on a five-mile run. This concern can lead to under-eating, which isn't any healthier than over-eating. To find the approximate number of calories you need daily, use the following three-step calculation. (Note: This is to maintain body weight.)

Step 1: Determine your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR). This is simple: multiply your body weight by ten. If you weigh 150 pounds, 150 x 10 = 1500. So, your RMR is 1500.

Step 2: Determine your overall activity level. If you're very active, add 60% - 80% to your RMR. If you're moderately active, add 40% - 60%. And if you're generally sedentary, add 20% - 40%. We'll say our 150-pound runner is moderately active, and use the middle of the range. So 1500 + (1500 x 50%) = 1500 + 750, or 2250.

Step 3: Add your “workout calories.” Figure 100 calories per mile run - this just is an approximation. If our subject runs four miles a day… 4 x 100 = 400, and 2250 + 400 = 2650.

So, our hypothetical 150-pound runner needs about 2650 calories per day.


Running and Vegetarianism

Many people assume that endurance athletes cannot succeed on a vegetarian diet. The truth is that the percentage of runners who are vegetarian is higher than in the population as a whole. Nuts, seeds, soy and other beans can provide more than adequate amounts of protein.

Running and vegetarianism actually make sense, since both contribute to a longer, healthier life. (Vegetarians tend to live longer than non-vegetarians – and have lower rates of heart disease, most cancers and other serious health problems.)

Some well-known vegetarian athletes include: Martina Navratilova, Paavo Nurmi, Robert Parrish, Hank Aaron, Billie Jean King, Edwin Moses, Bill Walton, Carl Lewis, and Steven Seagal.


Refueling on the Run

A wide variety of energy bars, endurance drinks, and gels are available to provide quick energy, hydration, electrolyte replacement and more. Here's a quick rundown:
• Energy bars. Originally, most of these bars merely contained high concentrations of easily processed carbohydrates. Today, many bars also contain decent amounts of protein as well, which has been shown to reduce recovery time after hard workouts.
• Drinks. Various formulations are available. Some are designed to improve hydration and electrolyte replacement. Others contain easily absorbed carbohydrates to provide extra fuel during a workout. And some are designed to optimize recovery with a blend of carbohydrates and protein.
• Gels. As with drinks, a variety of gels are available. Some simply provide plenty of easily absorbed carbohydrates for energy. Others add electrolytes to the mix. Still others combine carbohydrates with protein. One brand even adds herbs and antioxidants to its formula.


How Much Protein Do You Need?

Runners put greater demands on their bodies than the average person. The stress of vigorous exercise creates a need for extra protein to rebuild muscle. Sports nutritionists typically recommend about 0.50 and 0.70 grams of protein per day per pound of body weight – depending on your level of exercise and your metabolism.

For example, a 150-pound runner needs between 75 and 105 grams of protein daily. But how much is that? Well, beef and poultry each contain about 7 grams of protein per ounce, so our runner would have to eat between about 11 and 15 ounces of either to meet his/her daily need. On the high end, that's almost four quarter-pound burgers!


Vitamins Can Fill Nutritional Gaps

Depleted soil, processing and cooking can result in foods that simply lack the nourishment our bodies need. And with so many of us on the go, nutrition can fall by the wayside.

That's why some doctors recommend multi-vitamin/mineral supplements and why many people choose to take them. And if the general population needs supplements, where does that leave athletes, who put much greater demands on their bodies? A good multi-vitamin/mineral supplement may be an inexpensive way to help ensure that your body has the nutrients it needs to fuel your performance. In my personal opinion, if you eat reasonably well most of the time, you probably don't need a vitamin. That said, I do keep a bag of Halls Vitamin C drops in my desk at work, and I usually have one per day during the work week. Likewise, I usually have one of those chewy chocolate calcium supplements (Viactiv) each day during the work week, because I think there's enough evidence to suggest that you really can't go overboard on calcium and vitamin D.

If you are looking for a general multivitamin, try something like Centrum. But be sure to tell your doctor at each visit if you are taking a multivitamin or any other supplement because there may be potentially adverse interactions with prescription medications.


Stay Hydrated!

The most critical nutrient for any runner is water. You can easily become dehydrated in warm weather or on a long run. And by the time you feel thirsty, you've already gone too long without water. Always carry water in warm weather and on long runs – especially if you perspire heavily.

Many runners have found that a hydration pack – those refillable bladders inside a small backpack – are ideal for longer runs. They're easy to carry, make water readily available, and come in sizes ranging up to 100 ounces or more – plenty of capacity for nearly any run.


Can Caffeine Help?

Many runners wonder whether caffeine can help or hurt while training for a race. Caffeine has a diuretic effect, which can cause dehydration, and there are a few things to consider when taking caffeine during your training.

1. If you're a daily caffeine drinker, it's advised that you continue to drink caffeine as you normally would to avoid any difference in your body's mental and physical performance.

2. Caffeine stimulates the brain and is known to help athletes train better and harder because of the natural effects of caffeine.

3. If you're not a regular caffeine drinker, don't assume that caffeine will give you an extra boost of energy or increase your performance. Caffeine can have varying effects on people who are not regular takers, including nausea and nervousness.


Should You Graze?

Runners take in – and burn – a lot more calories than their sedentary kin. And most of those calories come from carbohydrates. But here's the rub: Your body can only use so many carbs at any given time… and the excess is converted to fat.

For this reason – and to keep their blood sugar levels more stable – some runners and other athletes “graze.” That is, they eat smaller, more frequent meals and snacks.

Nutritionists who advocate grazing usually suggest five or six small meals spaced throughout the day. But remember to keep your portions smaller when you're eating more frequent meals!



The traditional pasta meal the night before a long distance event is not actually carbo loading. Carbo loading is a process that takes several days, and involves increasing carbohydrate intake while tapering exercise.

Note: Studies have shown that the traditional carbohydrate depletion phase, during which the athlete significantly reduces carbohydrate intake, doesn't improve carbohydrate storage in the muscles meaningfully, but can lead to headaches, fatigue and other health problems.

Endurance athletes engaged in vigorous exercise for less than 90 minutes don't benefit significantly from carbo loading, but marathoners, triathletes and others engaged in longer endurance exercise can. This is because your muscles and liver normally only store about enough carbohydrates to carry your body the equivalent of about 20 miles of running. (Now you know why marathoners hit “the wall.”)

During the week prior to the event, carbo loading involves tapering exercise (don't stop altogether!) and increasing carbohydrate intake to about 70% of total calories. (Reduce fat intake to balance total calories consumed.) This process supersaturates the muscles with carbohydrates – up to nearly twice their normal capacity.


Prevent Cramps With Potassium

Potassium is an important part of any runner's nutrition plan, and if you experience cramps in your legs, that might be a sign that you aren't getting enough. Dehydration also can cause cramping, so drink plenty of water, even during the winter months.

But as for your diet, include these tasty sources of potassium:

-Bananas: If you don't like them plain, try making a smoothie or milkshake.

-Prunes: Now known as "dried plums" on most packages, don't knock them until you have tried them. They are easy to take traveling, don't spoil, and taste good.

-Potatoes: Potatoes have gotten some nutritional flack lately, but they are excellent sources of potassium, and they are relatively low in fat and calories. I say that French fries as well, just don't make a habit of getting your potassium that way!


Blueberries: Not Just for Summer Anymore

It's blueberry season, and that's great for runners. Blueberries are full of antixoxidants, and they taste fantastic. Another great thing about blueberries is that they freeze wonderfully. Yes, you can buy frozen blueberries at the grocery store in January, but fresh ones just taste better, and freezing them is simple. Use 32-ounce plastic yogurt containers (or other plastic containers of you choice, but I always have yogurt containers on hand), fill them with berries, and freeze them. You can wash the berries before you freeze them, or freeze them unwashed, but just remember to wash them before eating or baking with them when you pull them out of the freezer.


Seasonal Veggies for Runners' Nutrition

Buying vegetables when they are in season can be a cost-effective way to improve your running nutrition. And if you have those fresh veggies around, you'll want to use them before they go bad.

Even if you think you don't like asparagus, pick some up when it goes on sale (right around early April).

Don't have an asparagus steamer? Don't worry. You can chop asparagus into small pieces, saute it in olive oil, and add it to anything, including omelettes, salads, or casseroles. I have even put it on pizza raw, and it cooks as the pizza cooks.


What You Need to Know About Water

Hydration is important for everyone, especially runners. The Mayo Clinic website lists three different strategies for staying hydrated, and any of them can work for you.

The bottom line, however, is that if you don't feel thirsty, and if your urine is mostly clear, you are adequately hydrated. And of course, runners and other exercisers might need more water, depending on how hard the workout and how much we sweat.

-IOM recommendations: For what it is worth, the Institute of Medicine recommends daily intake of 3 liters of fluids (13 cups) for men and 2.2 liters (9 cups) for women. This includes any beverage, starting with your morning coffee or tea.

-8x8: The adage about drinking 8 ounces of water 8 times a day doesn't have any science behind it, according to the Mayo Clinic. But it's a handy way to remember how much fluid to drink, and remember that any fluid counts; it doesn't have to be water.

-Fluid replacement: If you are mathematically inclined, think of hydration in terms of replacing the fluid volume lost by urine, sweat, and maintenance of body functions. Based on the average fluid lost daily by most adults, drinking two liters of fluid (water or other beverages) each day will keep you replenished.

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