Nutrition for runners is a complex topic with so many different opportunities for mistakes that I’ve compiled a huge toolbox here to help you find the resources, tips and tricks that will keep you from bonking, feeling strong as the miles increase and we always hope avoiding stomach pains during the race!
Additionally if you’ve been focused on running for weight loss, we’re going to make sure you aren’t cutting calories so far that it not only hurts your performance, but your health.
What Should Runners Eat?
Let’s see if this sounds familiar…
Kathy finishes her long run, bolts through the door making a beeline for the blender, oblivious to the sweat trail forming through the kitchen.
She must chug her Green Smoothie in 30 minutes or the whole run will be a complete and utter waste.
Sometimes that’s how a runners diet feels…a little insane, too many must’s and should’s, not enough “what makes my body feel good and WHY?!”
First of all, what you need to do post run is a combination of eating for recovery and actual recovery, but does that mean it must be green juices? No.
- Enough nutrient dense foods to help the body repair
- Enough calories to support your workouts
- Enough protein to prevent muscle loss
- Enough fat to keep your joints healthy
- Enough carbs to give you energy to burn fat (notice I didn’t say TONS of carbs)
It doesn’t have to be quite as complex as we think. But there are a lot of pieces, so let’s start to breakdown the runners diet.
Nutrition for Runners
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been diving into learning more about what actually matters and what nutrition tips are important.
I’ve put together a list from that research – and here is a massive round up for you to pick and choose the things that will make the biggest impact for you!Let’s start at the logical place, the beginning.
What is Sports Nutrition?
Figuring out a marathon runners diet plan is not the same as counting calories for the average person.
You truly have to consider the ways in which running causes your body to use more nutrients, to breakdown and to need recovery.
👉How to find a sports nutritionist
One of the key things you’ll learn here is what all those letters behind their names mean and that your personal trainer shouldn’t be your nutritionist!!
As a running coach, I can share tips of what’s worked for me like using dried pineapple for a running fuel because it actually helps prevent digestive issues.
BUT I can only share based on my experiences, not based in science or lots of schooling like a registered dietitian!
If you have a trainer or coach who is writing out diet plans or even giving you macros, I’d ask you to really look at their credentials and if they know enough to not just help you lose weight, but stay healthy.
Years ago one trainer had me down to 1200 calories, while running and lifting.
I’m 5’9″ and that’s less than I need to stay alive! I did that all of two days before I knew it was a path to BAD THINGS.
What is Nutrition for Runners?
When we start talking about nutrition as a runner, it’s a way to reframe food as more than just calories.
That’s why you’ll often hear us refer to it as FUEL.
This helps many athletes let go of the diet mindset and start to look at how food is going to help the perform better. The right combination of nutrients can play a big role in your success.
What’s Included in a Good Sports Nutrition Program
Building out the plan that is going to work for you is a lot like building out marathon training plan! You get the best results by working with a coach who knows you, your goal and your training.
- Should account for higher and lower activity days
- Helps to find foods that are most palatable to you immediately after a run or during long runs
- Ensures you are getting enough food to support your training
- Looks at your total intake to balance blood sugar
- Plans out fueling during the run for sodium and other electrolytes
- Pays attention to how your body responds to different types and volume of food
Benefits of a Good Fueling Plan
- More energy for workouts
- Avoiding the wall in the marathon
- Maintaining muscle mass as the mileage increases
- Stabilizing mood and energy all day long
- Less chance of injuries like stress fractures
- Prevention of the Female Triad (includes loss of menstruation)
Do I Need to Eat Right After a Run?
Do you actually need to force down food immediately post run? The truth is that for women over 40, yes you really do need to start that refueling with carbs and protein immediately.
Prior to that it can depend on a lot of factors like how much you ate before the run, how long was the run and how did you fuel during the run.
You can indeed achieve good recovery and muscle gains without immediate food, but many find that if they wait to get protein/carbs they become ravenous throughout that day or the next, turning to less optimal choices.
- Fasted runners need to eat a full meal sooner to ensure recovery isn’t hampered
- Managing hunger for distance running can also be improved by not delaying that refueling
- Masters runners will slow recovery and risk muscle loss by not refueling quickly and smartly
- Some ideas >> Best Post Run Meals for Recovery
Understanding that we need high quality meals feels like a no brainer, right? So now it’s about how to time it to prevent stomach issues and give you enough fuel.
The right foods will indeed make your running feel easier. And sorry to tell you a marathon training runners diet is not exclusively carbs and most definitely not sugary carbs.
Great Food Ideas for Runners
Instead of looking for a marathon diet plan to follow, try putting together a way of eating that feels sustainable for you. Checkout these tips to help you find the right foods:
- Best Pre-Workout Snacks
- What to Eat Before a Race?
- Using Whole Foods on Long Runs
- 7 Carbo-Loading Mistakes to Avoid
- Running Hydration Done Right — yes this is part of good nutrition
- Best electrolyte powders for runners
What Nutrients Do Runners Need?
One thing all runners do need is a balanced diet that can give them all the nutrients they need to recover. Your nutrition needs as an endurance athlete are different from that of a sedentary person.
For runners, one of the most important things is to develop healthy eating habits so that you can recover after a run and get the nutrients you need.
Getting the right nutrition through a proper diet will not only lead to good health, but will also promote peak performance.
And so, a balanced diet for runners to get all the nutrition they need will include all the essentials, such as carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals.
But there’s more to that than just knowing what you need. Not all carbs are the same, and there are definitely things runners should avoid.
Let’s look at each of the macronutrients in more detail to know what runners need in terms of nutrition.
Carbohydrates as a Primary Fuel Source
Carbohydrates are your body’s primary source of fuel. When you eat carbs, your body turns them into glycogen by breaking them down. Glycogen is a form of glucose.
This glycogen is then stored in your muscles, liver, and bloodstream and used as a source of energy for your body.
When you go out for a run, these glycogen reserves are converted into energy, and this contracts the working muscles.
Understandably, you’ll need more glycogen the more time and effort you put into your run. After a 90 to 120 minutes run or workout, your glycogen stores would have drained and will need to be replenished.
But here’s the catch: not all carbs are made the same. There is a major difference between simple and complex carbs.
I’ve written about it in a lot more detail in my guide on the perfect runner’s diet but, in general, runners should consume more complex carbs than simple ones.
When picking carbs, opt for whole grains foods since they are less processed, and they retain more of the nutrition. They also contain fiber which will help you feel fuller for longer.
Protein for Recovery
Protein is incredibly important for runners and is what are bodies need for building, repairing, and maintaining cells, tissues, and organs.
Runners need more protein than most other people, especially those running long distances. Generally, runners need a minimum of 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. This goes up to 2.3 to 3.1 grams for muscle building.
When choosing between protein sources, go for lean meats, chicken, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, fish, eggs, and beans.
Again, not all protein is the same either. Some are complete while others are considered incomplete because they don’t have all the nine necessary amino acids that our bodies need for optimal functioning.
If you want to learn more about it, you can check out my guide on a runner’s diet.
Fats as a Secondary Fuel Source
Dietary fat is another essential micronutrient that our body needs to function properly. It’s important for transporting fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K throughout our bodies.
It also helps keep the immune system strong and functioning right at the cellular level. Interestingly, our body’s secondary fuel source is the body’s stored fat.
However, the body’s fat-conversion process is not very efficient and it prefers keeping fat stores in reserve for emergencies and isn’t as used to fueling exercise exclusively using fat reserves.
Once you’ve used all your available carbs for energy, the body realizes it has to burn fat to fuel your runs. But it’s not normally used to it and it starts off as an inefficient process.
Over time, runners’ bodies become more effective at burning fat for fuel which is also why most runners carry little body fat.
When picking sources of dietary fat, opt for healthy fats that can be found is foods such as olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados.
How to Eat a Balanced Diet for Runners
Eating a balanced diet entails making sure you’re having a little bit of everything when you’re picking a small snack or meal. When it comes to pre-run snacks there are a ton of combinations you can try out. Here are some good options:
- Half a banana with a tablespoon of almond or peanut butter
- Oatmeal with berries
- Boiled potatoes with eggs (for a pre-workout meal for longer runs)
I have a ton of other ideas you can check out here, but what’s important to note is that the snacks and meals are a mix of carbs, proteins, and healthy fats.
Moreover, some food options will suit you better than others. This is where the concept of runner’s diarrhea comes in which is something we know all too well.
Apart from this, you need to keep in mind to stay hydrated and restore electrolytes you’ve lost from sweating during runs. I have a great guide on electrolytes for runners, including a homemade sports drink that you can try.
Energy gels are also great to have on you during runs and you can read all about them in my guide to know which ones are the best and why you need them.
Running for Weight Loss Keys
I started running with a weight loss goal in mind, so I understand that’s where many of you are at as well. Unfortunately, this backfires on many runners who find themselves not eating enough, running more and causing weight gain.
Which means, you need to learn how to eat enough, but not eating the “I deserve it because I ran” extra’s.
Here area few more runners diet topics that will help:
- How many calories do runner’s need?
- Cortisol and Exercise – How it causes weight gain?
- Should You Do Fasted Cardio?
- How Does Intermittent Fasting Work for Runners?
Below we will break this process down farther to help you find what will work best to get lean, not weak.
Whether you’re looking for diet for marathon training for beginners or how to eat to crack your PR is all about fueling up with energizing food that is easy to digest (which in part typically means it’s good for you!) and helps your body to repair from each workout to improve and be ready for the next.
Remember, hunger is triggered by the need for nutrients!
The key concept to understand is it’s NOT just about calorie counting.
Nutrition for runners isn’t just macros or carbs, it’s finding the foods that fuel YOU. Yes, I know you may have a weight loss focus, but that doesn’t mean you get to underfuel, eat crap because you burned calories and expect the best from your body.
Protein Ideas for Runners
Try finding ways to increase your protein, which will not only make you feel full, but improve muscle recovery and as you increase miles ensure you don’t lose muscle!
- High protein power bowls
- High protein desserts
- High protein pancakes
- 97 High protein breakfast ideas
- Best protein powder for your goals
- Can Protein Timing Reduce Body Fat?
You have to figure out what diet and food is best for you and not worry about if it works for someone else!
In terms of running for weight loss, we know that the food we eat is important because calories play a role. However when it comes to running nutrition you have to know it goes way beyond that.
Step 1 Understanding Calories, Macros
- How Many Calories to Runners Really Need?
- Do Macros work for runners?
- Is a High Fat Diet Better for Runners?
- Racing weight or underfueling?
Step 2 Understanding How We Burn Fat and Carbs
- How to exercise to burn more fat?
- Can Intermittent Fasting curb Carb Cravings?
- 3 Common Nutrition Mistakes of Runners
- How to Conquer Your Sugar Cravings
Step 3 Setting Yourself Up for Success
- 3 Different Meal Planning Methods for Food Success
- Understanding the Female Athlete Triad – pitfalls of cutting calories
- How to Go Plant Based as a Runner? – a must read before making a big switch
- Marathon runners diet plan example
What Foods Can Make You Run Faster?
The truth is, there are some basic principles from every single diet plan out there that will help us feel better, recover faster, and train harder.
- eat more green leafy vegetables
- eat more fiber
- eat less sugar
- eat less process foods
- eat enough to fuel your lifestyle
Beyond that, the “perfect diet” is one that works for your body and indeed it may not be what works for your significant other, your running buddy, or your annoying cubicle mate.
For example, greek yogurt is a fantastic snack, unless like me you’ve figured our dairy is an issue because of a food intolerance! And if your runner diet is based around should foods then you might be eating things that don’t actually make you feel well.
Food stress could show up with these symptoms:
- Training Fatigue
- Muscle soreness
- Skin issues
- Mood swings
Supplements for Runners
Too often we skip the “eat well, live well” thing and jump right into taking supplements because of the quick gains that are promised in a lot of sports nutrition products.
Recovery faster than Usain Bolt.
^You’ve seen that before, right?
The keyword there is “quick” for a reason. As quickly as you can gain something, you can just as quickly lose it as well once you stop. Finding balance with food that is sustainable for a long time is more important than anything.
Of course there is a place for supplements, especially because distance runners deplete their bodies in a way that would require eating pounds and pounds of greens daily to fully recover.
BUT if you don’t have the food right, you’re only getting a fraction of the benefits.
Remember that food is THE most important thing, then the supplements can follow.
When it comes to supplements, I’m picky and you should be too. We should always be picky about everything we put into our bodies.
Read a little bit more below to learn why it’s important to do your supplement research before just picking out something random you’ve seen work for someone else.
- What Vitamins Runners Need?
- The One Supplement all RD’s Recommend: Probiotics
- Preventing Stress Fractures with Sports Nutrition
- Best Plant Based Sources of Iron to Prevent Iron Deficiency
- Electrolytes – what are they and why you need them
- Magnesium for Body Composition, Performance, Cramps and Calm!
- Why Runners Benefit from some Supplements and What I take
How to Start Improving Your Running Nutrition?
I feel like a record on repeat with this phrase lately, but it remains true which is why I always go back to it…
- If it feels overwhelming, you’re trying to do too much.
- Pick one area to begin with and make the change! Take it slow, make it simple.
- Once it sticks, start focusing on the next area that matters.
Suddenly you’ll find without a whole lot of effort or angst, you’re eating more veggies or drinking more water, or whatever your goals were…don’t make it overly complicated. You want to do something that you know is going to stick around long term.
Now with that said the real question remains – what are you going to do?
Other ways to connect with Amanda
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Heather @ FITaspire
Some really great resources here, but my very favorite thing you said is at the very end: “Pick 1 area and make the change. Once it sticks, start focusing on the next area that matters.” YES, Yes, a million times yes!! I work with so many people who are in a rush to make sweeping changes, but it doesn’t work as well that way. Small changes that you practice 1 at a time make the BIGGEST impact!!
Julie @ Running in a Skirt
Such good tips! Finding that balance is the key to getting in some great runs. I’ve never tried dried pineapple for runs… but now i”m totally craving it.
Jessica @ Nutritioulicious
Totally agree that your trainer should NOT be your dietitian! And that there’s absolutely no such thing as a ‘perfect’ diet!
So much great information here! Thanks for sharing!
Sarah- A Whisk and Two Wands
So many great tips and good info! I know my head was spinning when I was researching nutrition for my husband with his first marathon and than almost threw in the towel when things weren’t working. Doing the research on the perfect fuel and it didn’t work for him . I got the pre and post down and at times felt like I was watching the clock and taking care of an infant with it all and while it wasn’t my body that was the hardest as knowing how it was working.
Rebecca | NOURISHED. the blog
Love this post, Amanda!! The supplement discussion gets so interesting. I am definitely someone who will take a ton of different vitamins and minerals and herbs supplementa each and every day. It’s so easy to get carried away with all the different products that are on the market. I feel like I really have to remind myself less is more sometimes.
Alisa @ Go Dairy Free
I definitely need to work on the timing of food that I eat before and after workouts, and cutting down further on sugar. I can really see and feel the effects!
This is such an informative article, thank you for such a great resource! I love what you have to say about food timing, so important!
This is definitely one area I wish were so much simpler. I really try to MAKE it simple, but it just isn’t. I’m working with a great RD right now and making some small changes. One day at a time, right? So many great resources here and (as usual) you are right on about so many key pieces to endurance training and nutrition. Now, can someone hire me a personal chef? :-)
I’ve always said if I were rich the one thing I really want is a personal chef! Not a fancy car or a maid, just someone to make food!
I totally agree about the social media culture….ALL women are different and have different nutritional needs! When I was training for a marathon I HAD to eat breakfast and wait an hour or two then run…because I couldn’t eat anything while I was running or I would throw up!! I had to find the right way to stay fueled, but it was totally different than what most people would say!
Patty @ Reach Your Peak
I’d say my nutrition is pretty decent BUT the one area I need to improve on (well 2) is sticking to a serving size and avoiding sweet treats. I have a crazy sweet tooth, and I know if I continue eating like I have been after this marathon, I’m def gonna gain weight!
Yup the sweet treats are 100% my issue too!!
Laura @ This Runner's Recipes
Yes, what a great resource! I appreciate your simple, non-fad-diet approach to sports nutrition. I agree so much that a personal trainer shouldn’t be one’s nutritionist. I’ve had runners come to me telling me that they don’t eat carbs because their personal trainer told them so. An area I need to work on is eating more fish!
Thanks for writing this! Sometimes I feel like I get so caught up in what I should be doing that I completely shut down and make bad nutrition choices because it’s easier.