Optimal Nutrition for Runners

Last week we posted about some more natural, do-it-yourself approaches to traditional energy bars and sports drinks.  Deana, one of our readers, took the issue a step further, posing the following question in the comments.

“As I am just running 3-4 miles a few times a week I haven’t had to deal with fueling yet. However I start my 1/2 marathon training in July and will have to figure something out. Given all the additives and high calories I would like to work my plan for fueling with whole foods. But I have a question – is there an ideal set of carbs/calories/etc as running fuel? Or a ratio of these depending on your estimated calorie burn or miles?”

Deana is just getting ready to start her half marathon training, but as you can see she’s already realized something very important — as you begin to tackle longer distances, giving your body the right fuel becomes critical.  You might be able to fake your way through a 5k with sub-par nutrition (particularly if you’re in shape), but as you reach 10k and beyond, putting the right gas in the tank is key.  We also like the instinct to reach for natural, whole foods rather than processed, pre-packaged ones.  Anyway…on to the questions at hand!

What solid, whole foods are best before a run?

Back in September, we posted about the best foods to eat before, during, and after a run.  As far as pre-run nutrition was concered, we reccomended a light snack of energy-rich foods like bread, pasta, fruits, veggies and granola.

Is there an ideal ratio between calories, carbs, protein, etc?

You may have heard 3:1 cited as the optimum ratio between carbohydrates and protein for runners (meaning three ounces of carbs for every one ounce of protein or 75% carbs to 25% protein).  This thinking was explained in a recent USDA study called Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which in fact refers to a ratio of 3:1:1 — acknowledging your body’s need for healthy fats as well, though realistically if you have a relatively normal diet you are likely getting the fats you need throughout the day.  (As for calories, we’ll get to that in a bit.)

The best thing you can do to fuel your body properly is to follow these guidelines not just an hour before you train, but all throughout the day.  Strive to maintain that balance of approximately 75% carbs to 25% protein in each meal you eat and your body shouldn’t feel the need for anything special right before your workout.  (If you do need a boost, those links at the beginning of this post provide some healthy, effective ideas.)

So where should I get my carbs?

When it comes to nutrition, not all carbs are the same.  You’ll want to avoid “bad” carbohydrates like those found in white bread, white rice, and many pastas.  Heavily processed carbohydrates have typically been stripped of their fiber and other nutrients, leaving empty calories behind.  So where can you get the good stuff?

Whole grains (oatmeal, granola, brown rice)

Fresh fruits (bananas, oranges, blueberries)

Vegetables (mixed greens, stir-fry, pretty much anything you enjoy)

And protein?

Poultry (light meat, baked is best)

Fish (grilled or baked)

Nuts and beans (ideal plant-based proteins)

This is obviously a pretty broad overview of carbs and protein, but it’s just what you need to begin thinking about that 3:1 ratio in a way that fits into your real life.  If in general you’re getting a well-balanced diet of the above, heavier on carbs and lighter on protein, you’ll be firing on all cylinders when it comes time to work out.

Now one last piece to tackle…

How many extra calories do I need?

When you think about fueling up for a workout, you should definitely be thinking in terms of the stuff we’ve talked about above, not just focusing on upping your calorie intake.  Unless you are a pretty advanced athlete in excellent shape and with little fat to burn, you probably don’t need to load up with calories to get through a workout.  Just like we said with fat intake, most of us will typically eat enough calories during the course of the day to fuel the average workout, especially if your runs are remaining in the neighborhood of an hour in length.  Rather than thinking about loading up on calories, focus on simply filling your belly about an hour before your run and getting those healthy carbs and proteins in your system throughout the day.  If you are feeling hungry during or after a run, your body is almost certainly craving healthy carbs or protein — not just additional calories.  Examine your diet and see what’s lacking.

Thanks, Deana, for the great question and for sharing your training progress with us.  Be sure to let us know how you’re doing with your half marathon work!

One response to “Optimal Nutrition for Runners

  1. Pingback: Race day countdown: how to prepare | Bluefin Software Blog

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