Health & Wellness

Runner’s diet: food as fuel

We all know that food is the body’s fuel, but many of us don’t know which ones can optimize our energy when we’re working out in the gym, training for a marathon, or walking a mile or two. Take “Today Runs a Marathon” guest runner, Karen Gorrell, for example. When I met Karen to go over nutrition with her, she hadn’t given much thought to her eating habits — food was food — and she wasn’t aware of how much her diet could affect her training for the marathon. So I told her she needed to take the same mental discipline she used for her running and apply it to her eating.

The “old” Karen downed doughnuts and fast food, gulped down some water and sports drinks, and skimped on protein. No wonder she felt overly fatigued during some of her runs. Her fantastic attitude and spirit carried her through most of her training, but she needed some nutritional training if she was going to be in the best condition to run a marathon.

Many of us think we should munch on a protein bar before we work out or eat a bowl of spaghetti before long runs. But we don’t really connect healthy eating habits to top physical performance, whether it’s running, biking or walking. And it's not just a matter of consuming enough calories. The source of fuel is what makes the big difference. So whether you run two miles or 20, you must stick to nutritional fundamentals. Like any training, it’s a matter of focus and discipline on two fundamentals: hydration (enough fluid) and fuel (the right kind of calories).

Here we need to differentiate between recreational runners, who run three miles or less at a time or engage in as much as an hour of moderate physical activity, and endurance runners who run six or more miles at a time or participate in more than an hour of cross training, running, or biking. We will look at what you should eat and drink before you run, while you run, and after you're done.


Recreational runners

Water is the best source of hydration for everyone. There is no metabolic need for sports drinks with additional calories and electrolytes. If you feel the mental need for a sports drink and like the taste, try a low-calorie, low-sugar one like Propel or PowerAde Option. If you’re taking a fun walk for an hour, and are thirsty, a sports drink is going to pack on more calories than you will burn. So stick with water. Keep in mind that if you walk two 12-minute miles (about 200 calories), which is moderate physical activity, you don’t need anything but water. When it comes to sports drinks, you must think calories in and calories out. 

Endurance runners

Most 20-ounce bottles of sport drinks have about 150 calories. If you figure that a mile burns about 100 calories, you will burn about 800 calories during a eight-mile run. So for a long run, your body will need some fuel. A sports drink can be a good source, but so can healthy snacks, sport gels, or protein bars.

Sports drinks are basically water, containing some easily digestible carbohydrates (simple sugars) and electrolytes, which are needed for sustained energy during a run. You can choose from a variety of drinks, such as Gatorade (the grandparent of sports drinks), PowerAde, Amino Vital (with amino acids), and Accelerade (with whey protein). The amino acid/protein sports drinks can help support muscle protein integrity throughout the run. For long runs, aim for about 100 to 200 calories an hour. Drink about eight ounces every 15 minutes or so for proper hydration. Set a timer if you need a reminder to hydrate.


Recreational runners

Creating an eating plan is easy: It requires a little honesty and a lot of common sense. The benefits of exercise can be seen by a 30-minute walk, and you don’t have to run a marathon — or run at all — to be physically active. If this is you, healthy eating is the goal, and you do not need a special plan. Lean protein is the key. We need about half a gram of protein per pound of body weight, so divide your body weight in half to calculate how much protein you need.

Fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich starches, and heart healthy fat round out the balance of your diet Always remember to take a bottle of water with you during your workout to satisfy your thirst. Make sure you’ve eaten a meal within the previous three hours before working out. You can have a snack of between 100 and 200 calories, but you shouldn’t eat less than 30 minutes before you exercise.

Endurance runners

If you run for as much as six miles or exercise for more than an hour, then you’ll have to make some adjustments.

  • Before the run: Aim for a mix of carbohydrates, protein, and a small amount of heart healthy fat. Try a half bagel with some lean turkey, a handful of trail mix with some orange juice, a banana with peanut butter, or a handful of berries in a low-fat or non-fat yogurt. In a hurry? A snack bar with around 200 calories is a good choice. Make sure you allow between 30 and 60 minutes for digestion before your run.
  • During the run: While many people find it easiest to consume sports drinks, protein gels, or snack bars, feel free to carry grapes, banana chunks, and raisins for some quick energy. The gels pack about 100 calories in a small pack, and are a convenient choice for a long run. Hydration is still key. If you choose to sip a sports beverage instead of eating a snack, make sure you drink eight ounces every 15 minutes or so. Try diluting the sports drink with water, if you want a balance of food and drink. Figure you’ll need about 100 to 200 calories an hour.
  • After the run: While some people don’t want to eat after a long run, many have a ravenous appetite. Whether or not you’re hungry, drink at least eight to 12 ounces of a sports drink, or a bottle of water with a handful of grapes or orange sections. Refueling within about 30 minutes after a long run is important. Aim for a mixture of protein and carbohydrate with low fat. Avoid doughnuts and other high carbohydrate/high fat processed products. Of course, the pre-run foods work well afterwards, and they can be interchanged freely.

Protein bars and gels are convenient sources of nutrients, but you need to pay attention to the calories. If you’re not sure whether a bar is a snack or a meal, read its label. If one is a snack, then it will have fewer than 200 calories (most are in the 120 to 180 calorie range). If the bar has more than 300 calories, then it could replace a meal.

Sport gels contain small amounts of concentrated carbohydrates: high energy, easily digestible sugars with electrolytes to support your endurance run. A tiny pack of power gel can have 100 calories. Some also contain amino acids. Make sure to drink some water to avoid a possible stomachache.

Day before the race

We’ve all heard of carb loading before a race. Think of it as “topping off the gas tank.”  Since our bodies can’t store a lot of carbohydrates, which are used for quick energy, the term “loading” means maxing out the amount that your body can store in your muscles and liver. So the day before a long run, you want a fiber-rich, carbohydrate-rich meal, with some lean protein and a small amount of fat, such as a bowl of pasta with red sauce and chicken. Nix the macaroni and cheese, which doesn’t have much protein but does have a lot of fat.

Race day

Stick with low-fiber carbohydrates to avoid digestive issues such as gas, bloating and the urge to go to the bathroom. During training, you want a mix of fiber-rich carbohydrates, proteins, and fats for sustained energy. A fiber-rich diet helps sustain your energy levels by slowing down the rate at which your stomach empties out, so you have a constant supply of fuel. But on race day, easily digestible snacks will be available, so you don’t have to worry about running out of fuel.

rightfalsefalse0falsetrue25Madelyn Fernstrom’s Bottom Line: Whether you run 20 miles or just two, you should still watch your calories. Do the math for your activity: you burn about 100 calories a mile. Apply the same mental focus and discipline that you use for your workouts to your diet. If you can stick to a healthy plan most of the time, you’re succeeding. When Karen saw that eating was not a black-and-white, “I have to be good all the time” issue, she became more relaxed and found that she could stay better focused on her nutritional training plan.

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D., CNS,is the founder and director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Weight Management Center. An associate professor of psychiatry, epidemiology, and surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Fernstrom is also a board-certified nutrition specialist from theAmerican College of Nutrition.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician.