When it comes to nutrition, different approaches work for different people. In my studies over the past few years, I have read numerous books and articles and attended several seminars about nutrition for running. There are many different philosophies and unfortunately, nutrition is not an exact science. So the bottom line is that you have to try different approaches to find out what works for you. Great news is that we are only in the beginning stages of this training program and we have plenty of time to learn how to fuel our own unique bodies on training days which will ultimately help us prepare for race day.
Running puts a big demand upon your energy levels and means you must look carefully at the food you eat and when you eat it. Get in tune with your body. If you are struggling to even get out of bed in the mornings, or if you run out of energy during a run, then you are probably not getting enough energy. Food + rest = energy. We want to work toward optimizing our performance, endurance and recovery.
The Building Blocks of Your Diet
Complex carbohydrates provide slow and steady fuel—this is what you will burn on your run. Focus on whole foods with high nutrient content like whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Whole foods take time to digest in your body—you won’t have blood sugar lows and highs and the energy will be released slowly. Include lots of carbs in your diet but stay away from processed foods, refined sugar and flour.
Protein is essential for repairing and building tendons and muscle. It also helps with regulating hormones. Your protein sources should be high quality, such as legumes, tofu, nuts and seeds.
Fats are important too. Your brain is fueled by fat so if you want a clear head while running, be sure to include fat in your diet. It also lubricates your joints and protects your organs. Monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, flax seed oil, canola oil, and avocados are the healthiest fats to consume. Try to increase Omega 3 oils (flax seed oil, hemp oil) while reducing the amount of Omega 6 oils (corn, sunflower, safflower, cottonseed).
Water consumption is especially important for runners because of the loss of fluid on the training runs. Beverages without caffeine like herbal teas, sports drinks, and fruit juices can be counted toward your daily fluid goal. Drink throughout the day to keep fluid levels up and your body evenly hydrated.
Vitamins and minerals will play an important factor in your running performance and endurance. You should get almost everything that you need from eating a healthy and well balanced diet of fresh and whole foods. Women should take care to get enough iron in their diets and supplement if your levels are low. Most people are deficient in Vitamin D these days, so I recommend taking 2,000 IU per day (more if you have had blood work that shows you are deficient). B12 gives you an energy boost and vegans and vegetarians must supplement. It is water soluble and your body will use what it needs and the remainder will be eliminated. And finally, I also take iodine. This helps with energy and regulating body temperature and many of us don’t get as much as we need.
Planning Your Meals
The timing of your meals will be crucial to the success of your running performance. Eat too little and you might run out of energy. Eat too much or the wrong thing and you will feel discomfort.
Since we run early in the morning, your meal the night before should be a meal rich in complex carbohydrates (think whole grain pasta, baked potato, rice, and quinoa). Try to avoid spicy foods which can interfere with sleep. Many people cannot tolerate too much fiber the night before (like a salad) but if you have very regular digestion, this should not be a problem. I would suggest that if you are having a salad, pair it with a potato or one of the grains mentioned above so that you will have energy remaining in the tank.
In the morning, try eating something small that is easily digestible like a banana, toast with peanut butter, a small serving of oatmeal or a rice cake. Avoid high acid fruits because you will get indigestion. Many people can go without eating before the morning run. I typically don’t eat anything if the run is less than 6 miles. Over 6 and I have a banana.
After the run have a juice within the first hour. It is good to have something that is easily digestible and also to replace some carbs. (Don’t forget about electrolyte replacement too!) Once an hour has passed, eat a meal of protein and carbohydrates—this will assist with muscle repair.
Try to find the approach that works for your own unique body. It might be helpful to keep a food diary or sign up for a free app to track what you are eating and how it makes you feel.