It’s widely recognised that good nutrition and performance go hand in hand but do you know the answers to these frequently asked nutrition questions for runners?

Nutrition can often seem like a minefield. From diet fads to conflicting evidence, it’s no wonder that many runners find what to eat, how much and when a little confusing.

I run, does that mean I can get away with eating more junk food?

As a runner you burn more calories than your sedentary peers, so there is certainly no harm in indulging in the occasional treat. However, like anything, moderation is key. Junk food tends to be highly processed and is of little nutritional value so therefore it doesn’t provide high quality fuel for your body.

Do runners require a ‘special’ diet?

The general answer to this is ‘no’, you simply need to be sensible with what you eat and drink. This means ensuring that you consume a balanced, nutritious diet with enough calories to support your training and not too much ‘junk’ that provides empty calories without nutrients. As a runner it’s important to remember that your diet doesn’t just affect your performance, it can also affect your recovery from training, your immune system and even your risk of injury.

Why is carbohydrate so important?

In today’s society carbs are frequently given bad press and are often blamed as the cause of bloating and weight gain. However, low carbohydrate diets for endurance athletes are a recipe for disaster because they starve the muscles of the primary fuel they need for endurance performance. Without adequate carbs you will most likely feel tired and sluggish and will be unable to run at the higher intensities that will promote gains in fitness. Restricting your carbohydrate intake will also make you more susceptible to illness and injury, and when you’re ill or injured, you can’t run!

What is best to eat before a run?

It is best to consume a carbohydrate based meal or snack before running in order to top up your glycogen stores and increase carbohydrate availability during exercise. If you’re consuming a meal, you’ll generally need to leave 2-4 hours before running, whereas a snack can be eaten anywhere between 30 minutes to 2 hours before running depending on the individual and the food consumed. Cereal and/or toast, baked potato, bagels, rice cakes and bananas are just some examples of good pre-run fuel. The big no no’s are generally foods that are very high in fibre or fat and spicy foods as these can cause abdominal discomfort.

Do I need to drink on the run?

This largely depends on the length of time that you’ll be running for, the intensity and of course the temperature. If you’re running for one hour or more you should generally take on board some fluid during the run. The current recommendations are to aim for between 500-1000ml of fluid per hour, although this will depend on individual sweat rates, temperature and thirst. It’s best to adopt the ‘little and often’ approach if you want to avoid any gastrointestinal issues.

Do runners need more protein than non- runners?

Most moderately active adults have no problems meeting their protein requirements through their daily diet, so if you run once or twice a week your protein intake is likely to be adequate. However, if you’re running more than this then protein intake is key to ensure that you optimise both training adaptations and recovery. The amount of protein that you need will depend on your level of training. The latest guidelines recommend consuming 0.25g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight 3-6 times a day. Little and often is best!

Do I need to adjust my nutrition according to my goals?

What many runners fail to realise is just as you should tailor your training according to your goals, you should also adjust your nutrition. The amount and type of fuel that you need for a training session will largely depend on the intensity of your training. The higher the intensity of your training, the more important it is to ensure that carbohydrate is available as the main fuel source. This means ensuring that you have consumed adequate amounts of carbohydrate before a harder session or run. For lower intensity runs you won’t require as much carbohydrate as your body can be fuelled by converting fat stores to glucose.

Will caffeine enhance my performance?

The answer to this one is very much based on the individual. Caffeine ingestion has been well documented to improve endurance performance in some athletes, however some people are simply non-responders to caffeine. If you habitually consume a lot of caffeine it’s likely that you will have blunted your response to its performance enhancing effects. The suggested dose of caffeine for performance boosting effects is 1-5mg per kilogram of bodyweight around 45-60 minutes before exercise. Like any aspect of sports nutrition, it’s best to practise consuming caffeine in training so that you know how much you can tolerate. It’s also a good idea to avoid using caffeine before an evening training run if you don’t want a sleepless night!

Do I need to take any supplements?

If you eat a balanced and nutritious diet, it’s very unlikely that you’ll gain any further health or performance benefits from supplements. Supplements are often expensive and contain unnatural additives so most sports nutritionists advocate real food choices first.

What are the best recovery foods?

The ideal post-run food should contain a combo of fast release carbohydrate and easily digestible protein in a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. Chocolate milk, scrambled eggs on toast and sandwiches filled with meat or fish are just some examples of good post run foods that help to optimise recovery.