Nutritional advice for runners

Fuelling your running

A runner will typically burn an extra 100 calories for every mile (1.6km) they run. As a result their energy requirements can be high. This article is all about ensuring you have the correct fuel on board for your training, and that you eat at the correct time and in the right proportions.

Getting your running diet right is about more than stocking up on carbohydrates. Our running nutrition tips will ensure that you fuel your body correctly to get the maximum out of your training and racing.

This guide includes tips on timing your  meals, snacking strategies, and fuelling while on the go.

Ensure you consume plenty of protein

A runner in heavy training can require almost as much protein as a muscle building strength athlete. The human body is stressed during the running training process and needs protein to repair itself. Runners who train day after day without rest sustain cumulative muscle damage. Make sure that you eat around 1.5g per kilogram of bodyweight (or 0.68g per pound of bodyweight). This means 70kg (154lb) runner may need as much as 105g of protein each day.

Include glucose in your  diet

After a running training session, try to drink a glucose energy replacement drink within 15 minutes of exercising. It is during this period that the muscles are most receptive to restocking with fuel. A glucose drink is an ideal for this purpose, as it enters the bloodstream and is quickly absorbed. Taking glucose in liquid form is also great because it means you are re-hydrating your body at the same time.

Consume plenty of complex carbohydrates

At meal times, concentrate on eating meals containing complex carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, rice and pulses. These release energy into the bloodstream at a slower rate, giving you sustained energy, which will help you avoid the temptation of snacking on high calorie junk foods such as cookies and confectionery.

Eat during long running sessions

For a longer race or training run refueling while you run can help keep your energy levels topped up. A simple way of doing this is to carry a couple of energy gels with you. These are small and light and contain concentrated hits of both slow and rapid release energy. Make sure you consume one just before a water station so that you can wash it down with around 250ml (8.45oz) of water. This ensures the gel dilutes to the correct consistency so it can be absorbed quickly.

Run or train on a 'full' stomach

Runners preparing for endurance events such as a half and full marathon will typically do a long run on a weekend. Frequently they will skip breakfast so as to set out early so that their run does not take too much time out of the day. However, this means the runner will effectively be running on a partially full fuel tank. The answer is to eat breakfast before you set off, but make sure you allow sufficient time for digestion. If you can't stomach breakfast, try a complex carbohydrate drink instead. Either way, make sure you are fuelled before you run.

Have a balanced diet

Ensure that you eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and focus on the three primary food groups in the following proportions: 60 per cent complex carbohydrate, 20 per cent protein and 20 per cent fat. This ensures your diet is balanced and you are consuming enough of the right sorts of fuel for your runs.

Eat healthy snacks

When you run regularly, in addition to your generally higher calorie requirements, you will find that the speed at which you burn calories, whether you are exercising or not, increases. To avoid energy lows throughout the day, keep a selection of healthy snacks to hand such as fruit, fruit smoothies and healthy cereal bars. Avoiding energy lows means you will have more energy for everyday activities and will keep your muscles and liver primed for your next training session.

Include some of your favourite foods

For your pre-race or training meals and your fuel supply during a race, experiment with what you enjoy. One of the best pre-race meals is porridge: as it contains ablend of low fat and unprocessed complex carbohydrate. If you don’t enjoy porridge, choose something that you do like instead that gives you similar fuelling benefits. Experiment with different types of drinks and gels to find the ones you do like, and that agree with your stomach.

Don’t overdo health supplements

It is a mistake to think you can substitute good nutritional practice for popping pills in order to meet your dietary requirements. Look to eat a non-processed, whole-food diet, containing as much fresh fruit and veg as possible. Any supplements should be seen as an insurance policy, not a foundation.

Timing of meals is important

It’s not just what you eat that’s important — it’s also when you eat it. Don't eat too close to a run or leave too long a gap between your last meal and your run or this will result in impaired performances. Not refueling after your run will result in tiredness, slower recovery and subsequent reduced performances. If possible, allow for a gap of 2 to 3 hours between eating and running. After a run, refuel with a glucose drink following your training session, and consume a more substantial meal containing both complex carbohydrate and protein (for repair) within 2 hours of finishing.

Consider your specific nutritional running needs

Runners' requirements differ from the requirements of less active people. As a runner you need to eat more carbohydrate for fuel, more protein for repair and more food as a whole. Additionally, you need to monitor when you eat so that your fuel tank doesn’t run low and affect your perfromance.

Stick to the nutrition tips and your eating plan will be healthy, balanced and meet the demands of your running.

Comments (5)

  • lmoore1118 'Great advise. Very concise and informative for my training for a half marathon. Thanks!!'

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  • 11daveo 'You have said use glucose energy replacement drink within 15 mins of exercise, but this could cause problems for someone with diabetes. Do you have any suggestion what else could be used instead. '

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  • kirstentodd 'Any particular reason why it's a problem training on a partially full fuel tank? The idea of training is to stress your body so that it then get stronger to handle the next onslaught. So why not stress it by having a little less fuel on board than you will on race day. Some preliminary research has been done into training runs after fasting and the effect it has on your race performance -the results are looking promising-sorry, I don't have the reference to hand. '

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  • sw16 'kirstentodd - I engaged a Dietician ( not nutrtionist ! ) who confirmed what I probably already knew, but had forgotten. For long run training ( 15-20 miles ), you should try to leave 2-3 hours between eating a complex-carb breakfast and running, because a raised blood sugar level ( always happens after eating ) can compromise the bodies abilty to access glycogen stored in the muscles from previous meals. Thus you might find that you run out of energy sooner than if you had allowed your blood sugar to fall to normal levels. Coffee is also an amazing aid to long run energy levels. She advised me to drink 2 double espresso's immediately before setting out for my long run, which is supposed to release 'fatty acids' into the bloodstream, which the body can immediately use as fuel, thus delaying the use of the muscle glycogen until later in the run when you really need it. Works like a charm for me.'

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  • paulsplace 'i love generic information which is based on poor science. for example a sports drink after exercise, i would stay well away from due to sugar content. please refer to or to address 'energy gels' during long distances, go read some stuff by tim noakes (e.g. the person who invited energy gels) who has now changed his view to say that should really avoid. or risk bringing on a disease process, which could include type II diabetes. try reading a little more outside your scope. or not. '

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