Looking for the best nutrition tips for running? Perhaps you’re prepping for a big race? Lucky you! Here you’ll find all the tools, tips and tastes you need to know about nutrition courtesy of Lifesum’s expert team of nutritionists.
You spend hours on your training, but what about your diet? Running and other endurance sports increase your energy needs, placing greater emphasis on nutrition. Best training practices demand the same commitment to your diet as you have to your training, giving your body the fuel it needs and also helping to prevent injury and illness.
Timing of meals related to exercise plays a key role in taking your results to the next level. You are the expert on your own body, but in this post we’ll provide you with all the tips and tricks we know work for most people in reaching their full potential.
Let’s start with cutting the basics!
Macros are the building blocks in our diet, consisting of carbohydrates (carbs), protein and fat. By consuming the right amount of macros, you ensure you’re providing your body with all the nutrients and energy it needs.
If training for a shorter race (< half marathon) or running a few times a week, Lifesum’s default settings will suit you perfectly: Carbs 50%, Protein 20% and Fat 30%.
Training for a longer race or doing multiple high-intensity training each week will place higher demands on your body. A carb intake around 50% can be enough (1) but you can increase it to make sure that your glycogen stores are full. In this case, we therefore recommend you change your macro settings to: Carbs 60% Protein >15% Fat >25%.
So what are the macros used for?
Carbs are used primarily as fuel, especially in high-intensity training. Carbs are stored in muscles and the liver in the form of glycogen, but they need to be replaced regularly since stores are limited and deplete quickly. They are ideal for immune system strength, building muscle and aiding recovery (2).
Simple carbs: Should be eaten before and after scheduled exercise. They are digested quickly for fast energy. Post training, they provide energy to refill your more or less empty glycogen stores – vital for best recovery (3)
Example of simple carbs: bananas, dried fruit, jam, juice, rice/corn cakes, oatmeal, cereals, sweetened dairy products, white bread, pasta, potatoes and white rice etc.
Complex carbs: Provide smoother and longer-lasting energy and should be included in all meals not related to training. They take longer to digest and delay gastric emptying, increasing the risk of stomach and intestinal problems when training. Thus for meals not combined with training, complex carbs are best. The fibers and whole grains make you feel satisfied for longer, are important for your intestinal flora and contribute higher nutrient value, when compared to simple carbs. (4)
Examples of complex carbs: whole grain pasta or bean pasta, brown rice, root vegetables, legumes, whole grain bread, cri bread, berries, fruit and oats etc.
Works as a building block in the body, building muscles and other tissues, and aiding recovery (5). With a positive protein balance, we can limit muscle breakdown and stimulate muscle building (6). For a runner, the goal is usually not to build muscle, but it’s still vital to feed the muscle mass you have to prevent muscle loss and optimize recovery. One should therefore include a protein source in each meal.
Just like simple carbs, protein should also be included in meals before and after training.
We recommend that you are in an energy balance when preparing for a race and eat at least according to our recommendation (15%). However, if you are in an energy deficit it’s beneficial to eat more protein, since muscle might be used as fuel if you are eating below your energy needs (7).
Example of protein sources: chicken, turkey, beef, ham, eggs, qorun, tofu, quinoa, quark, cottage cheese etc.
Fat is used for fuel, but it takes longer to extract energy from it compared with carbs. It is therefore mainly used for low-intensity activities (2). Fat also works as a building block in the body and is vital for hormonal balance (8). The body’s fat supply never constitutes a limitation during physical work, but fat intake must be sufficient to meet the need for essential fatty acids (Omega 3 and Omega 6) and fat-soluble vitamins. Like fibers, fat delays gastric emptying, so it’s recommended to include fat in the meals between workouts (2).
If you find it difficult to reach your daily energy recommendation, simply increase the amount of fat in your diet since, per gram, it contains more than twice as much energy as protein and carbs.
Example of fat sources: avocado, salmon, nuts, nut butter, rapeseed oil, olive oil and olives etc.
We only need vitamins and minerals in very small amounts, but they are essential because our body doesn’t produce them itself. They work as micro building blocks in the body and play important roles in virtually all metabolic functions, including energy production. Having a good salt and mineral balance is important (9), also during endurance training.
A varied diet usually provides all the vitamins and minerals you need, as long as you eat from all food groups, promoting energy balance (2). Even though you need more vitamins and minerals during endurance training, as long as you eat according to your energy requirement, supplements are usually not needed. You find a lot of vitamins and minerals in fruits, vegetables and whole grains – so always make sure your plate is varied and filled with vegetables. Did you know that by eating one orange or one portion of broccoli (100g) per day, you get the entire daily requirement of vitamin C?
If you suspect that you have some kind of deficiency, always consult with your health care advisor.
Examples of some vitamins and minerals to keep in mind when endurance training:
Vitamin D: Regulates the calcium balance in bones and teeth – it is important for our bone health. Since the sun is our best source of this vitamin, it means that if you live somewhere with limited sunlight during winter months, your intake might be low that time of the year. Sources that should be included in the diet are, for example, oily fish such as salmon, eggs and enriched products.You might also need supplements during those dark winter months. (10)
Zinc: Important in a lot of body processes, Zinc is especially important for our metabolism and immune system. Sources: meat, shellfish, dairy products, nuts and whole grains (11)
Magnesium: A mineral that contributes to both normal muscle and nervous system functions. Sources: legumes, leafy vegetables, whole grains, meat, fish and shellfish. (11)
Iron: A mineral that is responsible for transporting oxygen in the body. Menstruating women have an increased risk of iron deficiency. Intestinal and blood foods such as liver and blood pudding are fantastic sources, but there is also plenty of iron in meat, eggs and seafood. Iron is also found in vegetable sources such as seeds, nuts and green leafy vegetables. (12)
Super important for all mechanisms in the body to work. Water helps transport substances throughout the body and regulates temperature and metabolism (13). Fluid dissipates heat during exercise in the form of sweat. Therefore, when we train, we lose more fluids (and electrolytes), and need to drink more before, during and after. How much depending on intensity, duration, heat and humidity (2).
Everyone sweats at different rates (13). As much as 1-2 liters of fluid can be lost per hour during effective training or during a competition (14). If you know that you’re someone who sweats a lot – you need to drink more.
For shorter distances water is enough. For longer sessions (>1,5 hour) sport drinks are advised because they also contribute with energy (carbs) and electrolytes. These kinds of products should always be well-tested during training before being used during the race (13).
TIPS! An easy way to control the fluid balance is to control the color of your urine, it should be light, light yellow. If it’s not, you need to drink more!
Eat a larger meal (ie lunch or dinner) 3-4 hours before (2). By tracking in Lifesum, you’ll easily ensure you’re meeting your daily macro recommendation. Make sure you don’t forget the carbs! Here you can mix complex and simple carbs as you prefer. TIPS! The Recipes tab is loaded with delicious recipes, like our Chicken Patty with roasted sweet potatoes or Tomato Pesto Pasta. And don’t forget to track them! If a long training session is planned, eat something snacky approximately 1-1.5 hours before. This should preferably be simple carbs and protein, to supply energy and avoid gastrointestinal upsets. Banana, smoothie, sandwich with egg, quark with fruit etc.
When training >1.5 hour: water and carbs, depending on the purpose of the exercise. 30-60 g/h of carbs are recommended. If training >2.5 hour, up to 90 g/h of carbs per hour. It is important to try this during training if you are planning to use this for competition. This is so you can fine-tune and tailor the amount best for you. This could, for example, be a sports drink or gel (2).
TIPS! Check the nutritional labeling or scan with Lifesum to get the carb amount per serving.
After training (depending on duration and intensity) you have an increased ability to store and refill glycogen levels in your muscles, making for faster recovery. Try to eat something high in carb and protein content within 30 minutes of finishing. A snack with a similar set up like before training is better than nothing (2).
Ideally, a larger meal (ie lunch or dinner) in the few hours post-race is recommended. If your next training session falls within 8 hours, make sure you refill with simple carbs, since they will store energy faster than complex carbs (2).
How we react to different products during training and which ones we prefer is down to the individual. Make sure you try them out while training; ideally, well before the race.
Meal order is central. Make sure you have at least 2-3 larger meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and 2-4 snacks per day, depending on your training.
Planning your food intake the day before will make everything much easier. Will you be at home so you can prepare your meals there? If not, will there be food available? Or do you need to bring something?
Some examples of snacks that are easy to bring: Boiled eggs, fruit, rice/corn crackers, fruit, bars, dried fruit, sandwich, smoothies, overnight oats etc.
If you know you’re up for an intense week, meal prepping will help out a lot. Set out a few hours each Sunday for meal prepping, for example, and you will have delicious, nutritious food prepared for the whole week. In Lifesum’s Recipe tab, you will find a heap of inspiration and recipes made for meal prepping.
Training – early morning: Have something small before training (ie a banana or a smoothie). Make sure you refill afterwards with a proper breakfast. There are plenty of delicious breakfast recipes in our Recipe Tab – why not try the Banana Oatmeal or Yoghurt bowl?
Training – midday: If training between main meals, make sure you have a snack before and try to refuel with a larger meal after training (ie lunch or dinner).
Training – evening: Same as above. After the workout make sure you refuel. If you’ve already had dinner, a carb and protein-rich night snack helps optimize recovery.
Beetroots and spinach are nitrate-rich foods which can enhance your oxygen uptake (15)- important for long-distance running! Try a delicious glass of beetroot juice or simply include beetroot and spinach in your weekly diet.
3-6 mg/caffeine per kilo of bodyweight, 45 mins before running can enhance your performance, though it’s also been reported that a better effect can be attained by not drinking too much caffeine at all in the days leading up to the race. It’s best to find what best works for you and stick with that.(16)
Polyunsaturated fats are vital and, since our body cannot produce it, we must get them through our food. In addition to having a positive impact on our cardiovascular health, they also counteract inflammation in the body. Best sources? Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines, rapeseed oil and walnuts.(17) We therefore recommend you include oily fish in your diet at least once a week.
Act as the body’s “guardians” and are very important for our health. The need for antioxidants increases when our bodies are exposed to stress, for example during illness and hard physical work.(18) If you want an antioxidant boost, examples of antioxidant rich foods are: Berries, various cabbage varieties, cocoa (dark chocolate), green tea, red wine, grapes, orange, nuts and seeds. An easy way to find antioxidants in food is to aim for color, so once again, go for a colorful plate!
A method used before a longer race. When carb loading, you consciously lower your carb intake 4-7 days before the race and exercise alot to empty the glycogen storages. 1-3 days before the race you increase the carb intake over maintenance level and rest from training. This may or may not prolong your moderate intensity levels because of generously filled glycogen storages.
This should, as always, be tried out months in advance, since the experience is individual and body responses might differ. Proper carb loading is quite an advanced technique and there really is no guarantee that this method will enhance your performance, though many athletes see it as a beneficial method when preparing for a long endurance race. You will find more information and tips about this in here.
What is it? A variety of symptoms from the gastrointestinal tract, resulting from what’s been eaten combined with the physiological processes in the body during running (lack of blood flow to the gut when trying to digest the food you have eaten).
Remember, when training or before a race, try to skip carbs rich in fibers and high-fat meals close to the session, since they decrease the digestion speed. For training sessions or competitions needing carbohydrate replacement: avoid highly-concentrated sweet drinks, such as fruit juice prior to and during a run. Sports-specific drinks are preferable.
Is there any type of food that does not work for you before training? Take a note of it and avoid it related to training. You are the expert on your own body, if you want to test new foods or products, be sure to do it well in advance and in the context of training – not during the race.
Hit the wall:
A known phenomenon when doing long races like marathons. When exposing the body for training during a longer period (usually over 2h) and all the glycogen layers have been consumed, we need to use a larger amount of fat to form energy to be able to continue running. This is a high energy requiring process for the body, and will sooner or later force you to slow down the pace, and “hit the wall”.
Remember; eat according to your energy needs, from all food groups and make sure to track your macronutrients. Planning your days and meals beforehand, is the key to success!
If preparing for a race, do not forget to read our nutrition tips for the week and days before the big day here
All of the content and media on Lifesum is created and published for information purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Users should always consult with a doctor or other health care professional for medical advice.