Comprehensive Nutrition Guide for Runners | Sports Dietitian RecommendationsJun 20, 2023
What should I eat before a run? Do I need to eat during a run? What type of foods are best for runners? In this comprehensive guide the Registered Dietitians at Vitality Nutrition explore key nutrition principles for beginners and advanced athletes to improve performance, recovery, and meet the unique nutrient need for running.
DIETITIAN NOTE: The unique needs of running will depend on your personal goals, training, and lifestyle. Consult with a Registered Dietitian with experience in sports nutrition to create a custom plan to meet your individual requirements. You can book with a dietitian on our team here.
1. ENERGY BALANCE
An important first step that Registered Dietitians consider when counseling runners on nutrition is estimating the energy (caloric) requirements of the athlete. Understanding energy needs is one consideration in creating an appropriate nutrition plan to meet the unique requirements of the athlete.
Dietitians use formulas to predict an athlete’s energy expenditure based on body composition metrics and activity including duration, frequency, and intensity of training.
These calculations serve as a foundation for predicting caloric needs, however, an athlete’s actual energy requirements may be above or below these caloric predictions. That is why as Registered Dietitians we work closely with our athletes to understand their unique food patterns, appetite, and metabolism to provide customized recommendations and ensure they are taking in the fuel required for their unique goals.
KEY CONSIDERATION FOR ENERGY BALANCE:
Beginner: Beginner runners may benefit from tuning into hunger and fullness cues throughout the day to recognize how much to eat to feel satisfied from meals and fuelled for runs.
Intermediate or Advanced: Intermediate or advanced runners may benefit from customized menu plans or food tracking to ensure calorie targets are being met.
What about weight loss?
Many people start a running program to manage or lose weight. If losing body fat is an appropriate goal for the individual, the Registered Dietitians at Vitality Nutrition carefully calculate a safe and appropriate caloric deficit and carefully monitor progress to adjust or exit the caloric deficit when appropriate.
If you are looking for support in understanding your calorie requirements for your running and body composition goals then we recommend our 1:1 nutrition coaching program where we create a customized nutrition plan with ongoing follow up to ensure you are fuelled and progressing towards your personal goals.
The three macronutrients are carbohydrate, protein, and fat. Collectively, these macronutrients account for the athletes total caloric intake. Optimizing the ingesting and timing of these macronutrients is essential to the unique goals of the athlete such as improving performance, optimizing health, and/or gaining muscle or losing body fat.
WHY: When it comes to fuelling a runner, carbohydrates are beneficial for three key reasons:
- Primary energy source for higher intensity running (ie. >70% VO2 max)
- Replenish glycogen stores in the liver and muscle
- Support the activity and recovery of the central nervous system
HOW MUCH: Athletes have varied carbohydrate requirements based on training intensity, duration, and experience level (eg. beginner versus advanced). In general, athletes will benefit from consuming 3 to 5 g per kilogram body weight daily for light activity and upward of 6 to 12 g per kilogram body weight per day for intense training. Carbohydrate requirements often need to be adjusted based on the unique tolerance and energy needs of the runner.
WHEN: It is recommended that athletes prioritize carbohydrate before and after higher intensity runs for optimal performance and replenishing glycogen stores. The specifics of timing carbohydrates around training are discussed in greater detail in the nutrient timing section. Including carbohydrates at meals and snacks outside of the training window is important to replenish muscle glycogen and prepare for subsequent training sessions.
KEY CONSIDERATION FOR CARBOHYDRATES:
Beginner: Beginner runners may benefit from building carbohydrates before and after their runs. Consuming carbohydrates before a run offers available fuel to optimize performance and ingesting carbohydrates after a run optimizes recovery and glycogen restoration.
Intermediate or Advanced: Intermediate or advanced runners may benefit from customized menu plans that ensure adequate carbohydrates are ingested or tracking their intake of carbohydrate to meet their unique carbohydrate needs (eg. 3-5g/kg or more of carbohydrate per day).
WHY: Protein is essential for many body processes and protein requirements are higher for runners as they are the building blocks of muscles, tendons, and other soft tissues.
HOW MUCH: Recommended protein intake ranges from 1.2 to 2.0g/kg of protein per day. Runners who also do strength and power training are recommended to consume on the higher end of the range and endurance focused athletes on the lower end of the range. In some scenarios, protein recommendations may be higher than 2.0g/kg. For example, it may be recommended that an athlete consumes 2.2g/kg of protein or more if they are pairing strength training with running, to preserve muscle mass while in a slight caloric deficit for fat loss, or during periods of intensified training.
WHEN: It is recommended that athletes consume at least 0.3g/kg of protein before training or within 2 hours of completing their training session to prevent muscle breakdown. This equates to between 20-40g of protein depending on the runner's body composition. Post-exercise protein added to carbohydrates can increase muscle glycogen synthesis. Outside the training window, athletes are encouraged to space protein between meals and snacks with a recommended eating interval of every 3-5 hours to meet their daily protein requirements.
KEY CONSIDERATIONS FOR PROTEIN:
- Beginner: Beginner runners may benefit from ensuring they include a source of protein after their run and intentionally build high protein foods into most meals and at least one snack.
- Intermediate or Advanced: Intermediate or advanced runners may benefit from customized menu plans that ensure adequate protein intake or tracking their intake of protein to meet their unique protein needs (eg. 1.2-2.2g/kg of protein per day).
WHY: Fat requirements for athletes are similar to those for non-athletes. Fat is essential for many processes in the body, including cell membrane structure, absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, hormone regulation, brain health, and energy for muscle metabolism.
HOW MUCH: It is recommended that athletes do not restrict fat to <20% of total intake. As Registered Dietitians, we recommend at least 1.0g/kg of fat per day. For most runners, fat will make up the difference in caloric needs when minimum protein and carb targets are met for recovery and performance.
WHEN: Athletes are encouraged to integrate fats into meals and snacks with the exception of limiting fat intake immediately before a higher-intensity run or during a carbohydrate loading phase. Limiting fat at these times prevents gastrointestinal discomfort that can occur due to the slow digestion rate of higher fat foods.
KEY CONSIDERATIONS FOR FAT:
- Beginner: Beginner runners may benefit from building fat sources into meals and potentially limiting fat in meals and snacks consumed 60 minutes before training to prevent digestive upset during the run.
- Intermediate or Advanced: Intermediate or advanced runners may benefit from customized menu plans or food tracking to assist in consuming adequate fat while matching energy requirements and timing meals and snacks to optimize digestive comfort during a run.
WHY: Maintaining optimal hydration by consuming adequate fluids and electrolytes is important to:
- Replaces fluid lost through sweating
- Ensures the delivery of oxygen and nutrients for energy production
- Supply electrolytes for muscle and nerve function
- Removes the accumulated waste and metabolic by-products
- Supports digestive processes and regular bowel movements
Hydration status is achieved by consuming adequate fluid and electrolytes. Electrolytes include the minerals sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and chloride.
HOW MUCH: Athletes have increased fluid and electrolyte demands due to sweat loss. To meet daily maintenance hydration, athletes are encouraged to drink water throughout the day to meet their fluid needs. General fluid recommendations are 2.2L for women and 3.0L for men. However, actual fluid needs may be above these general recommendations and the athlete must consider training volume and intensity, environmental factors (eg. heat, humidity, and wind) or symptoms that indicate additional fluid and/or electrolytes are needed. Electrolytes can be sourced naturally through foods like vegetables, fruits, salt, dairy-products, fortified plant-milks, broths, beans and lentils, meats, and more. Some runners may need to intentionally add salt to their diet to replace sodium losses through sweat.
You may need to drink more fluids and/or consume more electrolytes if you experience the following symptoms:
- Muscle cramps
- Dark yellow urine
- Dry mouth and eyes
- Constipation or bowel movements that are difficult to pass
- Abnormally increased heart rate or breathing
- Increased perception of effort during a run
WHEN: It’s important that runners consume fluids throughout the day and before and after running to optimize hydration status. For runs >90 minutes, athletes will need to plan fluids during the run to maintain hydration status. Intra-run fluid strategies for fluids and electrolytes are discussed in the nutrient timing section.
KEY CONSIDERATIONS FOR HYDRATION:
- Beginner: Beginner runners will benefit from consuming adequate fluid throughout the day by listening to thirst cues and prioritizing water before and after running. Consuming a whole food diet balanced with vegetables, fruits, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, dairy foods, fortified-plant milks, and meats, poultry, and fish will supply key electrolytes.
- Intermediate or Advanced: Intermediate or advanced runners may benefit from customized hydration plans that consider their total fluid requirements based on body weight and sweat rate. Careful consideration of electrolyte rich foods may be warranted to replace electrolytes lost via sweat and optimize hydration status and bodily functions. Fluids and electrolytes may need to be timed before, during, and after a run to optimize hydration.
Adequate intake of essential micronutrients (ie. vitamins and minerals) is key to optimize health. Vitamins and minerals can be sourced by prioritizing a variety of whole foods from each food group. Particular micronutrients of concern for the runner include iron, vitamin D, and antioxidants.
Iron serves as a key component in oxygen transport which is essential for the runner to produce energy. Therefore, adequate iron intake is essential for athletes to optimize performance and energy. Most experts agree that athletes’ requirements for iron are greater than the recommended daily allowance and runners benefit from prioritizing iron-rich foods and testing for iron deficiency if they are at risk for low iron. Female runners are the most common group of athletes to experience iron deficiency due to higher iron requirements from menstruation. You can learn more about iron in our comprehensive article here.
Vitamin D is an important fat-soluble vitamin for runners that helps regulate many metabolic pathways in bone health, inflammation, and muscle function. Some studies have also shown decreased risk of stress fracture and positive effects in injury prevention and rehabilitation. Vitamin D supplementation is recommended for athletes and non-athletes as vitamin D is difficult to source from food and synthesis via the skin is limited in Northern countries in the winter months. As Registered Dietitians, we recommend that our athletes take at least 2000 IU of vitamin D per day and more if recommended by their doctor if a blood test showed low vitamin D status. You can view your recommendations for a vitamin D supplement here.
Exercise can lead to production of free radicals that cause inflammation and an increased intake of antioxidant rich foods can protect against oxidative stress. Foods rich in antioxidants include vegetables, fruits, beans and lentils, and nuts and seeds. While antioxidants do not directly enhance athletic performance they can improve recovery which allows the athlete to perform better in subsequent training sessions. It’s important to note that high-doses of supplemental antioxidants like vitamin C or vitamin E are not recommended as they can prevent training adaptations by inhibiting the signaling pathways that are triggered by the oxidative stress of exercise during training.
5. NUTRIENT TIMING
Runners benefit from carefully planned meals and snacks before and after running that enhance performance, facilitate recovery, and promote gastrointestinal comfort during the run. Runs lasting longer than 90 minutes will also benefit from ingesting carbohydrate, fluids, and electrolytes during the run itself.
What you eat before your run depends on the type of run you are completing, how long you have to digest, and your tolerance of foods higher in fat, fiber, and protein leading into a run.
Pre-running nutrition considerations
- Consume carbohydrates before higher intensity training runs. Intermediate or advanced runners may benefit from planning 1-4g/kg of carbohydrate before a run depending on carb tolerance and digestion time before a run.
- Add a source of protein to the pre-run meal or snack to protect and build muscle. If you do not tolerate protein before a run or do not have adequate time to digest protein, then adding a source of protein after a run will offer the same benefit.
- Limit fat and fibre if you have limited time to digest before a run (ie. <60 minutes). Some athletes benefit from limiting fat and fibre before a run as these nutrients digest slowly and can cause stomach cramps or impaired blood flow to the muscles.
- Adjust what and how much you eat based on the length of time you have to digest your pre-run meal or snack. If you have 2 hours or more to digest you will likely tolerate a mixed meal with adequate carbohydrate, protein, fat, and fibre to keep you full and energized. If you have <2 hours to digest before a run you may have to reduce the protein, fat, and/or fibre in your meal to optimize digestion and performance.
- Drink water before your run. It is recommended to drink 5-10 mL of fluid per kilogram of body weight 2–4 h prior to exercise.
Whether and how much carbohydrates, fluid, and electrolytes you fuel with during a run depends on the duration and intensity of the run.
Intra-run nutrition consideration:
- If you are running for <60 minutes you do not need to consume carbohydrates, fluids, or electrolytes during your run. Consuming adequate nutrition the day before a run and the 0-4 hours before your run will provide the fuel you need.
- If your run is >90 minutes you will benefit from consuming carbohydrate, fluids, and electrolytes to optimize performance.
- Carbs: 30-60g for lower intensity or shorter runs (ie. <2.5 hours) and 60-90g for higher intensity, longer runs (ie. >2.5 hours). Carbohydrate intake during a run may also depend on gastrointestinal tolerance for carbohydrates while running
- Fluids: 400-800mL of fluid per hour and no more than 1000mL per hour. When working with advanced runners we may have them weigh themselves before/after a run to understand their unique sweat rate and how much fluid to consume during and post-exercise to optimize hydration.
- Electrolytes: 300-600 mg of sodium per hour and up to 1000 mg of sodium per hour based on the athlete's unique sweat composition. Some athletes are “salty sweaters” and require higher intakes of sodium for hydration .Elite athletes may have sweat analysis completed to understand the ratio of electrolytes in their sweat to optimize the electrolyte ratios in their beverages.
Carbohydrate and protein are a priority after a run to restore energy, replenish glycogen, hydration, and facility muscle protein synthesis.
Key considerations for timing nutrients post run:
- Consume protein 0-2 hours after completing your run. It is recommended that athletes consume at least 0.3g/kg of protein within 2 hours of completing their training session to prevent muscle breakdown. This equates to approximately 20-40g of protein depending on the runner's body weight. Runners should continue to consume protein every 3-5 hours after the post-run meal to continue to meet their protein requirements.
- Consume carbohydrates 0-2 hours after completing a run. It is recommended that athletes consume 0.8g-1.2 kg within 2 hours of the run and potentially more in cases where the runner has higher carb requirements or has to recover quickly for a same-day training session or event.
- Consume antioxidant rich foods to lower inflammation and improve recovery. Including whole food sources of antioxidants like vegetables, fruits, berries, beans and lentils, and/or nuts and seeds can be advantageous.
- Drink water and/or consume fluid and electrolyte rich foods like salt, fruits, vegetables, and others to rehydrate. In some cases, athletes may need to set specific targets with fluids and electrolytes to restore fluid losses and optimize hydration status.
There are a few supplements that may be beneficial for the runner to consider depending on the duration of the runs and whether they can meet all of their nutrient needs through food alone.
Electrolytes including sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and chloride are important for hydration. Supplementation is recommended for runs >90 minutes and supplementation electrolytes outside of the training window may be warranted to support overall hydration status. Our dietitians recommend Nuun tablets, Organika Electrolytes, or LMNT depending on the athlete's unique sodium requirements.
Carbohydrates consumed via gels or liquid may be needed for training sessions or races >90 minutes. As Registered Dietitians, we work closely with our runners to plan their intra-workout carbohydrate sources based on the intensity and duration of their run as well as their gastrointestinal tolerance for carb sources while running. Some athletes choose supplemental forms of carbohydrates whereas other athletes prefer food sources like dried fruit.
Caffeine supplementation can be beneficial for the runner to stimulate the central nervous system before and during runs (ie. increase excitement). For race day, it is recommended to supplement with 3mg/kg 60 minutes before a race and 1mg/kg every 2 hours after. Runners may also choose to use caffeine supplementation for training runs. However, when working with our clients we may discourage caffeine use if training runs are scheduled within 10 hours of bedtime (ie. after 12pm) as caffeine can disrupt sleep.
Magnesium supplementation may be required for athletes who do not consume adequate magnesium through food or for athletes experiencing muscle cramping. Consult with a Registered Dietitian to determine if you’d benefit from supplementing with magnesium.
Omega-3 supplements containing at least 1000 mg combined of EPA and DHA are recommended for athletes who do not regularly consume omega-3 rich fish like salmon, trout, and sardines.
Protein powder is not required to meet protein requirements, however, many runners enjoy using protein powder as an additional source to meet their needs. Dairy-based powders contain higher levels of the amino acids leucine for muscle protein synthesis. However, plant-based options are also manufactured to contain the essential amino acids including leucine.
You can review our recommendations for electrolytes, vitamin D, and omega-3 by visiting our supplement page here.
Whether you are new to running or advanced, we hope a tip we shared can help you take your performance to the next level. When it comes to fuelling up as a runner, these general tips will need to be fine-tuned for your unique body, lifestyle, and goals. For this reason, we highly recommend working with a Registered Dietitian with experience in sports nutrition who can calculate your calorie and macronutrient needs, assess your training plan and running goals, and create an action plan to keep you fuelled, hydrated, recovered, and performing optimally!
Key concepts discussed in the comprehensive nutrition guide for runners include:
- Eat enough to meet your energy requirements and work with a Registered Dietitian who can support you in tailoring your energy intake for specific goals like body recomposition or fat loss.
- Consume carbohydrates, protein, and fats in your meals and snacks to meet your need and prioritize carbohydrates before a run and carbohydrates alongside protein after a run.
- Reduce fat and fibre in the meal or snack 0-2 hours before your run if you experience gastrointestinal upset or discomfort while running.
- Drink water throughout the day and before/after runs using your thirst cues and symptoms of dehydration to understand your unique fluid needs.
- Consume electrolyte rich foods like salt, fruits, and vegetables to meet your electrolyte needs and work with a Registered Dietitian to supplement with electrolytes if needed.
- Consider unique micronutrients by prioritizing foods rich in iron and antioxidants and supplement with vitamin D.
- When running for longer >90 minutes create a plan for carbs, fluid, and electrolytes during your run to optimize performance and hydration.
- Consult with a Registered Dietitian to determine unique supplements that may be beneficial for you.
We support endurance athletes through our Comprehensive Nutrition Coaching where we meet with you weekly over 12 weeks to optimize your training diet, meal timing, race day nutrition, and more. We also support clients in our Individualized Nutrition Program with a comprehensive 90 minute initial consultation and follow-ups as needed to optimize nutrition for your running goals! Many people have extended health insurance coverage to work with a Registered Dietitian and have our services covered. Check with your insurance provider to determine if you are eligible for reimbursement!
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