Nutrition for Distance Runners

By: proctor - August 21, 2006
There is a lot you can do to improve the way you feel during your run. Good nutrition will not only help you feel better; it will help you build a stronger body and eventually can help you improve your speed. Eating the right foods at the right time before you run is important to avoid cramping, side stitches, and having to answer Mother Nature before you finish your run. It can also help prevent hitting a "wall" where you feel either so tired or hungry that you are not able to finish your run, or not able to continue with the intensity with which you began running. So, start making more conscious, healthy food and beverage choices now and you will begin to feel the difference the next time you lace up your shoes and head outside for a run.

The essentials

Food is comprised of many nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, and the energy comes from some sort of ratio of carbohydrate, protein, and fats. All three of these energy sources are essential for a well-balanced and properly fed body, as well as for building a healthy immune system. Too much of one and not enough of the other two will most likely lead to a negative effect, whether it is as simple as low energy or as complex and devastating as over-taxed kidneys, which happens often with high protein, low-carb eating habits. Runners need about 60-65% carbohydrate, 20-25% protein, and 15% fat in their meals.

Carbohydrates: Simple and Complex

With too little carbohydrate energy before a run, you will feel sluggish and heavy during the run, and will run out of energy before you are supposed to. You can consume enough carbohydrates during dinner the night before a morning run so that you have time to digest it and load up your glycogen level. That way, you don't have to wake up two or three hours before your run in order to consume enough energy/food to fuel you for your run that morning. (Just wake up early enough give yourself time to drink 16 ounces of water and stretch lightly to get the blood flowing before you walk out the door.) Your body needs to consume both simple and complex carbohydrates, though you should aim for complex carbs to be the source of the majority of your carbohydrate energy to avoid sudden drops in energy levels. Complex carbs take longer for your body to digest them. Once carbohydrates hit your bloodstream, they all appear as simple carbohydrates, in a form known as "glucose". So don't omit orange juice from your list just because it is a juice. If you don't have an orange around, a smalll serving of orange juice will deliver much needed Vitamin C and folic acid. Good examples of carbohydrates that are loaded with other essential nutrients to give you more bang for your buck include bananas, tomatoes, squash, all cereals and grains (therefore bread and pasta), potatoes and rice. Ron Kennedy, M.D. from Santa Rosa, California, encourages consumption of high-fiber (high-cellulose) vegetable foods for optimal health; they are the healthiest choices for human nutrition, and intake of these foods is associated with lowered incidences of hypertension, cancer, arthritis, and diabetes.
Ideally, about 40-50% of your diet should come from raw foods including fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds."

Ideally, about 40-50% of your diet should come from raw foods including fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. The rest should be minimally processed and closest to its natural state in order to prevent stripping the food of nutrients. This leads to a healthier immune system, faster recovery from your intense workouts, and can help prevent major health risks like heart disease.

Protein: for Vegetarians and Meat-Eaters

Chicken, beef, and fish can be found in almost every restaurant now, and are a good source of protein as long as they are lean and not fried. It is not necessary, however, to be a meat-eater in order to get enough protein. If you are going to eat as a vegetarian, protein combination is very important in order for your body to be able to use the protein you are consuming. Proteins are molecules made of amino acids. Eight of the twenty amino acids are "essential," meaning that they cannot be synthesized in the body even though they are necessary for life. These eight essential amino acids, or "EAA", must be consumed from food in your diet. Soy is a good source of plant protein and has the added benefits of isoflavones. Dr. Kennedy recommends 0.8 g of protein per kg of body weight. So, if you are a 175 pound man, you should consume about 63 g of protein daily. (Divide your weight in pounds by 2.2, then multiply that by 0.8.) He recommends slightly more with vigorous exercise because you are breaking down your muscles at a faster rate and will need a little more protein to help you recover for your next workout.

A general serving size of meat is 3 ounces, about the size of your palm. Most chicken breasts that size contain 20-25 g of protein. So, consume about three servings of protein of that size each day. If you are consuming it through meat, balance it out by adding a handful of vegetables with each meat serving.

Fats: Good and Bad

Fats are necessary so your body can absorb and transport fat-soluble vitamins, as well as provide fuel for your run when your glycogen stores are depleted. Good fats will help lower the "bad" cholesterol and raise the "good" cholesterol. In return for eating these fats, your hair will be healthier, your moods will swing lower few times, and your food will taste good. Bad fats, such as hydrogenated oils, are commonly associated with vascular disease. Hydrogenated, trans-fatty acids do not occur nautrally, and are often added to junk food such as potato chips and cookies. It is very hard to digest and basically clutters your arteries. Good fats, found in foods like olive oil, are healthy for your heart and easily digested. As far as essential fats go, the body knows how to manufacture the fatty substances it needs with the exceptions of linoleic and linolenic acids. Vegetables and animal foods contain enough linolenic acid to meet human needs. So when your parents said "Eat your vegetables," they were right.

Pre-workout fuel

Before a workout, you should consume about 400-500 calories. Try to eat 2 hours before your workout so that your stomach is pretty much empty and the food has had time to digest and hit your bloodstream. You should not consume spicy foods, carbonated beverages, foods that you know might upset your stomach (milk or dairy for some people), or foods that leave an aftertaste. Usually, if a food has been over-processed (chips or other junk food), it will not sit well in your stomach. Fruit is a good choice, as are granola bars and trail mix. I made the mistake once of making a yogurt and soymilk smoothie with a scoop of protein and a few kinds of fruit mixed in and drinking it before my run....at mile 6 my body was not happy with me. Stick with one food or a couple of bland ones (banana and crackers, for example). During your workout, sips of Gatorade can help keep your energy up if you feel it starting to drop, or you can use energy gel, a great option when you are exercising intensely for over an hour.

Energy Gel

You have probably seen the little foil packets of Gu, PowerShot, and even Honey shots which often have ginseng and vitamins added. They are packets of about 100 calories of energy, and are great for those long runs where you want to avoid hitting a wall. The basic rule of thumb is "one before every 45". So, if you are going to do a 14 mile run over the course of 2.5 hours, consume one packet at the start of your run, again after 45 minutes of running, and so on; you will have consumed four by the end of your run. Drink 4-6 ounces of water with each packet to aid in absorption. Some people think one packet every hour is enough. You will have to experiment with what your body needs. There is also the option of Clif Shot Blox which are gummi squares that do not melt and can be chewed, unlike the gel which you squirt into your mouth. Again, experiment with what you like and can stomach. You may crave flavors like Chocolate Rage and Lemon Sublime, or may only be able to stomach "Just Plain" by Gu. It will really help during the last few miles of your long runs. They are about $1.25 each and the Blox are about $2 per bag but have 2 servings in them. Stock up at race expos--they usually have great offers there.

Meals and snacks

Eating three meals a day is absolutely necessary to maintain steady blood sugar levels and not overeat (not good for you unless you don't mind an upset stomach and need to send the extra calories off to your fat cells for storage). They should be moderately sized meals of about 25% of your daily caloric intake. The rest of your calories should be divided among two or three snacks. This way, you eat every 3-4 hours and won't experience dramatic drops in your energy levels and moods due to low blood sugar. Both meals and snacks should consist of carbohydrates, protein, and fat in order to digest slowly and avoid a spike in blood sugar, like white bread or soft drinks will cause. Whole grains, unsaturated fat, and lean proteins are among the most healthy choices. So load up on fresh, recently picked fruits and vegetables, and eat them in their natural state whenever possible.

Other necessities

There are other things you should keep in mind when trying to build a healthy, strong body through good nutrition. One of those things is fiber. The Food and Drug Administration considers fiber to be a powerful fighter against cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. It also helps prevent digestive disorders and constipation so you don't get cramps while you run (side stitches are another topic--slow your pace down if you get one and concentrate on relaxing and breathing deeply until you get rid of it). Another thing is sleep. Without enough sleep, your body will not be able to recover from your workouts and your performance will suffer. Your moods may also suffer if you have not had enough sleep, so quit reading this and get some sleep.

About the Submitter


I have been an ACE certified personal trainer since 2000 who has trained over 3000 hours. I specialize in pre- and post-natal fitness, stretching, running, and weight loss. Yoga is also a passion for me and a way of life. I received my Yoga Alliance Teacher Certification in India and love to share the calmness, strength, and openness that yoga offers to people of all ages and abilities.

Public Comments

  • By: cando2

    Sunday, February 18, 2007 - 11:14am

    Thanks! Great Information

  • By: jEnergy

    Tuesday, August 29, 2006 - 7:44pm

    Proctopus-- read the last two lines again. Read it yet again. Then try it yourself. You heard me. Not for performance-sake, for your sanity and health!!

  • By: proctor

    Thursday, August 24, 2006 - 5:05pm

    Well, yes actually. Heh-waste not, want not! I'll change the picture and have prettier bananas (then go eat the spotted ones).

  • By: annbarr

    Wednesday, August 23, 2006 - 12:59pm

    You're supposed to eat rotten bananas? Did you learn that from Dad?!

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