You’ve heard, probably many times, that “food is fuel,” and that’s especially true when it comes to running.
All athletes should maintain a healthy diet, but what you eat and when is especially important for runners.
Fail to fuel up properly before a marathon or half-marathon and you might not cross the finish line.
Replenish your body improperly following a race and it may take you longer to recover.
While you may not need to change your diet to prepare for a 5K, longer runs (especially half- and full marathons) require you to eat well in the days leading up to the race.
There are four main elements to fueling your body properly as you ramp up to race day:
Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of fuel during a run (or any exercise). Runners should get 60-70% of their calories from high-quality carbs.
You should not eat refined carbs, such as sugar, soda or white flour, because these foods cause blood sugar spikes and crashes, which could impair performance.
Stored carbs, called glycogen, are held in reserve in your muscles and liver for use during workouts. When training for a long race, however, it’s important to increase your carb intake before the event.
Runner’s World magazine recommends increasing your carb intake over several days instead of following a common practice of loading up on bread and pasta the night before a race. That could leave you feeling bloated and cause stomach upset as you run.
Don’t go overboard – 200-300 extra calories worth of carbs per day, in addition to your usual healthy diet, is enough. Those carbs will provide fuel for your run, and you’ll burn off the extra calories.
Though you should usually try to eat high-fiber complex carbohydrates, consuming high-fiber foods just before a run can actually impair performance. Fiber takes a long time to digest, and you need your body to direct its energy to running, not digestion.
So avoid high-fiber foods like bran, beans and broccoli for a couple of days before your big run.
You should also avoid hard-to-digest, fatty foods.
Protein helps your body rebuild muscle that is damaged during exercise. Most people get enough protein from a balanced diet that includes food such as lean meats, legumes, and low- or non-fat dairy products.
Too much protein just before a race can negatively impact performance, because your body has to work to digest it, diverting energy from your run.
Your body needs some fat to function and stay well hydrated. Some healthy sources for fats are salmon, olive oil and flax seed.
Don’t eat foods with a high fat content, however, because they can be hard to digest, and definitely limit fat consumption the morning of the race.
Proper hydration during exercise is critical because your body loses so much water when you sweat. Water helps your body eliminate the lactic acid it produces as you run.
Getting enough water and other fluids prevents dehydration, which can increase your heart rate, put you at greater risk of heat-related injury, and negatively impact your performance.
You need to start upping your water intake two days before a big race. Drink water or sports drinks, but avoid alcohol and excessive caffeine because they can be dehydrating.
You need to be very particular about what you eat just before, during and just after a long race. Eating the right foods can help you maximize your endurance and speed your post-race recovery.
As you taper down on mileage in preparation for a race, you also need to taper your diet, eating about 100 calories less per day for each mile less that you’re running. Beginning about four days before a 10K or a week before a half- or full marathon, focus your diet on the essentials: plenty of carbs, a moderate amount of protein and a little fat.
Eat a dinner that will provide you with plenty of carbs. Now is not the time to try a new or exotic food.
Avoid acidic foods and anything that could cause heartburn or stomach upset...and don’t stuff yourself until you’re uncomfortable.
Shape magazine recommends eating something like a salad of cooked quinoa mixed with grilled chicken, walnuts and raisins to give you the fiber, protein and fat you need in a meal that is easily digested and won’t leave you over-stuffed.
Once again, this is not the time to try something new – stick to your usual pre-long-run breakfast.
Keep it light, and allow a couple of hours to completely digest your meal.
Make sure to include carbs, protein, and a little fat. A whole-grain bagel or toast with a little peanut or almond butter is a good choice, and be sure to include fruit, juice, water or a sports drink for fluids. Or try toast, yogurt and a banana along with your beverages.
Because running a marathon stresses your immune system, have an immune-boosting breakfast shake of orange juice, strawberries, walnuts, whey protein, and glutamine (an amino acid).
Be sure to hydrate again before race time. Drink at least 16 ounces of water or a sports drink (like Gatorade) two to three hours before the race.
Different running experts have different recommendations for what to ingest during a long race.
Livestrong.com recommends rehydrating with water or a sports drink throughout any run longer than 60 minutes to prevent dehydration.
Drink approximately 6 ounces about half an hour before the starting gun.
Drink that same amount every 20 minutes throughout the race. A good rule of thumb is that one big gulp of liquid equals one ounce.
Runner's World recommends drinking a carb-rich sports drink or consuming gels or chews during long runs to maintain energy while avoiding spikes in blood sugar.
After you cross the finish line, it’s important to get something to eat as soon as possible.
For races taking an hour or less, follow your run with a snack that contains both carbs and protein. Greek yogurt with granola, blueberries and raspberries for protein, carbs and antioxidants is a good option. Hummus on a pita with chopped fresh vegetables would also do the trick.
To carbo-reload after a longer race, have a nutrition bar, bagel or piece of fruit within 15 minutes of crossing the finish line because this is when muscles can absorb glycogen most readily.
Getting protein as well will help your body start to repair your muscles. After you cool down, try to eat a full meal containing carbs, protein and fat within about an hour. A bean burrito or pasta with meat sauce is a good option. Continue to eat high-carb foods for a full day following the race to rebuild your glycogen reserves.
By eating well before a race, getting the right nutrients while you run, and refueling the right way, you won’t find yourself running on empty in your quest for the finish line.
Try one of these no-cook recipes from Runner’s World magazine for a post-run pick-me-up. Each contains key nutrients to speed recovery.
Since they don’t require cooking, you can have them prepared ahead of time and ready to eat right after the race.
Visit our Healthiest Best Foods homepage for more great ideas to get you and your family eating healthier.