Nutrition for runners
Sam Adele buys her shoes from us. She also hits us up for running advice, about everything from interval training to nutrition for runners.
There are different categories of running shoes: neutral, stability, motion control, etc. For Sam, and nearly everyone else, one of those categories is most comfortable—in her case, neutral shoes. Think of neutral shoes as sneakers without non-essential stabilizing features. She’s purchased a bunch of them—the Brooks Ghost, Saucony Ride, New Balance 1080, Asics Nimbus, and Mizuno Wave Rider. Fortunately, we have new neutral styles coming in all of the time.
When she brought her last pair of shoes, the Hoka One One Speed Instinct, she shared her dream of running a really fast Marathon. She had a lot of questions, but cared most about nutrition.
The International Olympic Committee has prepared guidance about nutrition for Olympic runners. The guidance is straightforward and well researched. It also dovetails with the standard guidance for all athletes, both the Olympians and the everyday runners.
So, we can all benefit from the IOC’s nutritional advice, because Olympians can’t afford training mistakes, and the stuff that works for them will probably help us, too.
Carbs are an important source of nutrition for runners.
Carbohydrates are the subject of intense scrutiny. People have come to different conclusions: carbs should be restricted to very low levels, there are good carbs and bad carbs, white sugar is a toxin, etc.
The world’s best Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners eat diets that are rich in carbs, sometimes as much as 76% carbs.
Should you change the amount of carbs you’re currently eating and, if so, why?
If you are satisfied with your running—if you can run as long as you want, if you can run as fast as you want, if you feel good during and after the run—then you may not want to change your diet. You may not want to change anything!
But if you want to run faster or if you want to run longer, and if you are planning to do more intense workouts to become a faster or more enduring runner, then the IOC suggests that you eat enough carbs to provide adequate fuel for the training effort.
They make that suggestion because, once a runner’s workouts surpasses a high enough level of speed and duration, the body will seek to fuel the effort through carbs. You will be better prepared for hard workouts if carbs are stored in your body. You can no doubt do hard workouts on a low-carb diet, but you can expect to perform better if enough carbs are present to meet the body’s demand for carbs.
How many carbs do you need? Between 3 grams to 10 grams per kilogram per day, depending on the training effort.
Protein is another important source of nutrition for runners.
The IOC has observed that a varied diet of everyday foods will generally supply at least the amount of protein that you need.
Do you agree? Or do you need to take protein supplements?
Let’s look at the numbers. The IOC tells athletes to get between 1.2 grams to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. The average-sized man in the US is 88.7kg (195.5 pounds), and would therefore need to eat 106 grams to 160 grams of protein per day.
The combined food items listed below contain about 160 grams of protein:
- 6 ounces of chicken breast,
- 1 hamburger
- 1 cup of navy beans
- 4 cups of milk
- 6 ounces of salmon
- 1 hard-boiled egg
If that sounds like more protein-rich food than you are likely to eat throughout the day, then you may need a protein supplement. If you can handle that amount food, enjoy your diet because it sounds delicious!
Nutrition for runners strategy: Meeting vitamin and mineral needs through a balance and healthful diet.
The IOC says that a diet that’s largely plant matter—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes—along with lean dairy and meats, should meet your vitamin and mineral needs, if you are eating an adequate amount of those foods. Dietetic professionals throughout the West recommend the same dietary pattern. If that’s the way that you eat, then you’re probably getting all of your vitamins and minerals.
But let’s say that your diet isn’t inclusive of those food groups. Or perhaps it is, but your diet gives you too few calories. In those cases, you may not be meeting your vitamin and mineral needs through food. You might consider taking vitamin and mineral supplements. Check with your physician for more information.
Hydration is important.
A runner can lose 3-8 cups of sweat per hour. It’s important to replace the great majority of that fluid loss, by drinking water and other beverages.
Weigh yourself before and after your workout. The difference will help you calculate sweat loss. Water weighs about 8.3 ounces per cup. So, if you lost a pound during the run (assuming that you didn’t drink anything), then you lost approximately 2 cups of water, and you need to replace around 2 cups of water.
The most important idea regarding nutrition for runners
Runners are different so needs are different. Diets should be personal; built up over time to accommodate the individual.
In the case of one runner, for example, it was a good idea to eat 400 grams of carbs on a hard interval day. He chose to eat so-called healthful carbs: lentils, baked sweet potatoes, wild rice, black beans, and raspberries. He ate a lot of fiber along with those carbs. All of that fiber caused severe gas and diarrhea.
He sought my help and learned that he could safely eat white rice, pasta, and fruit juice. He easily digested large amounts of white sugar added to tea—a trick used by some Kenyan distance runners—and that sugary beverage didn’t negatively affect his blood levels.
A sports nutritionist can assist with the discovery process that each runner has to go through, a process that can be very time-consuming and detailed. Sports nutritionists (who are not necessarily registered dieticians) are specialists that have clinical experience helping athletes devise plans to achieve recommended nutrient intakes, in ways that work best for the athlete’s training, travel and competition.