Runners have unique dietary needs because they burn so many calories in extended cardiovascular activity during their training and races. Therefore, it makes sense that many runners are worried about what they eat and how it affects their running and recovery.
As a runner, focus on a few major areas in your diet: First, runners need more carbohydrates than the typical person because their bodies turns these into glycogen, which muscles use to keep them moving while running. Second, runners need protein to help replenish, build and repair their muscles. Looking at a runner’s legs will show you the results of all this protein. Last, runners should also pay attention to getting a balance of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients the body needs to build their running endurance.
While planning your diet may feel daunting at first, simply break it down into several categories of foods to include on a daily basis. Try to focus more on carbs before your run and slightly more on proteins after your run — while adding other nutrients throughout the day.
High-protein foods to eat during the day
Stick to lean proteins so you are getting the amino acids, which are building blocks for your muscles, without absorbing too many fats that can delay your metabolism. While you shouldn’t be on a protein-focused diet, you do need to get a moderate amount of protein to keep your diet well balanced.
- Low-fat yogurt is full of calcium, this strengthens bones that take a lot of stress while running, in addition to helping provide the protein your body needs to build muscle.
- Lean beef contains protein and iron, which helps boost hemoglobin levels in red blood cells to transport oxygen through your body and keep you from feeling overly fatigued during runs.
- Salmon is a lean protein with omega-3 fatty acids to boost heart health and aid in circulation for increased performance while running.
Carbs to eat before a run
Carbohydrates can be simple, which have easily accessible sugars, or complex, with sugars that are more difficult to digest. Before running, focus on simple carbs so your body can get the energy you need as soon as possible.
- Whole-wheat pasta contains carbohydrates that can help you increase the amount of glycogen stored in your muscles before a run.
- Oatmeal is packed with carbs, while also containing a lot of fiber to help provide a slower release of energy during long runs.
- Bananas are the perfect, portable snack to enjoy immediately before a run because they are almost entirely carbohydrates that are quickly converted into energy. Plus, the potassium helps control blood pressure.
Best foods to eat after running
Research has shown that eating carbs and protein together after a run is the best way to replenish your body’s resources and help repair and build muscle tissues. Aim for about four-parts carbohydrates to one-part protein. Each of these snacks is ideal for eating within the first hour after you finish your run:
- Skim or low-fat milk packs protein while also providing a healthy dose of carbs, not to mention lots of calcium to strengthen bones and help avoid stress fractures. Adding some chocolate syrup is even OK if you want an indulgent treat!
- Crackers or whole-wheat toast with peanut butter combine carbs and protein into a simple snack that’s easy to eat wherever you are after your run.
- Raw vegetable sticks with hummus contain very little fat, while also having a good balance of protein and carbohydrates. Good vegetables include carrots, celery, cucumbers and bell peppers.
Foods with specific purposes
Try to incorporate some specific foods into your diet that will fill gaps and add powerful antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that help your body recover after runs, and become stronger for your next workout.
- Oranges have tons of vitamin C, which is an antioxidant that can help combat muscle soreness after a run.
- Kale is packed with vitamins and minerals, including iron and calcium, and has anti-inflammatory properties to help with recovery between runs.
- Berries are high in antioxidants called anthocyanins, which can help your muscles recover after your workout.
- Dark chocolate contains flavonols, which are antioxidants that strengthen your heart and decrease inflammation throughout the body.
Bonnie is a Certified Health Counselor and went to school at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition at Columbia University. She now works for Natural Horizons Wellness Centers and helps here clients focus on living a healthier life.