Sports Nutrition for Runners: What You Need to Know

There’s only one rule to sports nutrition for runners — there are no hard and fast rules! There are so many nutrition products out there, and none of them are going to be right for everyone’s stomach. Same goes for the tons of diet plans you’ll come across, too! There’s a lot to sort through, and it’s important to know going in that it’s OK to experiment and to disagree.

I am not a nutritionist or doctor, and I’m not a proponent of any particular diet or avoidance of any specific foods — one of the main themes of Fitted Running is that there is no diet plan, training program, or running shoe that will work for everyone! I just love to eat and I love to run, so I’m here to pass along some things I’ve learned about sports nutrition for runners — not so much what to use and what to avoid, but how to think about nutrition and hydration in the context of running. This advice isn’t to help you lose weight — not that you couldn’t — it’s simply some basic advice for those looking for the basics on eating and running. I’ll also point out a few sports nutrition products that are out there and how to use them most effectively.

Fueling your body for a run is an important aspect of a successful training cycle, a strong race, or simply a pleasant running experience. We’ll break this up into three parts — eating before, during, and after your run.

Sports Nutrition Before Running

Proper fueling and hydration are important aspects of preparing your body for a run, no matter the distance. There are no hard and fast rules to pre-run nutrition, but there are some tips to help you master this important step for yourself.

Keep a log. As you try running at different times of the day and handling sports nutrition accordingly, jot everything down in your training plan and make note of what works and what doesn’t. For example, I learned several years ago that eggs for breakfast took too long for me to digest before a long run, almost always resulting in a stomachache during a hard run. But, eggs before a run might work great for you — the only way to know for sure is to try a few different things out and be observant to how your body responds. Oatmeal turned out to be my go-to, as long as I have the luxury of waiting to run an hour or so after I eat breakfast.

Typically, you do want to wait an hour or two after eating a large meal to run. But, if you’re running first thing in the morning, consider a light, easy-to-digest snack to give you a little fuel, and also make sure you have a good-sized dinner the night before with plenty of carbohydrates for energy. For my mornings, I love to grab a quick energy gel packet, a stroopwaffle, or an energy bar with my latte. I have whole milk with my coffee for some extra calories and fat to sustain me on the run. Delicious and digestible!

During the week, I typically have to run after work. I always ran into the problem of being too hungry to run after work, and I would end up ruining my run by eating the wrong snack after work and before my run. Lesson learned: potato chips make a terrible pre-run snack (too much fat makes them hard to digest)! For me, it worked best to have a 4 PM snack at work if I had a typical noon lunch. This could be a Greek yogurt, an energy bar, and/or a piece of fruit with cheese or peanut butter. Protein isn’t needed to rebuild muscles before a run, but it will keep you from feeling hungry again too soon.

Hydration is a big part of sports nutrition for runners — don’t just think of it as a glass of water before you run. Make sure you are properly hydrated for the entire day, and even a couple days before an important long run. Your stomach and gut can take a while to absorb the water you drink and get it to where it needs to be in your body — give it the time to do so. Even slight dehydration will put a major damper on how you feel during your run. I’m not going to beat around the bush, the best way to know if you’re properly hydrated is if you’re peeing clear. For once, it really is as simple as that.

Curious about some of these products and tips? Fitted Running will go way more in depth on all of these topics, so keep an eye on the Nutrition section!

Sports Nutrition During Running

As you begin your run, your body has the energy needed to fire your muscles over and over again. As you exercise, that energy store depletes. The rate at which this occurs varies by person and varies by your fitness level. Generally speaking, as you gain fitness, your body will become more efficient and that energy store will last longer. If you are going for a short run (less than a half an hour), it is not likely that you will deplete these energy stores. However, each person is different.

It is not always obvious when these energy stores are depleted — you may feel lightheaded, hungry, sluggish or even feel nauseated. I prefer to eat on the run before these feelings set in and stay ahead of energy depletion. While many products are easy to digest, you want to give yourself some time to eat and digest them before you are truly feeling depleted. Pay attention to your body and learn when you need to supplement with fuel on your run. Again, this is another thing to track in your training log while you are in the process of learning what works best for you. When you have that particularly amazing run, look not only at what you did right that day, but also for the past couple days. And vice versa, when a run doesn’t go well, look at what could have been done differently that day, but also in the days preceding that run.

Because your body is being taxed big time while running, you don’t want to fuel your body with foods that are difficult to digest because your body is working hard enough just to move, let alone digest food. You also want to be quick and efficient by carrying food with you that can be eaten quickly. For these reasons, the best options for eating on the run are commercially available products like gels and chews.

I keep eating on the run pretty simple. If I will be running for over an hour, I bring an energy gel packet for each hour I plan to be out there running, or more if I am particularly hungry or unsure of my exact time or distance that day. Energy gels have a very sweet, sticky pudding-like consistency. They can be a little messy, so you’ll want to slurp down a gel packet all at once. If that weirds you out, try energy chews! Energy chews are more like big gummy bears and are also a fantastic way to eat a small amount of calories as you go, especially because you can just pop one every 15 minutes or so instead of having to eat the whole pack at once.

If you’ve never had either, experiment long before a big race — don’t try them for the first time on a big day like your marathon (if there’s anything close to a hard and fast rule in sports nutrition, this is it!). If you are training for a big race, also see what your race is going to have at the aid stations and test that out on a long run as far in advance as you can. Make sure you like it and that your gut likes it too! But, if products like gels and chews do end up working for you, both can deliver you a shot of sugar that will replenish your energy stores to get you through your workout without taxing your digestion system too much.

Just watch the ingredients for caffeine and use accordingly. Sometimes caffeine can provide a great boost, but other times it can leave you jittery and with an upset stomach. Again, test it out and learn what works for your body. If I bring a caffeinated gel packet, I typically keep it in a different pocket and save it for the last part of my run where I’m likely to be lagging the most.

And, have fun with experimentation — there are some awesome flavors out there to try.  For me, a salted caramel Gu gel packet is a fun perk of being out there for a long run!

Separating hydration from energy replacement is very important when it comes to sports nutrition for runners. If you are using a sugary, carbohydrate drink like Gatorade you are getting both hydration and nutrition, which works great until it doesn’t. Sometimes, you’ll want to hydrate without taking on any more sugar, and other times you’ll want to eat without more liquid sloshing in your belly.

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Electrolyte tablets are great for staying hydrated on the run. They don’t contain sugar or many calories, so don’t think of it as a replacement for your gel packets or energy chews. It is simply a way to get rehydrated while also replenishing some electrolytes that you might need if you’re sweating. I like to bring a small handheld water bottle and some extra tablets so that if I replenish my water on the run, I can pop a tablet in on the go. A bonus perk — it is lightly flavored and not overly sweet, making it perfect to keep you hydrated on the run. It’s also commonly served at races. That being said, always train with what you’ll be racing with if you’re preparing for something like a marathon.

In our Nutrition section at Fitted Running, we’ll be breaking down all of these products and more to help you figure out how you can incorporate them into your runs and races, and what might not end up working at all for you. There’s plenty more out there to explore, too — we’ll be happy to do a little pre-experimentation for you.

Sports Nutrition After Running

When you are in an important training cycle, try to avoid getting overly hungry or dehydrated at any time. This can certainly impact your next run! It is important to be eating a healthy, balanced diet for all three of your meals each day to properly fuel your body for each run you complete. Fat, protein, and carbohydrates all play roles in fueling your body for it to perform and rebuild.

Immediately after a workout, it is important to have some protein to promote recovery. Protein contains the building blocks of what your muscles need to repair and rebuild after exercise. Because it can be difficult to digest, most products designed for consumption during your workout do not contain a significant amount of protein. However, nutrition products meant to be taken after your workout will often contain a mix of both carbohydrates and protein to help with muscle recovery and repair.

Photo by Mark DeYoung on Unsplash

After a run longer than one hour, I try to have a meal containing protein within an hour or two of finishing the run. If that isn’t feasible, or if your appetite isn’t there, a carbohydrate/protein post-workout drink is a great option. Chocolate milk is a fantastic option, and pretty easily available as well, and there are plenty of other non-dairy options on the market if dairy isn’t an option for you. Again, this is another thing to log, as you may not feel much of a difference until your run the next day. Logging is always going to be a huge part of sports nutrition for runners, for no other reason than we’re all going to have different experiences and come to different conclusions!

Staying Fueled Up at All Times

It’s something we live by at Fitted Running — staying healthy as a runner requires work in so many more areas than just shoes. Sure, our gait analysis and the Shoe Consultant will be able to get you into the right pair of shoes, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle. Making sure you’re taking care of general wellness and sports nutrition are just as important! In the Nutrition section of Fitted Running, you’ll eventually find tons of information about not only hydration and nutrition products popular in the running community, you’ll get tips and new ways of thinking from runners of all levels of experience. Take it all in, and don’t forget — what works for one won’t work for everyone. Study up, make a log, and start figuring out what makes you and your body happy!

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