May 27, 2020 at 11:20 pm #2800
Nutrition for runners should be easy
but so much advice I see online is nonsense.
If you have previously found running nutrition a bit confusing, you probably aren’t alone. Let’s make it simple.
For most runners, the average run session is too short to worry about nutrition specifically for each run. If you are running for 40 minutes, you don’t need to plan food around it. You don’t even need to take a drink with you. Just get it done. As long as your everyday diet contains enough useful nutrients and you generally drink enough water each day, your body will figure it out.
For most people with self control, that diet is going to consist of some carbs, some protein, with lots of veg and fruit, plus some treats. Your body uses amino-acids from vegetables to create some protein too.
If you prepare most of the meals yourself, then you know it’s not going to be overloaded with salt or sugar, so it’s easy to guess if the calorie content is roughly matching your needs and is going to sustain you long term.
When running, you use up glycogen stores in the muscles and the liver to create energy for movement. You also use fat stores too. The ratio of glycogen to fat usage depends on your effort level: harder pace = more glycogen and less fat.
In the short, easy runs, there’s no risk of you getting anywhere near running out of glycogen, so you don’t need to eat anything specific beforehand, or afterwards and you certainly won’t need to eat during them. If you are running twice a day, you might need more careful planning of meal times, but if you are at that stage of your running, you probably know all of this anyway! The rest of you can quite happily think about your meals and your shorter runs completely separately. Your body will take it all in its stride.
If it’s a long time till your next meal, you might want to have something small like a banana within 15-30 minutes of finishing your short run.
The only caveat here is don’t eat a large meal just before running – you risk getting a stitch and will struggle with the run and with digesting the food, since blood flow is split between these two functions.
To summarise the short runs, just do it. Eat a very small snack afterwards if no meal for hours, but otherwise just fit them in around your normal meals.
What about the longer runs?
It’s the long runs where timed nutrition starts to get important, but also where confusion seems to reign. So pay attention. Long training runs are normally in the region of 60-150 minutes, depending on your experience. A new runner might find 60 minutes at an easy pace quite a long run, whereas an experienced runner might not really feel taxed at an easy pace till 120 minutes or more.
There are two schools of thought for the longer runs. The first is to keep yourself topped up with glycogen before, during and after. The second is to run them without food, sometimes even fasted, so that the body gets used to using fat as a fuel.
The latter seems quite scary to runners new to running long in training, but if you are running slow enough, and have gradually worked up to the duration of the long training run over time, everyone without medical conditions should be able to do their long runs without taking food with them. That’s not to say it’s the best plan – just that it’s possible.
However, anyone with medical conditions affected by their food intake and exercise should seek proper advice relevant to their condition before attempting this sort of run. Once given the go ahead by your doctor, my advice for them would be to do 1 mile loops the first few times so that you are never very far from home if the body doesn’t cope very well, whether you take food with you or not. Then it’s easy to stop and walk no more than half a mile home. This same advice could be used by anyone on really hot days doing long training runs.
After you finish a long run without food, have a substantial snack or meal soon after, ideally within 30 minutes. The main priority is carbohydrates to replace glycogen stores quickly.
This sort of low-calorie-intake run can be tough on the body. If you actually run out of glycogen during a run, it takes a toll on your body for the rest of the week as it tries to replenish. This can have an impact on the quality of the sessions in the following week, especially those at speed or longer than 40 minutes. Therefore, personally I tend to veer towards doing more long runs with food than without (or fasted).
The other factor to consider is what you are training for – if it’s a race, then your training needs to replicate race conditions to a certain extent. If you do all your long runs without food, what happens on race day if you are going to eat, be it gels in a marathon PB attempt or real food in an ultra? Your body won’t know what to do! So practice your nutrition in training, both in some of the long, easy runs, but also in the shorter runs at race pace.
If you intend to top up glycogen for your long runs and not do them fasted, I suggest something like a quick slice of white bread and jam beforehand, gels during (or flapjacks / real food if going for an ultra and you aren’t elite!) and then a meal straight afterwards, or at least a substantial snack. Again, your main priority is carbohydrates to top up glycogen stores quickly.
To summarise the long runs, I suggest doing most with food, especially if practicing for a long race. Eat a little carbs beforehand, during and after. Occasionally run them without food to know what it’s like running on empty, either fasted or with a small snack beforehand, but considering your own safety and ability. Again, eat soon after.
Nonsense to avoid
How many times have you seen someone online suggesting a protein shake straight after a run? And then finding out they promote protein shakes…
The only reason you need a protein shake after a run is if you are doing long, multi-day events that have big impacts on the muscles.
If you don’t get much protein in your diet, then by all means add more via a protein shake, but it’s in addition to your normal meals and not the main thing you need straight after a run.
Your main priority after a run is to replace glycogen in your muscles and liver. If your body has started consuming your own muscles protein for energy, it’s not a training run any more! Glycogen needs carbohydrates for quick top-up. This can come from a specific carbohydrate snack, or from a normal meal. If you run early in the morning, you could have a carb-cereal breakfast, with a protein shake poured on it for extra calories, but remember that carbs are still the main focus!
To summarise: normal run = have carbs afterwards, not protein shake.
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