Eat Smarter, Run Faster

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What do you think about before you go out for a run? The weather, your workout plan, or what you’re going to wear? One thing you might not consider is how to properly fuel your body before, during, and after a run. Proper nutrition is an essential component of improving performance, decreasing recovery time, and preventing stomach distress while pounding the pavement. While every runner is unique in what works for him or her, these general tips can give you a starting point when it comes to properly fueling your run.

Pre-Workout

Carbohydrates are the primary energy source for endurance athletes, such as runners. They provide the fuel to keep your muscles working efficiently, and they are quickly digested and used by the body. The timing of carb intake is important. Recommendations suggest consuming 100-400 calories of carbohydrate-dense foods one to three hours before your workout. Examples include:

  • Fresh fruit
  • Yogurt with fresh fruit or granola
  • Oatmeal made with milk and a banana
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • Bagel, English muffin, or toast with nut butter
  • Fruit smoothie
  • Cereal and milk
  • Dried fruit and nuts
  • Energy bar
  • Sports drink

 Hydration is another vital part of nourishing your body before a workout. Drink water consistently throughout the day, and if you’re a morning runner, be sure to drink some water before you head out on your run. If your urine is dark yellow in color (a sign of dehydration), drink more. If it’s super hot out or you know you will sweat a lot, sports drinks containing electrolytes can help you stay hydrated.

During a Workout

After carbohydrates are eaten, they turn into glucose within our bloodstream. This glucose is then transformed into glycogen and stored as energy within our liver and muscles. As we run, glycogen stores are depleted, decreasing our energy levels as a result. The “wall” some runners may hit is often because their glycogen stores are completely used up! You can avoid hitting the “wall” by eating 30-60 grams of quick, easily-digestible carbohydrate after about an hour into a workout. Examples of such carb sources include:

  • Bananas
  • Dried fruit
  • Honey
  • Rice
  • Sports drinks
  • Energy gels
  • Chewing blocks
  • Jelly beans

Energy gels, chewing blocks, and jelly beans can often be found in specialty running stores and have been created to help runners maintain their glycogen stores.

Hydration is important during workouts too, especially in the hot summer months. Carry a water bottle with you on long runs, pay attention to your thirst level, and try to drink fluids every 15 minutes or so for workouts longer than 45 to 60 minutes. Electrolyte-containing sports drinks like Gatorade can also be helpful in maintaining hydration levels and electrolyte balance. Just take into account the amount of carbohydrate the drink contains when calculating your carb needs.

Post-Workout

After a workout is over, try to refuel your body within 15-20 minutes. During this time the muscles are most receptive to nutrients, meaning they recover faster. This recovery “window” stays open for about 2 hours; so try to eat a snack within this time frame. Post-workout snacks should consist of three to four parts carbohydrate to one part protein. The carbs restore glycogen levels (= energy!) while the protein helps build and repair muscles. Examples of ideal recovery snacks include:

  • Chocolate milk
  • Smoothie made with yogurt and berries
  • Pita bread and hummus
  • Bagel and peanut butter
  • Fruit (bananas, apples, grapes) and almond butter
  • Homemade trail mix (dried fruit, popcorn, cereal, nuts)
  • Milk and cereal
  • Energy bar and fresh fruit
  • Graham crackers and peanut butter
  • Whole-grain crackers and string cheese
  • Pancakes and milk
  • Bagel, egg, and cheese
  • Pudding, berries, and animal crackers

The one piece of advice that holds true for all runners: figure out your nutrition plan well before race day! Never try anything new on the day of the race, or you run the risk of experiencing unpleasant symptoms and an unsatisfactory performance.

Proper nutrition is one facet of exercise that can help all runners improve their performance. Consider creating a smart nutrition plan to run faster and feel better no matter what the weather conditions may be!

Ashley Moyna, Dietetic Intern at The Ohio State University

Avid Runner, Peanut Butter Connoisseur, Enthusiastic Traveler