Food as fuel for running

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Eating and running doesn’t have to be complicated. But getting your nutrition plan right can make or break a race, yet it’s part of your race-prep that can be overlooked. Fuelling your training correctly can help you get the most out of each run, prevent injury, aid recovery and generally put you on the right path to achieving your goals, explains Sarah Martin-Crake.

Basic advice

Depending on the length of your run, you may find that eating beforehand isn’t necessary. Fasting for shorter runs or training runs presents no issue to some people, and can work well particularly if time is tight. For longer runs (more than 60-90 minutes), race day, and for multi-event days, eating before a run boosts your body’s fuel supplies and supports optimum performance.

If you have weight loss as a goal, try and be smart about the timings of your meals and runs. If you are having extra snacks to fuel your running and/or are using mid-run fuel, this can offset the energy expenditure and so scupper plans for losing weight. So, for example, if you run in the evenings, plan to have your dinner within 30-60 minutes of getting home. Or if you run in the morning, why not split your breakfast? Have your cereal or toast before you go, then your banana once you’re home.

Before a race

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Most running events take place in the morning, so let’s have a think about breakfast. You should aim for a source of carbohydrates, a source of protein and a source of fluid, and ideally eat 2-4 hours before the race starts.

Carbs – toast, bread, English muffins, Scotch pancakes, breakfast cereal, oats, fruit, preserves and honey. Sports nutrition products can also be used as a pre-run option if time/facilities are lacking.

Protein – eggs, yoghurt, cheese, nut butter, meat, fish, etc.

Fluid – water, milk, cup of tea/coffee, fruit juice, sports drink, etc.

Go-to ideas –

  • Toast/bagel/English muffin/Scotch pancakes with honey, jam, marmalade, Marmite or peanut butter.
  • Cereal with a sliced banana or a handful of raisins, and milk.
  • Porridge made with your choice of milk (dairy, soya, coconut, etc.) with mixed berries and honey.
  • Overnight oats
  • Boiled egg and soldiers
  • Beans on toast

During a run

In-race fuelling may or may not be necessary, depending on the duration and intensity of your running. If you’re going to be pounding the streets or traversing the trails for more than 60-90 minutes, it’s a good idea to take on some energy. The body has limited capacity to store glycogen, which is the muscles preferred energy source, so topping up your in-body supplies with some extra fuel makes an awful lot of sense. Even if you’re in favour of fat-adapted running, strategic use of carbs can make a difference to your performance.

As well as fuel, you shouldn’t forget about hydration. Dehydration and over-hydration are both risky, but how much you need to drink varies from person to person, and is dependent on environmental conditions, effort level, speed, weight and pre-run hydration status, to name but a few factors. Ideally carry water with you, and sip as you go.

There’s a huge market for sports nutrition products – drinks, gels, beans, blocks… find the one you like, and train with it. Aim for 30-60g carbohydrates per hour, and don’t wait until you’re depleted before you start refuelling.

If you prefer ‘real’ food, there’s no reason not to include it in your nutrition strategy, either as a standalone plan or to complement sports nutrition products – the latter is perhaps the best of both worlds, as you can get the minimum ‘dose’ of carbs and electrolytes you need from a formulated product, but the benefits of taste variety, substance and enjoyment from actually eating real food.

A real food strategy takes a bit of planning – give thought to how much you’ll need, how you’ll carry it, and food hygiene.

After a run/race

Post-run, the focus is on recovery – refuel, rehydrate and nourish. Aim to eat and drink as soon as you’ve finished, ideally within 30-60 minutes of your run. This might take the form of a snack or a meal, or even a recovery drink, and should contain a source of both carbohydrates and protein.

SNACKS

If it’s going to be a while before you eat a ‘proper’ meal, having a nutritious snack available makes an awful lot of sense.

Banana – (possibly not the green ones handed out at races!) or any piece of fruit.

Cereal bar/flapjack – particularly those containing nuts/seeds for a protein boost.

Packet of crisps/pretzels/cheese savouries – savoury and salty, which can prompt thirst and aid hydration.

Dried fruit and nuts – raisins, dates, peanuts, etc. Covered in chocolate for some extra carby goodness, if liked.

Bowl of cereal with milk

Slice of bread and peanut butter/cream cheese/sliced meat

DRINKS

Two birds, one stone – these will give you fuel AND fluids, and liquids are often better tolerated than solids if you find your tummy is feeling delicate and your appetite is AWOL.

Hot options – hot chocolate, latte (coffee or chai), Horlicks and Ovaltine. Milky, sweet, warming and comforting. Like a hug in a mug, with a good ratio of carbs and protein, and quite possibly a bit of caffeine thrown in for good measure!

Cold options – Milk, milkshakes and smoothies. Again, protein and carbs, and a good shot of vitamins if you choose a fruit smoothie.

Ultimate convenience – Sports nutrition recovery drink. Lots of options to choose from. They boast all kinds of benefits, and are certainly convenient.

Alcohol – not ideal for rehydration, so if you do have a celebratory drink or two, make sure you include some other fluids to stave off dehydration!

MEALS

Some people are ravenous after a run, some lose their appetite. Either way, a proper meal will refuel and nourish. If you can’t face it straight away, or the logistics just don’t permit it, have a snack to be getting on with, and then dig-in to dinner later on.

Aim to choose a balanced meal, including a source of carbohydrates, a source of protein, and some colourful veg.

Jacket potato – with beans, cheese, tuna, chilli, etc. and a side salad

Pasta – bolognese, carbonara, etc.

Topped toast – beans or egg are both good protein sources.

Noodle stir fry – add chicken, prawns, tofu, Quorn, etc. to loads of different veggies

Egg fried rice– throw in some veggies, add some meat/fish

Pizza – topped with cheese and meat/fish, and veg, what’s not to like?

Cous cous – minimal preparation, quick and easy. Throw in some cooked meat, prawns, cashew nuts, etc.

Sarah Martin-Crake
Sarah Martin-Crake
Sarah's a dietitian and sports nutritionist, with years of clinical experience in the NHS and her Dorset-based private practice. Sarah has a passion for running, swimming, the great outdoors and cheese.

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