When it comes to preparing your body for regular sport and exercise such as running, trial and error is one of the best ways to figure out what foods work for you. Try, fail, learn and repeat. It may seem overwhelming, but a running nutrition plan can become second nature with some practice and planning.
Nutrition for runners is about delivering enough energy to the working muscles (without upsetting the stomach) to allow you to complete your sessions, as well as aiding recovery and developing strength.
The key is to look at your training week and then to tailor your food choices against this. What you eat and drink before, during and after your runs will make a big difference to your performance and the quality of your training and recovery. But knowing where to start, what options are available to you and optimal intake can be tough.
We're here to provide some guidance to help you develop your own running nutrition plan, drawing on energy supplements and store cupboard staples.
It's helpful to have some understanding of the science and key physiological factors that affect endurance, performance and aerobic capacity, to understand the role and importance of having a proper nutrition plan, and how it impacts your performance and overall running experience.
The body's fuel sources
When we run, we use different fuel sources:
- Carbs: Glucose is formed from the breakdown of carbohydrates in your diet and is stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver. However, there is a limit in the amount of glycogen the body can store. We have about 60 to 90 minutes' worth of glycogen stored, depending in part on the intensity at which we are exercising.
- Fat: Stored under the skin and in other areas of the body (larger stock than glycogen).
Protein also has a role to play in the conversion of carbs and fat into the energy currency of the body: the ATP (adenosine triphosphate). It will never be used as a unique or main source to produce it though. Protein is also key post-exercise: protein along with carbohydrate can increase muscle glycogen resynthesis and recovery after exercise (see ‘What to eat or drink after a run’ section).
Before we dive into specifics on the right types of foods and drinks for running, it's important to understand that energy production is both time and intensity related. The predominant source to create ATP will either be fat or carbs (or both) depending on the length and the intensity of the run. Understanding how energy is produced (anaerobically or aerobically) is key to nailing your running nutrition.
During low intensity exercise, the body uses a greater proportion of fat as fuel, a smaller proportion of glucose and fewer calories. During moderate and high intensity exercise the body uses less fat, more glucose and more calories.
Because we have a finite amount of glycogen in our body, we’re not able to sustain high intensity workouts for a long period of time. On the other hand, we have an abundance of fat stored in our body.
From a nutrition point of view, this means we can adopt different nutritional strategies depending on the session planned:
- For easy runs and aerobic training: consume higher fat diet or do fasted sessions.
- For harder sessions: we should prioritise a high carbohydrate diet as higher intensity workouts can only be fuelled by that.
These physiological facts have also an impact on the training approach to running. A lot of runners get to a point during their race or session when the rate of fat metabolism falls dramatically: more commonly known as ‘hitting the wall’. So there are benefits of shifting the pace that can be sustained from fat utilisation: the challenge is to be able to sustain a faster pace while still metabolising fat (and not glycogen). Becoming more efficient at that will improve your ability to sustain a higher pace for longer distances with fewer fluctuations of energy levels.
If you want to know more about the training side of this, we tackle this subject more comprehensively in our article Running training – The benefits of polarised training.
So, you should understand now that in order to extend the time to exhaustion and optimise your performance, you’ll need to fuel and hydrate properly. As explained above, your nutrition requirements will be different depending on the activity and the intensity at which you are training. But what works for you will also depend on your experience and own physiology.
That said, there are three key stages to take into account when fuelling and hydrating for any activity:
What to eat or drink before a run?
The goal is to start your activity with your energy levels at 100% (especially when racing). So, you’ll need to eat and drink accordingly to get enough energy before your training or race. Running on an empty stomach during training can be useful to push your limits, burn fat and so on, but probably isn't the best idea on race day when you need enough energy to perform at goal pace.
Take something that you can digest well (to avoid the dreaded runner’s trots!) and eat it plenty of time in advance to allow your body time to digest.
This is not an exhaustive list, but here's a selection energy products, scientifically engineered for running, to take before your runs:
- Maurten Drink Mix 320: contains 80g’s of carbohydrate (per 500ml of water) and can be used before, during and after running. We would recommend that this is used before a run to increase carbohydrate availability throughout. This would be a perfect way to carb-load the day before a race or hard session.
- Clif Energy Bar: One chocolate chip Clif Bar contains 20g's of carbohydrate and organic ingredients and nutrients equipped to fuel your runs.
Sometimes, there's nothing better to fuel you than something made from scratch!
- A banana
- Toast with peanut butter
If you’re the (happy) owner of a running watch, you can use the calories data from your previous runs to plan your food intake. Knowing how many calories you burnt, can help you decide how many you need to consume before a run.
There's plenty of research to suggest that caffeine can improve running performance and reduce the perception of fatigue during a run.
What to eat or drink during a run?
Your body starts using the glycogen and fat supply, so you'll need to take in food and fluid during your run to extend the time to exhaustion. Do not wait to feel tired or to 'hit the wall' to start fuelling/hydrating. It will already be too late.
As mentioned above, nutrition during training or a race will be relevant for those doing in excess of 60 to 90 minutes’ worth of exercise. The weather conditions and difficulty of the session or race are factors that also come into play.
Mid-run and mid-race snacks
There are a huge variety of running nutrition products on the market, from scientifically engineered options such as energy gels, energy bars, or energy sweets, through to more natural options – all promising to be the next big thing in solving your running nutrition issues. The thing is, just because something works for your friend, doesn’t necessarily mean that it will work for you. You might not like the taste or texture, or find it doesn’t sit well in your stomach. The key piece of advice we can provide is to practice repeatedly with any nutrition, before using it during a race.
This is not an exhaustive list, but here's a selection energy products you can take during your runs:
- Energy gels: Take 2-3 every hour. Try different brands until you find the one that tastes the best or digests the best. Some energy gels are caffeinated. There's plenty of research to suggest that caffeine can improve running performance and reduce the perception of fatigue during a run. Therefore, it's worth trying caffeinated options in accordance with intake guidance.
- Clif Bar Shot Bloks: Take 4-6 bloks every hour.
- Energy bars: Take 1 per hour (eat little but often).
- Sport Beans: Pair these with another product (if you were to only eat beans you’d need 3-4 sachets per hour).
For multi-day events or long distances whole foods such as bananas, fruity flapjacks and sandwiches work well.
Mid-run and mid-race drinks
Fluid is as equally important as fuel. 'All in one' drinks that provide energy, electrolytes and hydration in one neat package are a useful option. But water can be your main source of hydration (you might need to complement by taking something to eat).
For longer runs, you’ll need to watch your electrolytes intake. Drinks with electrolytes are designed to replace the salts lost during exercise through sweating. Salt helps to regulate the concentration of our bodily fluids, which constantly hang in a delicate balance and are necessary for our bodies to carry out key functions. Salt helps our cells to absorb all the vital nutrients they need, and is essential for healthy muscle and nerve activity.
- Maurten Drink Mix 160: it contains 40g’s of carbohydrate (per 500ml of water). Similar to the gels, these are both tasteless but the 160 feels easier to drink than the 320 so should be more suitable for consumption during runs and races. This could be used the morning of race to increase carbohydrate availability and hydration as well.
- Tailwind: Tailwind has been designed to simplify your nutrition, by providing energy, electrolytes, and hydration in a simple drink with clean, light flavours. It removes the need for multiple energy supplements (i.e. a combination of gels, bars, drinks etc.) and makes keeping track of your fuel and calorie intake easier. Each stick pack contains 200 calories. Mix contents with approx. 500ml of cool, clean water, give it a shake or two, and go!
- Active Root: A natural (vegan friendly and gluten free) sports drink designed to help keep athlete’s stomachs settled and balanced during exercise, harnessing the power of root ginger to prevent carb bloating and nausea. This product comes in 35g individual sachets (or a 6 sachet variety pack) which easily dissolve in a 500ml water bottle or flask.
What to eat or drink after a run?
Protein intake improves muscle glycogen resynthesis and recovery after exercise. It stimulates an insulin release which promotes better carbohydrate absorption.
Immediately after exercise you have 15-20 minute window where the body will absorb any nutrients you eat/drink more rapidly. Consume your recovery snack, meal or drink in this window and then again after 90 minutes, and your body will repair damaged muscle fibres and top up your energy reserves again.
It’s advisable to eat or drink something in a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein. Studies have also shown that consuming a certain amount of caffeine with carbohydrates could boost the body’s carbohydrate absorption, enhancing athletes’ glycogen recovery.
Again, this is not an exhaustive list, but here's a selection energy products you can take after your runs:
- Clif Builders Bar: contains 20g's of protein to aid in the growth and maintenance of muscle mass.
- SIS Protein Bar: contains 20g's of protein and will help you refuel and recover after your runs.
Otherwise, raid the cupboards for a nutritious and delicious post-run treat such as:
- A bagel with peanut butter and banana
- Fruit salad
- Homemade mixed berry smoothie
It may take time before you feel ready to stomach food after running, so a drink can slip down much easier.
We hope this guidance helps you develop a running nutrition plan that works for you!