How To Best Fuel For Runs

Let me tell you a little story about my friends Jim and Bob.

Jim and Bob decide to run a 5k together. They go out to eat two hours beforehand. At a local deli, Jim orders a whole grain wrap with chicken, veggies, and avocado. Bob orders a burger and fries. 

Fast forward to when Jim is pacing to hit his fastest time yet. Bob just hopes to make it to the finish line without expelling all his lunch. 

Jim’s meal gave his body the adequate amount of fuel and resources to perform well. Bob’s meal caused his body to devote energy into digesting something it didn’t particularly want, versus energy that could have been used for running. 

The point I hope to get across with the story of Jim and Bob is this: If we want to challenge the physical vehicle that we live in (our bodies), we need to fuel it with premium gas. Just like a car will run crappy on crappy gas, our bodies will perform crappy if we put crap in it. (Yes, I just said “crap” 4 times in one sentence... I feel like I should get a medal!)

What does premium gas look like in terms of nutrition? 

Well, first of all, it’s REAL FOOD. As my favorite coach and author, Dan John, says, “Eat like an adult.” Stop with the sweets and fried food, and pick up some spinach and chicken.

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"Eating like an adult" means eating a healthy mixture of quality carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Read on to learn more about these macronutrients, what they can do for you, where to find the best sources, how much you should eat, and when you should eat them!

Carbohydrates - Boost Your Energy

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Carbohydrates refill our glycogen stores before, during, and/or after a workout. You know the feeling when you quickly get tired (both physically and mentally), and it seems like there is no “gas in the tank”?  Most likely your blood sugar is low. This can be prevented (or replenished) with a sufficient amount of healthy carbs. 

What are healthy carb options?

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Potatoes (preferably sweet potatoes)
  • Beans and legumes
  • Whole grains (whole grain bread, pasta rice, oats, etc)

    Fats - Stay Full Longer

    The “Fat-Free” phase is almost gone, and people are realizing that just because something says it’s free of fat, doesn’t mean it’s healthy.

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    In addition, we are becoming aware that healthy fats can do a lot for us. From balancing our hormones, to relieving depression, to vitamin absorption, to helping us stay full between meals, fats are an essential part of good nutrition.

    What are healthy fat options?

    • Avocados
    • Peanuts, nuts, and nut butters
    • Seeds (flax, hemp, chia)
    • Olives and olive oil
    • Coconut and coconut oil

    Protein - Our Body's Building Blocks

    Protein is used in building and repairing almost every tissue in our body. It boosts our metabolism, synthesizes hormones, and aids our immune system. Plus, similar to fats, it helps keep us full for a longer period of time. (Maybe on that long tempo run?)

    What type of protein helps build us up?

    • Anything that was once living and has been prepared with minimally processed ingredients (no, fried chicken fingers don’t count)

    • Protein powders with limited ingredients and little added sugar or syrups

    • Minimally processed and lower fat yogurt, milk, or cottage cheese with no added sugar

    • Minimally processed tofu or tempeh

    • Minimally processed lentils or beans

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    Water

    I cannot leave you without talking about the substance that makes up about 60% of our body. Consuming water before, during, and after runs will prevent dehydration which can cause a variety of symptoms such as headaches, nausea, dizziness, and low blood pressure. (Not great when you are trying to improve your pace or distance!)

    And beyond water, we need electrolytes. These are minerals such as sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. They are used in every process in our body, but we lose them through urine and sweat. When sweating a lot (such as on really long runs), the lost electrolytes need to be replaced. This can be done with a carbohydrate + electrolyte drink. (Think of your average sports drink like Powerade or Gatorade, but try diluting it with water to avoid some of the the added sugar. Or you can drink lemon water with a bit of salt!)

    Workout Nutrition:

    What should your meal/snack consist of exactly? How long before and after a run should you eat? How much should you eat? 

    Let me start with the first question. Your meal or snack before and after your runs ideally will include a combination of healthy fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. If you are unable to get all three, go for at least the carbs. This will give you the energy boost needed before and during your run, and help replenish glycogen stores after. 

    The second two questions are a bit more difficult to answer because, well... it depends.

    How far are you going? Is it an intense interval run, or an easy walk to run? Do you feel like you need more or less time to digest? Do you get hungry immediately after you finish, or does it take awhile? Do you feel like your energy drains during the run and you need extra fuel?

    All of this will be an experiment on your part, but in general, eat less when you are running less, and eat more when you are running more. 

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    But for those of you that want to get really specific, here you go. . .

    Nutrition + Water Timing Principles:

    For high-intensity runs under 1 hour, or moderate-intensity runs under 2 hours, here are some general guidelines:

    • Eat 1-2 hours before the run (ideally a combination of healthy carbs, fats, and proteins)
    • Drink 2-4 cups of water during activity (0.5-1 liter)
    • Drink 2-4 cups of water after activity (0.5-1 liter)
    • Eat 1-2 hours after the run (ideally a combination of healthy carbs, fats, and proteins)
    • Drink 1-2 cups of water with each meal (0.25-0.5 liter)

    For high-intensity runs longer than 1 hour, or moderate-intensity runs longer than 2 hours, here are some general guidelines:

    • Eat 1-2 hours before the run (ideally a combination of healthy carbs, fats, and proteins)
    • Drink 1-2 cups (0.25-0.5 liters) 30-60 minutes before the run
    • Drink 15g protein + 30-45g carbs + electrolytes in 600 mL of water for every hour during the run
    • Drink another 15g protein + 30-45g carbs + electrolytes in 600 mL after the run
    • Eat 1-2 hours after the run (ideally a combination of healthy carbs, fats, and proteins)
    • Drink 1-2 cups (0.25-0.5 liter) of water at each meal.

    Remember that these are not hard and fast "rules". Ever person, and every body is different. Pay attention, experiment, assess, and modify to make it work for you!

    Final Thoughts:

    The most important thing to remember is this: Eat like an adult. And especially eat like an adult before and after your runs. Save the burger and fries for your rest day ;) 

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    *The information from this article comes directly from Precision Nutrition