Contrary to popular belief regarding nutrition for runners, carbs alone do not cause weight gain, and the right balance of carbs is actually necessary for peak athletic performance. Generally for runners, half of your sports diet should consist of fiber-rich carbs to provide the fuel that you need to get the most out of your workout.
Some other important considerations are keeping fully hydrated before, during and after exercise. Even a 1% loss of hydration can cause performance to suffer. Another consideration is to make sure that your pre-workout meals are consumed well in advance of your workout. Eating too much before a workout can cause lack of energy and strength, while eating too close to the workout can cause digestion problems that can interfere with performance.
Last but not least, runners need to focus on their post-workout routine, which includes refueling with carbs, rebuilding with protein, and rehydrating with electrolyte-rich fluids. The focus should be to eat a high quality protein meal within two hours of the workout for body recovery and rebuilding of muscle.
Runners of all levels can benefit from sports nutrition to improve performance and get the most out of a workout. Eating to run is much different than running to burn calories that you’ve already eaten. Athletes need a special type of energy to sustain long training runs and recover properly. If you’re getting into running and want to learn how to fuel your body properly for this new activity, practice these sports nutrition strategies to feel and run your best.
Carbs: What, When and How Much?
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy while running. While cutting carbs has been popularized in fad diets, carbs do not cause weight gain. Eating too many calories causes weight gain, and it’s easy to go overboard on calories from carbs since most foods (except fats and protein) contain carbs. While carbs are needed for endurance exercise, it’s important to eat the highest quality and the right amount.
Not all carbs are created equal. The best sources of carbohydrates in a balanced diet are fiber-rich because they provide lasting energy and the most nutrition. One-hundred percent whole grains, brown rice, beans, fruit and starchy vegetables are all excellent sources of runner-friendly carbohydrates.
Runners should incorporate a carbohydrate source or two at each meal and snack, not going longer than four hours between meals. While amounts vary depending on calorie needs, it’s recommended that carbohydrates should make up 50 to 65% of the sports diet. To balance carbohydrate intake, eat more carbs during peak training periods when mileage is high, and taper carb intake during periods of lower mileage and in the off-season.
Carbs help with hydration, too. For every ounce of carbs stored in the muscle, the body stores three ounces of water. Because hydration has a direct impact on performance, including carbohydrates in the diet not only provides energy to the working muscles, but also improves performance by aiding in hydration during exercise.
Proper hydration can create a competitive edge by enhancing running performance. Even a slight dehydration of 1 to 2% loss of total body water during exercise can negatively impact performance, so fluid loss should be minimized during training runs and races. To make sense of those recommendations, a 150-pound runner should ideally not lose more than 1.5 to 3 pounds (1-2% of body weight) during exercise. Get a better understanding if you are hydrating correctly by checking your weight before and after training to see if you are losing water weight. Also, check the color of your urine, as it can be a great indicator of hydration status. If it’s a faint yellow to colorless, you are hydrated.
During competition and training that lasts longer than an hour, a sports drink that provides electrolytes and carbohydrates is recommended for hydration. Because a runner can lose anywhere from 500 to 1500mg of sodium per hour, some athletes (especially heavy sweaters) have to be mindful of adding salt to the diet. If you are losing more than 2% of your body weight during exercise, you can likely benefit from adding salt to the diet as well as getting on a hydration plan.
- Consume 20 ounces of fluid two hours before exercise
- Consume 8-10 ounces of fluid 10 minutes before exercise
- During exercise, consume 4-8 ounces every 15-20 minutes to meet hydration needs
- Post exercise, for every pound lost during exercise, consume 24 ounces of fluid
Keep in mind that all fluids (even those from food) can aid in hydration throughout the day. To boost hydration, incorporate salty soups, sports drinks, water, coconut water, milk, fresh fruits and veggies, and fruit smoothies into the diet.
What to Eat Pre-Run
Before a workout, it’s important to feel energized. If you want to be able to give your best effort during training, you need to have the right fuel in the tank. The body doesn’t perform well on empty. The main goal of a pre-run snack or meal is to provide fuel for the muscles, keep blood sugar from dropping, and keep the body from getting hungry during a run.
A common mistake new runners make with pre-workout fuel is timing it right. While you do have to train the gut to accept food before working out, especially if you have a sensitive stomach, it’s also important to eat at the right times. While everyone’s body is different, here is a general guide to follow with meal timing:
- Allow 3-4 hours for a full meal to digest.
- Example: Burrito bowl with brown rice, chicken, lettuce, tomato and guacamole.
- Allow 2-3 hours for a small meal to digest.
- Example: Turkey sandwich and orange slices
- Allow 1-2 hours for a small snack or smoothie to digest.
- Example: Fruit smoothie made with Greek yogurt
- Some people can eat a small snack less than hour before a workout.
- Example: Banana or waffle with peanut butter
For the most part, carbohydrates digest faster than a high-protein and fatty meal. As you get closer to a workout or on a race day, opt for higher-carbohydrate foods.
Also make sure not to overload on fiber before a workout. Most athletes will be just fine eating whole-wheat bread, but beans and cruciferous vegetables tend to be harder to digest. Spicy foods and too much caffeine can also upset the stomach before a workout. Remember, pre-exercise fuel should be a part of a training program and practiced on your long run days instead of waiting until race day.
What to Eat Post-Run
Exercise is known to suppress appetite; while you might not be hungry after a workout, recovery is enhanced when proper fuel is consumed. By eating a balanced post-workout meal or snack, the body will have the building blocks it needs to repair damaged muscles, replace lost energy stores, and recover faster so you won’t be as sore post-workout, and can train harder tomorrow.
Post-workout, remember the 3 R’s for recovery: refuel with carbs, rebuild with protein, and rehydrate with electrolyte-rich fluids. Carbs and protein work together in the post-workout meal to enhance energy “glycogen” stores and stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Fluids with electrolytes like sodium and potassium are needed to replace what’s lost in sweat.
After a long run or tough workout, the body needs fuel within 30 minutes. If you can’t get a full meal within 30 minutes of finishing the workout, have a small carbohydrate rich-snack or fruit smoothie. Then eat a meal with high-quality protein within two hours of the workout to get the most out of your recovery meal. Eating foods rich in antioxidants like fruits and vegetables can help the body recover quicker by reducing muscle soreness and preventing injury.
Post-Workout Snack Ideas:
- Smoothie with fresh fruit and Greek yogurt
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich on 100% whole-grain bread
- 8-12 ounces chocolate milk
Post-Workout Meal Ideas:
- Turkey sandwich with green salad
- Burrito bowl with rice, beans, chicken, lettuce, tomato
- Veggie omelette with toast and fresh fruit
Read the full article at myfitnesspal.com