Nutrition for Runners
“I just felt like running.” – Forrest Gump
Running has many benefits. It is an excellent way to exercise both your cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems.
It can be social if you do it with a friend. It can connect you with nature when you run through a forest or along a body of water. It is a great way to lose weight, and it can even allow you to reach a euphoric state referred to as a “runner’s high”.
Whether you are training for a marathon, or simply jogging on the treadmill for 20 minutes a few nights of the week, it is important to fuel your body appropriately for a run.
Have you ever eaten a specific way before a run? If so, what did you eat? And why did you eat like this?
As athletes, it is especially important that you are fueling your bodies with nutrient dense whole foods that supply you with enough energy to meet your training requirements. Although food can still be enjoyed and treated as an indulgence at times, you will need to take on a bit of a “food is fuel” mentality when you are exercising on a regular basis.
“I just felt like running.” – Forrest Gump
Carbohydrates become the most important macronutrient for fueling our bodies as they break down into glucose, the main source of energy we use for everyday functioning, as well as for exercising.
Essentially, there are good carbs and bad carbs, and obviously you want to consume much more of the good!
If you compare an apple to a piece of white bread, both are considered carbohydrates; however, an apple is a much better choice nutritionally even though it has more calories and more carbohydrates per serving. White bread is made from processed flour which has been refined so much that it barely represents food anymore. It is a quick and easy carb source that provides a surge of energy sent directly to your bloodstream. On the other hand, an apple has vitamins and minerals, is a good source of insoluble fiber, and the natural sugars it contains are released into our bloodstream at a slower rate.
Although an apple isn’t the idea example, it is still considered a more ‘complex carbohydrate’. These carbs take longer for our body to break down into glucose in our bloodstream and provide us with a more sustained energy. Legumes, whole grains, and vegetables such as sweet potatoes, quinoa, wild rice, steel cut oats, squash, and lentils, are excellent sources of complex carbohydrates.
When we eat a carbohydrate, we do not immediately use all of it for energy, and so our body has a system of storing it for later use in the form of glycogen. This is stored primarily in our muscles, which become the gas tank of our body. The better your muscle development (and the more you have), the more glycogen (aka gas) you can store as fuel for later use.
As athletes, it is your goal to maintain your glycogen stores, especially pre and post workout.
Many people wonder how many carbohydrates they should be consuming per day. This is unique for every individual, but if you exercise regularly at a moderate or intense pace for 30-60 minute most days of the week, you should be consuming 5-7 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight per day. So for instance, someone who weighs 160lb (72kg) should aim for about 350-500grams of good carbohydrates per day.
Aim to eat a meal that includes complex carbohydrates at least one full hour before exercise, but ideally you will want to eat 2-3 hours before, and if you have something under an hour, it should be very easy to digest, such as a vegetable/fruit juice blend, raw fruit and/or veg, coconut water or light smoothie.
If you are exercising for longer than an hour, your muscle glycogen concentrations will dwindle, and you will need to replenish with an energy drink that has glucose, as well as some electrolytes. A few sips of coconut water, or a piece of watermelon are great options.
After a workout, you should be eating within 2 hours to restore your glycogen stores.
Combining protein with carbohydrates post workout has been shown to promote glycogen recovery better than consuming carbohydrates alone. Post workout protein also helps to enhance recovery and muscle tissue growth.
It’s also important to consume good sources of fat, as this will act as your secondary source of fuel during aerobic exercise. An excellent source of fat is MCT (medium chain triglyceride) oil from coconuts. The molecules of this fat are actually shorter than most other fats and can be utilized as a source of energy more readily (versus being stored as adipose tissue).
Did you know that the fitter you are, the better your body is at using fat as a fuel source? Our mitochondria are the mini fat burning machines in each of our body’s cells, which become more efficient when we are fit. Avocados, grass-fed butter, nuts, and seeds are other good sources of fat for you to consume as part of a balanced diet.
Despite the fact that you may feel ‘too tired’ to go for a run, you should know that moving your muscles around is actually one of the best ways to naturally increase your energy!
If you are new to running, start out by doing 15-20 minutes a couple times per week, and work your way up. Experienced runners will tell you how amazing you feel when you run on a regular basis and how easy it is to instill in your schedule.
There is no “right” amount of time to run, just do what feels right for your body and lifestyle. Some days you will run for 15 minutes and be done, while other days you will go on a hilly adventure that lasts over an hour. The point is to enjoy what you are doing and feel good about it!
Alex Comrie, B.Comm, Registered Holistic Nutritionist (R.H.N.)
Nutritional Consulting www.realhealthworks.ca