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Proper Fueling for Runners

February 22, 2017

Proper Fueling for Runners


Does the food you eat matter when it comes to running?  There are two camps when it comes to diet and athletic performance:  garbage in, garbage out and if the furnace is hot enough, it will burn anything.  Both adages refer to the quality of food consumed, yet they seem to contradict one another.  The truth about the fuel a runner needs is provided.

The foundation of a runner’s diet should be carbohydrates, totaling 55 – 70% of daily caloric intake.  However, the quality of the carbohydrates consumed is important.  For instance, refined simple carbohydrates such as white flour, white rice, and white sugar is far less ideal than whole wheat flour, brown rice, or nutritive sweeteners such as honey or maple syrup.  Whenever possible, choose a complex carbohydrate such as quinoa, teff, barley, amaranth, spelt, sweet potatoes, or lentils in order to maintain stable blood sugar.

Despite what certain fad diets proclaim, fat should be a necessary component of everyone’s meal plan.  However, not all fats are created equal.  Runners should consume a healthy ratio of omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids, ideally in a 4:1 ratio.  However, the American diet is very high in Omega 6 fat, which skews the ratio closer to 15:1.  Sources of omega 3 fatty acids include olive oil, nuts, fish, and flaxseed.  For most runners, 60 - 80 grams of healthy fat per day is recommended.

Protein is essential for muscle growth and repair.  Diets that are inadequate in protein will result in poor recovery and muscle synthesis.  Runners require approximately 0.6 grams of protein per lb of body weight, meaning a 140 lb runner should consume 84 grams of protein per day.  Good sources of lean protein include fish, chicken, tofu, bison, white meat turkey, and pork loin.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I Still Indulge in My Favorite Foods?
Yes.  Eating “clean” all the time is not sustainable.  Many elite runners follow the “90/10” diet, where they eat healthy 90% of the time, while allowing special indulgences here and there. 

Why am I Always Hungry?
Runners often complain of being insatiably hungry on a daily basis.  Often, this problem has less to do with intense calorie burning and more to do with improper meal balance.  In order to squelch hunger, each meal should contain a wholesome carbohydrate, lean protein, and healthy fat.  When these three macronutrient needs are not met, intense hunger is likely.  Additionally, not consuming enough carbohydrates before and during a long run can also lead to ravenous feelings.  Aim to take in 30 – 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour of exercise. 

What if I Can’t Eat Before I Run?
Pre-run fueling is important, especially in the 2 – 3 hours before heading out the door.  However, some runners find they have sensitive stomachs.  Particularly if you plan to run in the morning, it is important to replenish your glycogen stores.  Try drinking carbohydrate-laden sports drinks before your workout.  At the very least, swish a carbohydrate drink in your mouth and then spit it out, which will still provide some energy benefits thanks to carbohydrate receptors found in the mouth. 



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