Sports Nutrition 101 for New Runners

nutrition for runners
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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.

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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.

Hydration Guide:

  • 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.

Sports Nutrition Products

Gels, chews, sports drinks, electrolyte tablets, oh my! The sports nutrition market is booming and it can be confusing to figure out if you can benefit from any of these products.

Long-distance runners need carbohydrate and electrolyte replacement during endurance events, so getting a better understanding of your body can indicate whether or not you could benefit.

Gels, chews and most sports drinks provide easily digestible carbohydrates during runs that last longer than 60 minutes. Most runners cannot absorb more than 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour, so it’s important to remember that more is not always better. Overdoing it may land you in the porta potty with an upset stomach.

When adding carbs to the diet on a training run, start slowly by consuming 30 grams per hour, and increase as tolerated to maximize your carbohydrate intake during exercise.

Consuming electrolytes from sports drinks and increasing salt in the diet work great for many athletes; however, some can benefit from higher electrolyte sports drinks and tablets. To map out a hydration plan, first assess fluid losses and get on a schedule of consuming sports drinks and carbohydrates during training before adding high-electrolyte supplements to the diet.

To fine-tune your running nutrition, consult with a sports dietitian that can help you determine what, when and how much sports nutrition products you need to take in during exercise to maximize performance.

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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

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Many runners start running as a means of weight loss, only to find themselves gaining weight in the process. This can happen when a runner overestimates how much he or she is burning and underestimates how much he or she is eating. Sometimes there are feelings of entitlement after a long run like, “I deserve this big stack of pancakes; I just ran 13 miles.” And later that the afternoon, “Yum, an ice cream sundae sounds good; after all I did run 13 miles this morning.”

Weight-Loss Tips for Runners

  • Instead of running to burn calories, think about meals and snacks as a way to fuel your body for your run.
  • Pay attention to hunger and fullness and only eat when you are truly hungry. Learn to stop when you are satisfied instead of full.
  • Focus on weight loss before training for a race. Spend the first 4-8 weeks dropping weight before mileage picks up.
  • Eat 300 to 500 calories fewer per day to lose ½ to 1 pound per week.
  • Balance your plate, and fill up on fiber-rich foods, lean protein and healthy fats.
  • Keep a training and food log.
  • Sleep! Poor sleep can affect metabolism, and lead to weight gain.
  • If you’d like to reward yourself with something delicious after a tough training run, sneak in a nutritious snack first and don’t feel obligated to eat back all of those exercise calories.
  • Stay active even when you’re not running. It’s easy to justify watching a marathon of your favorite TV series after spending an hour or two on your feet running.

Keep in mind that when you are running and training a lot, calories in should match calories out for optimal performance. That’s why it’s best to focus on weight loss in the offseason. If you find yourself gaining weight while training but feel like your diet is balanced, you might actually be gaining muscle and improving glycogen storage (remember, for every ounce of carb stored, three ounces of water is stored), and that’s a good thing!

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