They always say that you can’t outrun a bad diet, and it’s true. Even if you run enough to burn off all the excess calories that come with an unhealthy, fatty, salty diet, you’ll still suffer negative consequences of eating poorly—like high cholesterol, lack of nutrients, or fatigue.
How Food Affects Your Running
When I first started running, I thought it was a (very painful and uncomfortable) excuse to eat all the unhealthy food I wanted! I figured, “hey, I’m burning off hundreds of calories with every workout, so why shouldn’t I eat this whole pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chubby Hubby?”
That was back when I thought a 5k was an impossible feat. Now that I have a few half-marathons under my belt and know just how crucial food is to training, I stop by the Ben and Jerry aisle a lot less.
You see, when you’re running for more than an hour at a time on a regular basis, you start to see your body as a machine that needs fuel.
And not just any fuel—the good kind, that’s made well from superior ingredients and has everything your machine needs to be strong, fast, and healthy. And even though it took me signing up for a half-marathon to figure it out, you don’t need to wait that long. Whether you’re building up to running a mile without stopping or you have your fifth marathon next weekend, what you eat matters when you run.
But you don’t have to take it from me. Science agrees! Here are some recent headlines about scientific studies and running that show you what I’m talking about:
- Want to Run a Faster 5K? Make Sure You’re Getting Enough Protein
- Can Eating Breakfast Improve Your Performance?
- Why Do Carbs Improve Marathon Runners’ Performance?
- Are You Suffering from An Iron Deficiency? Why Iron is Essential for Runners
- Which Antioxidants Hurt and Which Help? Do Runners Need More Antioxidants In Their Diets?
So clearly, I’m not making this up. New scientific studies are coming out all the time, and they’re showing that what we eat (and even when we eat it!) makes a big difference in our running performance. So whether you’re trying to up your endurance, quicken your pace, or just be healthier, you need to start thinking about what you consume.
What Runners Should (And Shouldn’t) Eat
Everybody’s body and training plan is different. That’s why there’s no one-size-fits-all diet for runners. If there was, everything would be a lot easier and we’d all probably be elite runners. (Sounds nice, doesn’t it?)
But unfortunately, that magical diet plan doesn’t exist. So I can’t tell you the exact foods and amounts to eat and when to get you to your next PR. But I can tell you what kind of foods are going to fuel your body in the best way possible. All you have to do is try them out and see what works best for you.
For example, a lot of runners I know absolutely CANNOT eat before a run. They need to wait hours to digest a banana, or they simply wait until after their run to eat.
On the other hand, I actually prefer to eat before a run and I don’t have to wait to digest before hitting the pavement (within reason—I’m not wolfing down a four course meal before I lace up my sneakers).
My body needs that boost of energy before I run, but many people have sensitive stomachs and can’t even imagine doing what I do. This is exactly what I’m talking about—there’s no magic plan, but you can try to find foods with a lot of nutritional goodness and eat them in the amounts and at the times that work best for you.
What Foods Are Good for Runners?
When you look for foods to eat to fuel your training, keep these three goals in mind:
- Low in fat
- High in carbs
- Enough (but not too much!) protein
If your overall diet hits these three points, your workouts will feel better, your recovery will be quicker, and you’ll be hitting that PR in no time.
What To Eat Before A Run
Before a run, you want to store up some complex carbs that will give you energy throughout your jog. Your pre-run snack or meal should be both easy to digest (no spicy foods, please!) and low on fats like butter and cheese.
Some of my favorite science-backed pre-run foods are:
Yummy, easy to eat, and cheap. What a great snack! They’re high in carbs and will give you that energy boost you need to crush your workout. I like to spread some peanut butter in banana slices for a snack that powers me through the toughest runs.
Oatmeal is a great breakfast before a morning run. It’s got a lot of carbs and fiber, so it keeps you full and energetic.
3. Pasta (or bread)
he best part of a race is the carbo-loading the night before, right? All jokes aside, whole wheat bread or pasta is a great way to fill up your glycerin stores that deplete during a run.
4. Coffee or Tea
I’m a tea drinker, and I really like having a cuppa before I hit the pavement. Numerous studies have shown that caffeine can really improve your performance, making you faster and more powerful on your run. Sign me up!
What To Eat After A Run
After a run, you want to replenish your body with both carbs and protein. How much you eat probably will depend on how much you just ran, but most experts agree that you should eat your recovery meal within 3 hours of your workout.
Your body just used a lot of energy to get you to the finish line, so you have to refuel it. “Carbing up” will replenish your energy, while protein helps muscles rebuild so you come back stronger next time.
After your next run, reach for these:
1. Protein smoothie
After a hot run, I love mixing my protein powder with some greek yogurt, spinach, and frozen fruit to make a tasty, cool treat that fills me up and has plenty of carbs and protein.
Like I said, I put yogurt in my smoothies but sometimes I’ll just eat a cup by itself after a run. It has a huge amount of amino acids, and studies say it speeds up recovery and helps muscles rebuild.
3. Dark Chocolate
I might have broken up with Ben and Jerry, but I still have a sweet tooth. But it’s ok, because dark chocolate lowers blood pressure and cholesterol! Just keep the serving size to one or two squares.
Foods Runners Should Avoid
I’m a big believer in moderation, but there are some foods that you should definitely avoid if you have an important run coming up.
Runners might want to skip:
AKA lentils or beans. The fiber is good, but the tummy distress isn’t. You don’t want to be running for a bathroom during your 5k.
2. Fatty foods
Right before your workout, skip the avocado toast. Fat takes a long time to digest, so it’s not going to give you the quick energy you need.
3. White Sugar
Sugar might give you a quick buzz, but it’s actually just empty calories that boost your energy levels right before the crash. You don’t want to bonk in the middle of your 10 mile run.
So the next time you’re in the grocery store, make sure your cart follows those 3 rules I talked about earlier. Focus on fresh fruits and veggies, lots of protein, and complex carbs and you will definitely see a difference on your next run.