Whether you are an amateur runner or an experienced marathoner, your diet is a vital part of running success. Many first-time runners make the mistake of running without the proper fuel and burning themselves out; meanwhile, experienced marathoners focus too much on protein or carbs and forget to include all the necessary components of a well-rounded diet.
Running falls into the category of an aerobic workout, or a type of exercise in which your body uses oxygen combined with blood glucose or body fat to produce energy. Depending on the intensity of your workout, you will need specific types of fuel to perform at your best. At the very least, a runner’s meal plan should include a healthy mix of protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
Whatever your goals might be, changing your diet to suit your body’s needs will benefit you in the long run. Keep reading to learn the ideal components of a runner’s diet, what to eat before and after a run, the best food for runners, and a sample runner’s meal plan.
How To Build A Runner’s Diet
The ideal workout diet for runners in training combines both macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fats) and micronutrients (necessary vitamins and minerals).
According to the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institutes of Medicine (IOM), an adult should be eating 45-65% carbohydrates, 10-35% protein, and 20-35% unsaturated fats. These amounts may differ depending on a person’s resting metabolic rate, daily activity, body composition, and specific training needs. However, a mix of all three is essential for any intense cardio activity.
Protein is essential for muscle growth and repair, post-exercise recovery, and injury prevention. Carbohydrates stimulate the restoration of muscle glycogen, which allows a runner to train harder and optimizes performance. Healthy fats are not as essential as carbohydrates and proteins but are still a good energy source for runners. Your body also gets better at using fat for energy as you begin to increase the intensity of your runs to help you run faster and further.
Your body also needs the micronutrients found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, such as vitamin A, B, C, calcium, potassium, and zinc.
However, even though the percentages are good for reference, that doesn’t necessarily translate to a tangible diet plan.
What To Eat Before Running
A runner’s diet plan includes foods that give the runner a lot of consistent energy, such as carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are in a lot of common foods, including grains (pasta, bread, cereals, and rice), fruits (apples, bananas, melons, oranges), starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, peas), legumes (beans, peas, lentils), and snack foods (cookies, crackers, cakes, candies).
Large, heavy meals are not recommended within an hour of a run since they are hard for the body to digest and impede the runner’s performance. If you are trying to “carbo-load,” make sure you eat a majority of your heavy carbs either the night before or in the morning before your run leaving yourself enough time to digest.
A 2018 study suggests that performance improves when people exercise on a full stomach instead of an empty one. So before you head out to run a few miles, be sure to grab a small snack at least. The best foods to eat right before a run are small, easy-to-digest foods like a piece of fruit, crackers with peanut butter, or a yogurt-fruit smoothie.
What To Eat After Running
After running, your focus should be on recovery and building muscle instead of maintaining energy and improving performance. The best foods for after a run contain a combination of proteins and carbohydrates.
Protein is necessary for muscle growth and recovery. Studies show that eating protein directly after exercising (within an hour or so) supports the muscle-building properties of amino acids.
Carbohydrates are also important post-exercise since you need to replenish the glycogen stores used during your run. You use more glycogen during aerobic exercises like running or swimming than you would during resistance training, so refilling your stores is particularly crucial for an effective recovery.
You will want to eat a combination of carbohydrates and proteins within 45 minutes of your workout since the longer you wait, the less effective your body is at synthesizing the glycogen in carbohydrates. A rice bowl with chicken or pasta with ragu and vegetables will help your body recover from an intense run and begin the process of creating new stores of energy for the future.
Best Foods for Runners
Certain foods are particularly good at supporting your body while training. Most of the foods listed below contain a combination of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, as well as a healthy mix of vitamins and minerals that will optimize performance and improve stamina. Keep reading to learn why these twelve foods are the perfect addition to your running diet plan.
Bananas are a great addition to any runner’s diet because of their effect on energy. This fruit is packed with natural sugars, easily the equivalent of any sports drink, to give you a boost before long runs. They also contain plenty of B6, which helps the body convert carbohydrates, proteins, and fats into usable energy and aids in muscle repair post-workout.
Oats are in energy bars for a reason. They are a good source of protein, complex carbohydrates, and fiber- all necessary parts of a healthy diet. Complex carbohydrates, in particular, ensure a constant release of energy that will last your entire workout since it takes your body longer to break down. However, if you want to add oatmeal to your diet, be sure to eat it at least an hour before your run.
3. Peanut Butter
Peanut butter is arguably the best snack for runners, and therefore a crucial part of any workout diet. Like oats, peanut butter ensures a constant release of energy due to its high protein, fat, and fiber content. The fats in peanut butter are primarily unsaturated fats which support a healthy heart and cholesterol levels. This versatile snack also contains niacin, magnesium, vitamin B6, and zinc. Niacin and vitamin B6 produce energy, magnesium fights inflammation, and zinc synthesizes protein.
Broccoli is a worthy addition to a runner’s diet because of the naturally-occurring flavonoid quercetin. Quercetin is an antioxidant that neutralizes free radicals in the body. While free radicals are a natural result of the body’s metabolic processes, their presence increases a person’s risk of developing certain diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
The quercetin in broccoli reduces inflammation and blood pressure, making it a healthy addition to any diet. Broccoli also contains plenty of calcium to support healthy, strong bones.
5. Plain Yogurt
Plain yogurt is a well-known superfood full of probiotics that support healthy digestion. Yogurt is also the perfect combination of carbohydrates and protein for runners since it provides consistent energy throughout your workout. Consuming yogurt after a workout aids in muscle repair, while potassium replaces lost electrolytes.
Yogurt also contains B12, vitamin D, and plenty of calcium. However, when buying yogurt at the store, you need to be extra wary of added sugars. Make sure you are purchasing plain yogurt and, if you want a little added sweetness, use natural sweeteners like maple and honey to suit your palate.
Dark chocolate is a stimulant with a fascinating effect on our blood pressure. Chocolate is a vasodilator which means that it widens the blood vessels and increases stroke volume. Stroke volume measures the amount of blood pumped with each heartbeat. The more blood pumped through the heart, the quicker oxygen is transported from our lungs to our muscles, improving endurance during aerobic activities.
Since cacao is where most of the benefits come from in chocolate, the best type of chocolate for runners is dark with 80% or more cacao.
Whole Grain Pasta
Whole grain pasta is the holy grail of running foods. Anyone who has ever done a high-intensity cardio event like a marathon knows that “carbo-loading” is the key to improved performance. That’s because carbohydrate-rich foods like pasta, bread, and starchy vegetables supply our bodies with fuel.
During digestion, whole grain pasta breaks down into sugars. These sugars get stored in your liver and muscles as glycogen- your body’s energy source. Your body uses the fuel stored in your muscles during any activity but particularly during events where you are pushing your body to the limits.
Even if you aren’t running a marathon, carbohydrates are a great source of lasting energy. Whole grain pasta also contains fiber and proteins, both of which keep you feeling full longer. Eat a pasta dinner the night before a long run for the best results.
Salmon is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids and protein. Cardio activities like running require a healthy cardiovascular system, and omega-3 fatty acids prevent heart attacks and other heart-related health issues.
The best diet for runners to lose weight would include salmon as a part of their weekly diet. The high protein content keeps you feeling full for longer and speeds up your metabolic rate to help your body burn more fat at rest. Salmon also contains plenty of vitamin B, which helps turn food into energy.
Sweet potatoes, aside from being a satisfactory source of complex carbohydrates, contain both potassium and beta-carotene. Potassium helps regulate hydration, including the body’s fluid and electrolyte levels. Proper hydration keeps our muscles from cramping and keeps our heart pumping steadily.
Our body uses the beta-carotene in sweet potato, an antioxidant that turns this potato orange, to create vitamin A. Vitamin A improves skin and eye health, boosts immunity and reduces inflammation post-exercise.
Runner’s Diet for Beginners
Many people take up running as an easy-to-start form of cardio. After all, you only need a decent pair of shoes and some workout clothes to get started. You can start running without changing your diet, and you will probably still see some fat loss.
However, according to a 2015 study, new runners who also change their diet to support their new running habit lose more fat mass than those who keep their diet the same.
A common mistake that many new runners make is to push their bodies to the limit without proper fuel, especially if their goal is weight loss. But your body needs food to function. If you start exercising too hard without replacing lost calories, you could throw your body into a state of shock. It might respond by holding onto more fat from your diet or begin to affect your stamina and endurance.
Sample Runners Diet Plan
Not ready to start improvising a diet plan on your own? Follow this simple long-distance runner’s diet plan for a week of meals built to optimize your running performance.
Breakfast- Oatmeal with a banana
Lunch- Turkey and cheddar wrap with greens, tomatoes, and mayo
Post-Run Snack- Yogurt and granola
Dinner- Chicken breast with brown rice and squash
Breakfast- English muffin with peanut butter
Lunch- Baked sweet potato mashed with turkey sausage, cheese, a fried egg, scallions
Post-Run Snack- Apple with cheddar cheese
Dinner- Salmon, coconut rice, broccoli
Breakfast- Protein smoothie (banana, spinach, protein powder, peanut butter, nut milk, coffee optional)
Lunch- Leftover salmon, salad greens, cucumber, red pepper, avocado, homemade salad dressing (soy sauce, honey, olive oil, salt, pepper, mustard)
Post-Run Snack- Rice cake with peanut butter
Dinner- Whole grain pasta with shrimp and pesto
Breakfast- Protein pancakes with fruit and maple syrup
Lunch- Grain bowl (quinoa or rice) with chicken, salsa, guacamole, corn, and sour cream
Post-Run Snack- Chocolate milk
Dinner- Turkey burger with cheddar cheese, guacamole, and bacon, side salad
Breakfast- English muffin and two hard-boiled eggs
Lunch- Tuna salad sandwich on whole-grain bread with sweet potato chips
Post-Run Snack- Trail mix with peanuts, cashews, dried cherries, raisins, dark chocolate chips
Dinner- Sweet potato grain bowl
Breakfast- Fruit-yogurt smoothie
Lunch- Spaghetti squash pasta with tomato sauce
Post-Run Snack– Apple with peanut butter
Dinner- Parmesan breaded chicken with brussels sprouts
Breakfast- Potatoes and fried eggs
Lunch- Black bean, chicken burrito bowl with salsa, sour cream, lettuce, cheddar cheese
Post-Run Snack- Pita bread with hummus
Dinner- Lean meat steak with broccolini and mushrooms
Best Workout Diet for Runners
The best diet for runners’ stamina should incorporate healthy, nutrient-dense foods with enough calories to maintain energy and endurance. In general, everyone needs to eat at least 1200 calories per day. For every hour of running, the average person needs 20 calories per pound of body weight. That means a 130-pound person should eat 2,600 extra calories on top of the 1,200 calorie minimum.
The best diet for you is one that supports your unique goals. Experiment with which foods feel best for your body. If you are feeling overwhelmed and unsure of where to begin, be sure to consult with your doctor or fitness coach before making changes to your diet and exercise routine.