Runners need these food groups in particular
- Carbohydrates to fuel the run: wholegrain pasta, cereal, bread, potatoes, and sweet potatoes
- Protein for muscle strength and recovery: lean protein, eggs, and beans
- Antioxidants to heal faster: berries, mixed greens, kale, and vegetables
- Minerals like potassium found in fruit like bananas to replenish the salts lost
- Fiber and probiotics for stronger immunity: fresh produce, grains, and yogurt
Whether you’re an avid runner or a beginner hoping to rack up the miles, what you eat can help you build stamina, go further, and move faster. Is a banana a better choice before a run or should you opt for a fiber-rich meal of whole grains or veggies? Do proteins work as a post-recovery meal or carbs? Knowing what to eat and when, apart from what food groups go well together, could give you an edge when you run.
To build up the stamina for regular runs, you not only need a disciplined routine but also the right food. Runners burn over 300 calories every half an hour they spend on the track.1 Your diet, therefore, needs to provide the calories to power a run. If you’re doing long runs, carbs could comprise as much as 55 to 65 percent of your diet to keep up the glycogen, a form of glucose used as an energy store, in your body.2
At the same time, it shouldn’t slow you down or make you sluggish. You need to pick the right foods to eat in general. You also need to know which foods to tank up on before or during a run, as well as the all-important recovery food to have after you are done running. Aside from a healthy balanced diet on a regular basis, you also need a higher intake of certain foods pre and post a run.
Remember, when you eat the foods is as important as what you are eating. For instance, nutrient-rich broccoli, a great food in general, is bad to have before running because it is so fiber-rich and takes time to digest. At this point, you should have easily digestible foods like yogurt, milk, or bananas.
When to consume: Before, during, and after a run
Bananas are great almost any time for a runner. With 18.5 to 34.7 gm of carbohydrates, 0.9 to 1.7 gm of protein, and very little fat (0.27 to 0.5 gm), they are an easy-to-digest snack to fuel up on before a run. They are also easy to carry and to eat on the go – and you replenish those glycogen stores while you’re at it! Post workout, they help restore salts and lost through your sweat while you were running. Each fruit has anywhere from 290 to 544 mg of potassium, 18 to 33 mg of phosphorus, 4 to 8 gm of calcium, and 22 to 41 mg of magnesium – all nutrients you need for a solid run!3
2. Orange Or Orange Juice
When to consume: After a run. Drinking it right before a run can cause acid reflux.
Oranges are loaded with vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant that can help relieve sore muscles and fight free radical damage your body experiences after strenuous aerobic exercise.4
If you don’t feel up to eating the fruit, get the nutrients in by whizzing up some freshly squeezed orange juice. A glassful contains 25.79 gm of carbs and plenty of calcium, vitamin C, as well as minerals and salts like potassium and magnesium that your body needs to revive itself post run.5
When to consume: As a part of everyday diet. If you want to have almonds before a run, try almond nut butter on toast.
Almonds are a good addition to your diet in general. Try and have them 3 to 5 times a week. The vitamin E in them acts as an antioxidant which can ease muscle soreness and help with recovery. As research has shown, vitamin E supplementation can help counter oxidative stress and muscle damage experienced as a result of running.6 Plus, they are a heart-healthy food, so why not keep that old ticker happy with a handful on regular days?
They aren’t very easy to digest, so don’t have almonds just before a run. For that, a nut butter on toast goes down easier and gives you the energy boost you need. For other times, toss some almonds into a casserole or stew, or whizz up some nutty almond soup. Have them in your oatmeal at breakfast or scattered over a salad at lunch or dinner. Or just munch on them plain or roasted.
When to consume: A few hours before a run or after the run
Protein is an essential part of the runner’s diet but having too much fat is a no-no as it can add on unwanted weight and slow you down. Chicken is a healthy protein source.7 Half a roasted chicken breast weighing about 86 gm contains 26.68 gm of protein and just 3 gm of fat in it.8
The average protein requirement for people varies between 15 and 25 percent, but it may be as high as 35 percent depending on your body type and routine.9 In general, however, runners require more protein than most people to help with rebuilding muscle and aiding recovery after tough runs. What’s more, the selenium in chicken also helps protect your muscles from free radical damage that occurs when you exercise.10
This versatile, mild flavored meat can be added to soups, stews, casseroles, roasts, salads, or even curries for lunch or dinner on days you’ve been working out. Have it a few hours before you run or as a post-workout meal.
5. Lean Beef
When to consume: after a run or at least 3 hours before a run
Lean beef has the dual benefit of being a good protein source that’s readily available, while also supplying you with zinc and iron. These minerals help keep your body’s immune system strong and aid the production of healthy red blood cells.11 The latter are vital for a runner to enable adequate oxygen supply to the muscles during a run. Not getting enough can leave you feeling fatigued and overly exhausted after training or even result in nausea.12
Have lean beef at main meals as part of your regular diet. You could eat it as a steak, roast off some to eat in wholegrain sandwiches, or even add it to healthy salads for a protein boost. Just don’t eat a lot of meat before you run – it can slow you down as your body tries to digest it. Instead, have the meal at least 3 hours before you run or enjoy a beefy meal post workout.
When to consume: on the morning of the run or after a run
Another excellent protein source, eggs are a popular choice for many reasons. Besides the 6 gm of protein an egg contains, it also has immune-boosting vitamins and minerals like zinc, vitamin A, E, and B. Plus, there’s iron that helps with maintaining healthy red blood cells. An egg also gives you around 6 gm of protein in a form that’s easily digested by your body.13 Omega-3 fat-enhanced eggs have the added benefit of helping fight inflammation from running.14
You could have eggs on the morning of a run to keep you full longer and give you the protein you need. After a run, if you’re especially hungry, an egg sandwich or omelet goes down a treat and helps rebuild muscle.
When to consume: as a part of regular diet and after a run
While on the subject of anti-inflammatory foods, salmon is another delicious way to get those omega-3 fatty acids into your system.15 Research has shown that taking omega-3 supplements on a regular basis could even help fight post-workout soreness. For runners, this could minimize the muscle aches and soreness after a run or training session.16 However, until further studies are done on the wider and long-term impact of taking such supplements, you could give yourself anti-inflammatory benefits through salmon and other fatty fish in your diet.
Salmon lends itself nicely to being eaten plain, in a salad, as a main at meals, or flaked into a topping for toast both before and after workouts. You could have salmon in your meals on a regular basis and also try it for post-workout recovery.
8. Whole Grain Cereals, Bread, And Pasta
When to consume: as part of regular diet, the evening before the run, and in limited quantity on the morning of the run
Sometimes, there is no substitute for good old-fashioned carbs. And for runners that often means grabbing some cereal before a run or some toast or a sandwich to refuel after. Pasta on the eve of a big run is another popular choice. Because runners need a very high level of carbohydrates to be consumed every day, cereals and breads or even pasta become a convenient way to do this.
However, to be smart about it, you should choose whole grain breads, pasta, and cereals over refined carbs that have a lower glycemic index. That way, the energy release is slower and can keep you going for longer, giving you the energy you need in a steady manner over time. Also, the fiber in these grains, not to mention the B vitamins, are good for your overall health, body weight management, gastrointestinal health, and immunity.17
Combine complex carbs and protein for a pre-run meal, like whole grain toast with peanut butter.
Get your whole grains in a simple cereal topped with milk or yogurt, fruits, and nuts for that magic mix of protein meets carbs. Ideal for a pre-run meal! A traditional oatmeal porridge is filling, fiber-rich, and nutritious – without all the additives and sugar that come with processed cereals. Plus, it is a low glycemic index food and can fuel you for longer. In one study by Penn State University, test subjects who had an old-school oatmeal breakfast could exercise for longer than those who had puffed rice cereal for breakfast.18
Alternatively, slap together a couple of slices of wholegrain bread with lean meats like turkey or chicken. If it is pasta you’re gunning for, be sure to avoid rich fatty or buttery sauces. Instead, have an omega-3 fatty acid-rich tuna and tomato sauce. Or a veggie loaded one that gives you lots of antioxidants.
9. Sweet Potatoes
When to consume: after a run
Sweet potatoes are not unlike bananas in the benefits they offer. They are easy to eat, simply roasted, mashed, or sauteed, and are a good source of potassium – about 230 mg in a 100 gm serving. They also give you carbohydrates without as many calories as similar portions of rice; plus, they taste just as delicious combined with a protein main for lunch or dinner recovery meals.
A 100 gm serving of the vegetable, simply boiled up, contains 76 kcal and 17.72 gm of carbs.19 A similar portion of cooked white rice is 130 kcal.20 The vitamin A in them also helps build immunity.21
When to consume: after a run
Kale is an anti-inflammatory food that is rich in antioxidants. It is low calorie too, which means you can dig in without feeling guilty. A cupful amounts to a mere 8 calories and has potassium, which can help restore mineral balance after a run. It also contains antioxidant vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and C, folate, calcium, and phosphorus.22 Kale can even be crisp baked in the oven for when the munchies strike. Kale is just one of many greens that are good for you. You could also consider having salads of mixed greens or soups that incorporate greens – try, for instance, a spinach soup or a baby swiss chard and green pea soup.
11. Cherry Juice
When to consume: for days prior to the run and on the morning of the run
Cherries could help you manage any pain you may experience after a run. According to one study on the effects of tart cherry juice, runners who consumed about 355 ml of the juice twice a day, in the lead-up to as well as on race day, experienced a significantly less pain after their run than those on a placebo. This led the researchers to suggest that the juice could be used to help keep post-run muscle pain to a minimum.23
To benefit from it, you could drink it the days prior to a major run as well as on the actual day of the long run.
12. Low Fat Yogurt/Skim Milk
When to consume: after a run
Research shows muscle tissue repair and muscle glycogen stores are replenished fastest if you consume proteins along with carbs as your post-workout recovery meal. In fact, chocolate-flavored skim milk outshone a recovery supplement in one test.24 This was attributed to the mixture of protein found in milk with the additional carbs from the chocolate. Experts quoted in The Washington Post suggest aiming at getting about 4 gm of carbs for every gm of protein you consume after a workout.25
Low-fat yogurt is another excellent post-run snack option because of the protein content that can help repair muscles. Oomph it up with some granola or fruit for that carb hit.26 The probiotics in the yogurt are also great for your gut and help build immunity.27
|↑1||Calories burned in 30 minutes for people of three different weights.
|↑2||Nutrition Support for Long-distance Running. American Council on Exercise.|
|↑3||Bananas, raw. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 28.|
|↑4, ↑6||Taghiyar, Maryam, Leila Darvishi, Gholamrez Askari, Awat Feizi, Mitra Hariri, Nafiseh Shokri Mashhadi, and Reza Ghiasvand. “The effect of vitamin C and e supplementation on muscle damage and oxidative stress in female athletes: a clinical trial.” International journal of preventive medicine 4, no. Suppl 1 (2013): S16.|
|↑5||Orange juice, raw. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 28.|
|↑7||Food and drinks for sport. National Health Service.|
|↑8||Chicken, broilers or fryers, breast, meat only, cooked, roasted. United States Department of Agriculture, National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 28.|
|↑9||How much protein do you need every day?. Harvard Health Publications.|
|↑10||What is Selenium?.
|↑11||Prasad, Ananda S. “Zinc in human health: effect of zinc on immune cells.” Molecular medicine 14, no. 5-6 (2008): 353.|
|↑12||Brumitt, Jason, Linda McIntosh, and Richard Rutt. “Comprehensive sports medicine treatment of an athlete who runs cross-country and is iron deficient.” North American journal of sports physical therapy: NAJSPT 4, no. 1 (2009): 13.|
|↑13||Nutrients In Eggs. Egg Nutrition Center.|
|↑14, ↑15||Omega-3 fatty acids. University of Maryland Medical Center.|
|↑16||Jouris, Kelly B., Jennifer L. McDaniel, and Edward P. Weiss. “The effect of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on the inflammatory response to eccentric strength exercise.” Journal of sports science & medicine 10, no. 3 (2011): 432.|
|↑17||Jonnalagadda, Satya S., Lisa Harnack, Rui Hai Liu, Nicola McKeown, Chris Seal, Simin Liu, and George C. Fahey. “Putting the whole grain puzzle together: health benefits associated with whole grains—summary of American Society for Nutrition 2010 Satellite Symposium.” The Journal of nutrition 141, no. 5 (2011): 1011S-1022S.|
|↑18||Kirwan, John P., Deanna Cyr-Campbell, Wayne W. Campbell, John Scheiber, and William J. Evans. “Effects of moderate and high glycemic index meals on metabolism and exercise performance.” Metabolism 50, no. 7 (2001): 849-855.|
|↑19||Sweet potato, cooked, boiled, without skin. United States Department of Agriculture, National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 28.|
|↑20||Rice, white, long-grain, regular, enriched, cooked. United States Department of Agriculture, National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 28.|
|↑21||Stephensen, Charles B. “Vitamin A, infection, and immune function.” Annual review of nutrition 21, no. 1 (2001): 167-192.|
|↑22||Foods that fight inflammation. Harvard Health Publications.|
|↑23||Kuehl, Kerry S., Erica T. Perrier, Diane L. Elliot, and James C. Chesnutt. “Efficacy of tart cherry juice in reducing muscle pain during running: a randomized controlled trial.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 7, no. 1 (2010): 17.|
|↑24||Drink of Champions–Chocolate Milk?. Indiana University.|
|↑25||Why you should try chocolate milk after a workout. The Washington Post.|
|↑26||7 Smart Post-Workout Snacks and How to Know When You Really Need One. American Council on Exercise.|
|↑27||Parvez, S., K. A. Malik, S. Ah Kang, and H‐Y. Kim. “Probiotics and their fermented food products are beneficial for health.” Journal of applied microbiology 100, no. 6 (2006): 1171-1185.|