The Best Foods for Runners
For optimal performance, a runner’s diet is key. Choosing the best foods for runners before, during, and after a run can make or break your physical performance and gains. A runner’s diet is not one size fits all, as needs will vary by the individual and activity length. Let’s lay out some dietary guidelines to help you individualize your diet for peak performance, while also giving you some “best foods” to include in your runner’s diet.
Calories are essentially energy, and your body needs ample energy to bust through a run. Insufficient calorie intake will most likely lead to compromised performance and fatigue. A runner’s calorie needs depend on length of activity, intensity of activity, age, gender, and weight. If runners don’t have access to lab instruments to calculate their estimated basal metabolic rate (BMR) they can use the Harris-Benedict Equation to calculate their daily caloric needs. A great website to calculate BMR plus activity to give you your caloric needs on running days is https://exrx.net/Calculators/CalRequire.
Taking in enough calories is essential not only for performance but for your overall health. Not getting enough calories while participating in intense physical activity over time can lead to anemia, bone loss, muscle loss, menstrual dysfunction, injury, compromised immunity, and decreased metabolism.
Carbohydrates are your muscles’ primary fuel source. Without enough, muscles will not function at max capacity. Carbs are required before, during, and after a long run. With the hype of low-carb diets today, many runners are experiencing carb phobia. It’s true you can’t outrun an unhealthy diet, but healthy carbs are, in fact, necessary to improve speed, recovery, and performance during the run. Carbohydrate goals vary by length of activity and the runner’s body weight. See the guidelines below to help you individualize your carb intake:
- 60 minutes of physical activity: 5-7g per kg of body weight (1 kg = 2.2lb)
- 1-3 hours of physical activity 6-10g per kg of body weight
- 4-5 hours of physical activity 10-12g per kg of body weight
It’s just as important to fuel during an endurance run as well as before and after. Glycogen stores (carb stores in muscles used to run) are depleted after 1-2 hours of intense physical activity. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), runners should consume about 30-60g of carbs per hour of exercise. When competing, athletes may want to consume about 90g of carbohydrates per hour for events longer than 2 ½ hours in the form of beverages, gels, and bars. These simple carbs during an event provide immediate energy to keep your muscles moving at their optimal level.
Muscle breakdown will occur during long runs. Protein is essential to help your body rebuild, repair, and balance blood sugars to sustain energy. According to the ACSM, protein needs range from 1.2-1.4 g/kg of body weight (2.2 lbs.=1 kg). Including protein in your pre-run meal will help balance blood sugars to help you sustain energy through the run. This will also make sure adequate amino acids (broken down proteins) are circulating in the body, ready to help with repairs when needed.
Healthy fat intake is essential for prolonged exercise. It provides your body with energy, and because fat takes the longest to digest it will keep you from feeling hungry during your run. That being said, you also don’t want to eat too much fat. Eating too much fat before a run will slow you down because the body will be focusing on digestion. You may also experience acid reflux or vomit. As always, test out your pre-run meals prior to doing an endurance run. High-fat diets are not recommended for runners. Fat intake is recommended to be around 35% of your total calories per day, whether it’s a run day or not. It’s ideal that you focus on plant-based fats from seeds, nuts, and avocado since these also provide the body with phytonutrients and antioxidants that cause an anti-inflammatory effect, helping reduce pain and swelling, and promoting immunity.
To promote a speedy and full recovery, eat soon after your endurance runs. Consuming a balance of both protein and carbohydrates to repair, minimize muscle breakdown, and replenish your losses is ideal. Your immediate post-meal fuel should consist of 15-25g of protein and approximately 1-1.5 g/kg of carbohydrates. Aim to eat something within 30 minutes after your run and 2-4 hours after that, if possible.
Anemia (iron deficiency) is prevalent in runners. Research shows that about 56% of runners are anemic. Iron is a mineral that’s involved in numerous systems in the body, including the immune system and circulatory system. Iron is a major component of hemoglobin, whose main role is to transport oxygen throughout the body, including your working muscles. If a runner notices they become easily fatigued during a workout even with proper fuel, it’s important for them to get checked for anemia by a doctor. Other symptoms of anemia include dizziness, shortness of breath, pale skin, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, and leg cramps. Check out the “best foods” list below for ideas on how to increase iron intake.
Food Ideas for Runners
You are an individual, your running goals are unique to you, and your running fuel is going to be personalized to your needs. Here are some of our favorite pre-run meals and snacks and some of the best foods for runners. See what works best for you! We at Health Warrior believe in not only better health through superfoods, but better runs. We are here to support you with a full line of products that can be used to meet your running needs. Check out these “best food” ideas to piece together the best pre-fuel, run fuel, and post fuel for you.
Think whole grains for pre- and post-run meals. Whole grains provide fiber, which levels out your blood sugar to help you sustain energy and continuously feed your muscles.
These mighty seeds are one of the best foods for runners, whether you’re running or not. Chia seeds contain as much iron in 1 ounce as 3 ounces of red meat, helping runners prevent iron deficiency anemia and keeping them moving. Chia seeds also balance blood sugars for sustained energy and provide significant anti-inflammatory omega-3 and antioxidants to help your body recover from a run.
Great anytime. Bananas are a great source of potassium and carbohydrates to keep muscles moving. Try alone during a run or in a smoothie or chia seed pudding pre- or post-run.
- Smoothie: 1 scoop Health Warrior Superfood Protein Powder, 2 large bananas, 2 dates, 1 Tbsp. chia seed, 1 Tbsp. honey, 1 cup almond milk (sweetened if it’s a run lasting for more than 60 minutes) , 1 cup blueberries, optional ½ tsp salt or to taste and cinnamon
- Chia seed banana split
- Cut in half length wise and drizzle almond butter inside. Top with pieces of Health Warrior Dark Chocolate Chia Seed Bar, raisins or goji berries, and coconut
Tart Cherry Juice
Tart cherry juice provides anthocyanins and high levels of other polyphenols that studies have shown aid in recovery from strenuous bouts of exercise, promote sleep, improve exercise performance, and reduce oxidative damage caused by exercise.
- 10 ounces of Tart Cherry juice pre or post run
- Try: Tart Cherry juice chia seed pudding
- 1 cup tart cherries, frozen.
- 1 cup almond milk Unsweetened if run is <60 minutes, sweetened if >60 minutes
- 1/4 cup of Health Warrior Chia Seeds
- 1/4 cup tart cherry juice
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon.
- Top with cacao nibs or dark chocolate and Health Warrior Dark Chocolate Cherry Chia bar pieces
- In a bowl, combine chia seeds, almond milk, and tart cherry juice. In electronic mixer or food processor combine the rest of the ingredients. Process until smooth, then combine with chia in bowl.
Pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of omega-3. Research shows regular omega-3 intake can help reduce post-workout soreness and aid in recovery. Pumpkin seeds are also an excellent source of iron, helping runners prevent iron deficiency anemia. Just one ounce of these super seeds provides you with a quarter of your daily iron requirements.