What Is the Best Diet for Runners? A Researched Answer

Last Updated: June 1, 2022

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Diet is important for all runners, whether beginners or experts. It provides you with proper nutrition and acts as a source of running fuel. As such, the choice of diet you go with might be the difference between achieving your running goals or not.

The best diet will comprise the right foods to boost your performance. In addition, it will provide you with the necessary nutrients to reduce the risk of illnesses and, risk of injuries while helping the body recover faster. Let’s have a look at the best diet for runners and the types of food to eat.

Most Essential Macronutrients for Runners

The most important foods in a runner’s meal are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Below, we look at their sources, benefits to a runner’s body, and the amounts one should consume.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates, also known as carbs or saccharides, happen to be the most significant source of energy for the body. They form a crucial part of high-intensity training activities diets such as running.

The liver and body muscles store carbohydrates in the form of glycogen. For a runner, your body needs constant carbohydrates nourishment as the ones in storage are few, and they get used so fast. Carbohydrates are critical to runners because besides providing energy, they also help strengthen the immune system, aid muscles build-up, and help in body recovery. 

They come in two types; simple and complex. Both break down into a form of sugar known as glucose that fuels the body, but the difference is in long the body takes to process them.

  1. Simple Carbohydrates

It is best to consume simple carbohydrates before and after running. The body digests this type of carbohydrates faster, and thus act as a quick soure of energy. They replenish the glycogen stores faster, making them a good choice for consumption before the run and recovery right after running.

Simple carbs include cereal, oatmeal, pasta, white rice, potatoes, white bread, bananas, and dried fruit. 

  1. Complex Carbohydrates

On the other hand, complex carbohydrates give the body smoother but longer-lasting energy. Because they take longer to digest, they are best for diets in between running sessions. 

Besides giving you a fuller stomach and energy to keep you going before your next running session, they also promote your gut health. Since digestion takes longer, don’t eat complex carbs right before running because it can lead to stomach or intestinal problems during training.

Complex carbohydrates include brown rice, berries, oats, legumes, sweet potatoes, whole grain pasta, root vegetables, and crispbread.

Benefits of Carbohydrates to Runners

Carbs are essential to runners and all human beings. They are the primary source of fuel for the body. Running is intense, and it requires more power than normal body activities such as walking, sitting, or sleeping. Carbohydrates provide this fuel to the body in the form of glucose. The body sends the extra glucose in the bloodstream from the food you consume to muscles and the liver for storage in the form of glycogen.

When you start running, the body gets glucose energy from the blood to keep the body moving. As these glucose levels in the blood drop, your body will begin converting the glycogen into glucose to keep the body going. This process is known as glycogenolysis.

During long runs, the body utilizes more glucose. It requires an immediate source of extra energy to keep going. This energy helps in delaying fatigue, fat metabolism and promoting recovery. The body fuel also helps convert fat into glucose faster. So carbs, during intense runs, help runners burn fat, thus enabling those looking to lose weight via running to achieve their goals.

Daily Carbohydrates Intake Recommendation for Runners

Carbohydrates form part of the best diet for runners. A carbs-rich diet is important, but how much is enough? Well, there is no direct answer for this. The amount of carbohydrates a runner needs to consume depends on their body weight, the intensity of the runs or workouts, and the training volume.

In order to ensure that you get sufficient amounts of carbs, a general rule is having 25% of your plate comprise carbs during your rest days or when your runs are lighter. During your running season or intense training, ensure that the plate has about 50 % carbs. 

Proteins

Proteins are also known as the body’s building blocks. Most people know meat as the source of this macronutrient, but the plant and dairy products are also reliable sources of proteins.

When you eat proteins, the body breaks them down into amino acids. These amino acids are critical in helping the body recover from running-related injuries and damage to the muscles when exercising.

Benefits of Proteins to Runners

One of the main benefits of protein for runners is that it is a vital source of recovery for the body. During running and running-related workouts, the body muscles often sustain micro-tears. A diet rich in proteins helps the body to recover faster, and the result is that you develop even stronger, more built muscles.

Proteins also aid in producing red blood cells, which transport oxygen in your body. The body requires more oxygen when running because of increased metabolic rate. By helping the body produce more cells that help transport oxygen, having enough proteins in a runner’s diet keep the body’s oxygen level at the current demand.

Other benefits of proteins in the runner’s diet include preventing injuries and aiding general body recovery. 

Daily Protein Intake Recommendation for Runners

Runners do not need as many proteins in their diet as bodybuilders do. However, it is still a vital component of what a runner feeds the body. Like carbohydrates, the amount of proteins you need as a runner depends on your individual needs. To determine this, pay attention to your body size and the type and intensity of your training. 

In general, the amount of protein you need to eat as a low-activity runner or during the off-season should not fall below 0.8 g for each pound of your body weight. This recommendation is ideal for people whose level of training is not intense. 

Considering the level of workouts intensity, regular runners need more proteins than occasional, low-activity ones. For this category, the protein intake recommendation is 1 g for each pound of body weight.

Runners who train for marathons or engage in intense workouts will be subject to more muscle tears. Their protein needs for muscle recovery and growth are much higher. If you are an intense runner, you should consume about 1.2 g of proteins for every pound of your body weight. The additional 0.2 g for each bodyweight pound will compensate for the higher recovery needs. 

Fats

Most people view fat as a bad thing to have in the body. However, it is still important only to consume it in moderation because high-fat diets expose you to a higher risk of illnesses such as stroke, certain cancers, and heart diseases.

Sources of fat include dietary fat and that which is already in storage in the body. Dietary fat needs first to be broken down into fatty acids, among other components before the muscles can utilize it. As such, dietary fat is less reliable compared to carbs, especially in intense workouts.

On the other hand, stored fat is present in all body shapes, including skinny people. It is more available and more reliable.

The best diet for a runner should include fat sources such as red meat, butter, coconut oil, fish, avocados, seeds, olive oil, nuts, and chicken with skin, among other sources.

Benefits of Fat to Runners

Fat is another source of energy in the body. The body uses fat to fuel endurance activities such as long-distance running. Its breakdown for energy supply takes longer, so the body does not use it as an immediate energy source. It acts as an ideal backup source of energy when the body depletes the one from carbs.

In addition, dietary fats help the body absorb vitamins. It also promotes nerve function, healthy joints, and hormone production. 

Daily Fat Intake Recommendation for Runners

Expert recommend that one should have 20 – 35% of daily calorie intake from fats. It should mainly come from unsaturated fats. Beyond this, there is no specific fat intake recommendation.

We have seen what the best diet for runners needs to include. These macronutrients form a vital part of a successful runner’s meals because of their benefits towards fuelling the body, recovery, injury prevention, among other vital aspects of highly intense training activities such as running.

Runner who would like to burn excess body fat and reduce weight should be wary of their fat and calories intake. That’s where some dietary trends such as intermittent fasting comes in. But the big question rings:  

Is Intermittent Fasting Good For A Runner?

This dietary plan involves feeding in two parts; fasting and eating periods. The ratio of hours between the two often differs depending on the individual’s preference and specific goals.

The answer to whether or not intermittent fasting is suitable for a runner is not a direct yes or no. First, review your workout schedule, the intensity of the workouts, and your overall body response.

Going by the nature of most intermittent fasting schedules, running in the morning during intermittent fasting means that you are subjecting the body to intense activities when it is in a fasting state. On the other hand, running in the evening might mean that you are running, exposing the body to extra fatigue when it is already tired.

Intermittent fasting is more suitable if you run in the afternoon. By this time, you have already eaten, and the body has the energy to push you through the training. However, running in the afternoon has challenges, such as extreme heat and finding time amidst a busy challenge.

Ultimately, you will need to weigh the benefits of intermittent fasting and having to run in the afternoon. Don’t incorporate this dietary plan in your schedule if you are in a high activity season or preparing for a race.

What To Eat Before, During, and After Running

Part of what makes the best diet for runners is knowing what and how much to eat and when to eat these crucial items. It would be best to balance between eating enough for the workout and not overeating or eating foods that can upset the stomach during training. Let’s have a look at what you should eat before, during, and after your runs.

Before Running

The meal before running needs to be easily digestible. If you intend to run longer or train more intensely, you should consume more carbohydrates to meet your energy requirements. Moderate amounts of proteins are ideal, while fats should be minimal.

If you have about three or more hours before running, you can eat complex carbs and lean protein. Doing so ensures that you get enough fuel, and the stomach will be empty by the start of the training. However, if you only have less than an hour, it’s best to snack on tiny carbohydrate-rich foods such as bananas or milk, yogurt, a bowl of cereal, or peanut butter.

During Running

Eating during running is not a mandatory requirement. However, during long-distance marathons, runners like to replenish their energy by feeding during the race. In such a case, consume an average of 45 g of carbohydrates every hour. 

After Running

Post-run food plays a crucial role in effective and quick recovery. The amounts of food you eat depend on your body weight and how intense your workouts are. 

After running, your diet should be high in carbohydrates to replenish the glycogen stores utilized. In addition, it should have high protein content to help the body recover, especially the muscles torn during training. 

Conclusion

What one eats plays a significant role in their overall health and how well they execute their day-to-day activities. Running is a highly intense exercise, and the best diet for a runner should support quick recovery and provide them with high energy levels. In addition, it should aid muscles growth and the production of red blood cells for oxygen transport.

This diet is high in carbohydrates, moderate on proteins, and has fat components in moderate amounts. Combining these three macronutrients and their corresponding ratios will go a long way in aiding you as a runner to achieve your goals.

Remember to customize the amounts as per your body weight and the intensity of your activities. We trust that this has answered your question on what makes the best diet for runners.

Just starting out with running? Check out our post on choosing your first pair of running shoes as a beginner. If you’re already tracking your calories and macronutrients, it might be a good idea to track your runs as well. We cover the basics of a GPS running watch in this article if you’re interested in seeing if one could be of use to you.

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