How to Feed a Runner

For runners, food is more than simple nutrition — food is fuel. What and when should you eat before, during and after your runs? What should you drink and how much? When you are training for a long race — 10K or more — you are going to have to change how you eat; we’ll show you how to make those changes.

Three Simple Food Rules

If you are starting to train for a long-distance race, these tips should help guide your eating habits.

1. Eat More

During marathon training you are burning many more calories than you were before, and you need to replace them. First, use this calculator to help you get an idea of how much you are burning. Keep in mind, however, that your calorie burn will depend on your gender, size and the intensity of your workout. Then replace those calories with nutrient-rich food — the rest of this guide will show you how. 

Looking to lose weight? It may surprise you, but long-distance running is not an effective weight-loss plan. One mile of running burns about 100 calories, but that doesn’t mean you’ll lose a pound for every 35 miles you log. Many studies show that running increases appetites, especially in new runners. The body seems to want to maintain its weight homeostasis and will pump out hormones that prompt runners to want to eat. If you are not trying to lose weight, by all means respond to those signals by eating more, but if you wish to lose weight, you have to be aware of how many calories you burn and how many you consume.

One tip? Running on an empty stomach pushes the body to use your fat stores as fuel and can help to fight weight gain.

If you do find the scale creeping higher as you train, watch your calorie intake and make sure to read rule #2.

2. Fight the Hunger

You will feel hungry when you are training for a marathon, a feeling commonly called “runger” within running circles. However, if you feel hungry all the time, it’s time for a dietary change to make sure you can go longer without feeling hungry between meals.

If hunger is an issue, ask yourself these questions:

• Are you getting enough protein? Carbs have long been seen as the holy grail to fast running, but protein is important because it stabilizes your blood sugar and helps you feel fuller longer.

• Are you eating enough before a run? Running on an empty stomach can often lead to sluggish workouts and clawing hunger later in the day.

• Are you eating often enough? If you are hungry after eating three meals, try spacing out the same amount of food into five smaller portions instead. The steadier input of food will help your body maintain stable blood sugar levels and stave off hunger. Also, have a variety of healthy snacks on hand so you don’t turn to calorie-laden food when you are hungry. Think a handful of nuts, a cup of applesauce or a banana.

3. Try and Try Again

Sure, food is fuel, but we’re not built on an assembly line. Your months spent training for a race are there to help you develop your form, your endurance and also your optimal diet. Throughout your training, try eating different types of foods and alter their timing little by little to see what works best. Then use that combination on race day.

Most runners can figure out their ideal diet through trial and error “but with guidance, the time from trial and error to success can be greatly decreased,” says Lauren Antonucci, a registered dietitian.

Let’s start by taking a look at how our bodies uses different types of food. 

The Runner’s Food Pyramid

The basic food groups take on a whole new meaning when you are a runner.

Food as Fuel

Just as gasoline powers a car, food powers your runs. The right kind of fuel will help your engine run strong as you log your miles. The wrong fuel can hold you back, either through slower times or digestive distress.

Let’s take a moment to understand what’s going on under the hood. Muscle cells have two primary sources of fuel: sugar and fat. Those raw materials can come from the food we eat or from storage within our own bodies.

Dietary carbohydrates are broken down into simple glucose, a form of sugar, which circulates in the bloodstream and powers your cells. The glucose that is not immediately needed is stored as glycogen, another form of sugar, in the muscles and liver. As you run, the body first pulls sugar from your bloodstream and then taps into the stored glycogen as glucose levels start to dip.

The other raw material that fuels your muscles, fat, is used during endurance exercise. Dietary fat must be broken down into fatty acids and other components before it can be used by the muscles, making it less immediately available than carbs and less efficient as a fuel, especially during intense exercise.

Stored body fat, on the other hand, is an excellent fuel source because everyone — even the skinniest of runners — has so much of it. In fact, one of the best changes that happens to your body as you run regularly is that you become better able to use fat as fuel.


What they do: Carbs are “jet fuel for muscles,” says Dr. Jackie Buell, assistant professor of sports nutrition at the Wexner Medical Center at the Ohio State University. Your body breaks down carbohydrates to make glucose that is burned in order to move you forward.

Why you need it: While you’re running, carbs provide you with immediate energy. That’s why sports drinks and pre-packaged fuels like goos and gels are full of easy-to-digest carbohydrates, mostly sugar. 

However, Dr. Zhaoping Li, professor of medicine and director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, says that sports products shouldn’t be your only source of carbs, because if you consume too many carbs at one time, your body can’t absorb them all. Instead, your body will convert those carbs into fat. That’s why runners training for long distances should also take in complex carbohydrates, such as pasta, oatmeal and potatoes, in addition to simple carbs like sugars.

How much is enough: Endurance athletes should try to get 60 to 65 percent of their calories from carbohydrates, says Dr. Buell (and if you’re wondering about running on a low carb, high fat diet — we’ll get to that later).

When to eat it: Before a race, go for the “more digestible, quick sources of carbs for energy,” says Elyse Kopecky, a chef and co-author of “Run Fast. Eat Slow.”, which she wrote along with the Olympic marathoner Shalane Flanagan. Think sugar; this is not the time for whole grain or fiber-enriched foods because they’ll sit in your stomach, which means they won’t get used like they should, and could lead to a race to the Port-a-Potty. That’s why instant oatmeal is better before a race instead of steel cut oats.

Where to find: Complex carbs: Pasta, bread, pretzels, cereals and dairy. Simple sugars: Fruit, sports drinks, goos and gels.


What it does: Stored body fat is an important source of energy for endurance exercise. Dietary fat helps your body absorb vitamins.

Why you need it: Fat is not the enemy. Your body, especially when it’s running long distances, needs a backup source of fuel when you’re depleted of carbs. Fats also help you feel full, says Ms. Kopecky. Processed foods that strip out fat typically replace them with things like sugar, which leave you hungry for more.

When to eat it: Anytime, though because dietary fats are not quickly converted into fuel, a fat-rich meal isn’t a great idea right before a run.

Where to find it: Eat a mix of fats: saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated. Saturated fats are found in butter, red meat, dark meat chicken with the skin, coconut oil. Polyunsaturated fats are found in seeds, avocado and fish. Monounsaturated fats are found in olive oil, avocados and some nuts.


What it does: Protein is not a fuel source, but instead it is a muscle builder or — in the case of runners — a muscle re-builder, re-shaper and re-conditioner.

Why you need it: As you run, you break down muscle. Protein helps your body build that muscle back in the way you need it to keep running, says Dr. Li.

How much is enough: Women should consume three ounces (20-25 grams) of protein with each meal as part of a three-meal-a-day diet, says Dr. Li. For men, four to five ounces (25-30 grams) of protein per meal should be enough. For reference, three ounces of chicken, tofu or meat is about the size of a deck of cards.

When to eat it: Runners should also aim to consume protein within 20 minutes after a workout, says Dr Li. Protein prolongs the period of increased insulin levels after a workout, which helps your body direct glycogen back into muscles and recover.

Where to find it: Fish, chicken, beef, beans, pork, dairy, eggs, quinoa, soy, barley, protein powder (such as whey powder).

Fruits & Vegetables

What it does: Fruits and vegetables are other forms of carbohydrates. They contain vitamins and minerals, while also having antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.

Why you need it: The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties in fruits and vegetables seem to help ease muscle soreness and limit injuries, says Dr. Li.

When to eat it: Anytime. But if you’ve had GI distress while running and/or in long races, try to limit raw fruits and vegetables 24-48 hours before a long run. (Cooked may work better for you.)

Good sources: All fresh fruits and vegetables are good, but if you’re looking to narrow it down and eat those that pack the most anti-inflammatory punch, pick berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries), stone fruits (peaches, plums, cherries), and a rainbow of vegetables (kale, sweet potatoes, red bell peppers.)

Or try some delicious beetroot juice. In one study, cyclists who ingested half a liter of beetroot juice before a 2.5-mile or a 10-mile time trial were almost 3 percent faster than when they rode unjuiced. They also produced more power with each pedal stroke.

Time Your Food

When you eat often matters just as much as what you eat.

Before a Run

For short runs under an hour in length, don’t worry too much about what you eat beforehand, especially if you’ll be running at a moderate pace, says Ms. Antonucci.

For long runs, studies have shown that eating easily digestible carbohydrates in the hour before exercise generally enables athletes to work out longer. If they cause you gastrointestinal distress, limit foods that are high in fiber, especially cereals with added fiber, in the 24 to 48 hours before a run more than an hour in length.

Running can exacerbate any digestive problems you already have, so if you have gastrointestinal distress even when you aren’t running, see a doctor, says Ms. Antonucci. During prolonged physical exertion — runs more than an hour in length — blood is directed away from the digestive tract, making digestion even harder for the body.

If you are training for a marathon, plan at least one long training run at the same time as the marathon’s start time. This will allow you time to figure out when and what to eat on race day. The New York City Marathon, for example, has a notoriously late start time, with some runners not crossing the starting line until after 11 a.m. Making matters worse, the New York City Marathon also always corresponds with the end of daylight saving time — meaning that participants are starting their race when it’s almost time for lunch. If you are running this race, you will most likely need to eat a larger breakfast or pack more snacks than you would for a race with a 9 a.m. start.

During a Run

When you are planning a run shorter than 45 minutes in length, a bottle of water should be all you need. You likely don’t need to bring any food with you because your body should be equipped with enough glycogen to sustain you for that length of a run. However, if you are planning a longer run, you should bring some nutrition along the way: carbohydrates and fluids. Most sports drinks have both.

You can also carry pre-packaged sports gels or energy chews for your long-run carbohydrate intake. These products are almost all simple carbohydrates, making them easy to digest, and they’re explicitly designed to be easily carried in a pouch or pocket. If you prefer a more natural fuel source, try a banana. Whatever you do, drink a lot of water when you use solid food as your fuel source to help your body absorb it quickly, says Ms. Antonucci.

If you are new to fueling during a long run, try this: Eat and drink something every four miles (or more often if the course is difficult and hilly). If this leaves you feeling sapped, sick or both, try eating more often or try to eat a little more each time.

On race day, bring the drink, sports gels and food you found work best. Races may not offer exactly what you prefer, and they often use powder-based mixes for sports drinks that may be watered down.

After a Run

What you eat after a short run doesn’t matter much, but after an intense or long run, eat immediately. As we explained earlier, insulin levels are high after intense exercise to deliver glycogen back to muscle cells. Consuming carbohydrates immediately after a strenuous workout, at a level of at least one gram per kilogram of body weight, is therefore essential to restoring the glycogen you’ve burned and help your muscles recover. Wait even a few hours to eat and your ability to replenish that fuel drops by half. It’s also crucial that you take in some protein because it helps keep insulin levels high, allowing your muscles more time to recover.

One of the best post-workout snacks? Chocolate milk. But you can also try whole-fat yogurt and fruit, a smoothie or a peanut butter and banana sandwich.

After your post-workout snack, hop into the shower and cool off. But try to eat a real meal within two hours while your body is still working to recover itself.

Staying Hydrated

Drink to thirst. Don’t overdo it.


Many runners are concerned that they are not drinking enough water. The best tip for staying hydrated during a run? Drink when you are thirsty. You can carry a regular-size water bottle in one hand when you run or you can plan a route around a few water fountains.  

Drink Up

Concerned you are not drinking enough? Check your sweat rate. Weigh yourself before and after a long run and calculate the difference to determine how much weight you lost in fluid. Then, make sure to take in that many ounces of fluids during the next run.

As the weather changes, so too does your sweat rate, so adjust your fluids appropriately as the weather gets hotter or cooler.

Quick tip: If you didn’t pee during your long run, you should feel the need to use the bathroom within the first 30 minutes after finishing, says Ms. Antonucci. If you haven’t, you may be dehydrated and should drink more during your runs. 

Too Much Water

You can drink too much. Hyponatremia occurs when someone consumes so much fluid that his or her body can’t rid itself of the surplus through sweating or urination. As a result, water levels rise in the bloodstream and sodium levels, diluted, fall. Osmosis then draws water from the blood into the surrounding cells of the body to equalize sodium levels there, and those cells begin to swell like water balloons. If this process occurs in the brain, it can be lethal.

Don’t gulp down bottles of water before a run, thinking it will prevent you from getting thirsty. Drinking excessive amounts of fluid will not prevent you from cramping or prevent heat-related illnesses — those ailments generally stem from simply pushing yourself too hard. Drink when your body feels thirsty, and don’t overdo it. 

Common Food Myths

Here’s the truth behind common beliefs about food and running.

Myth: You will lose weight when you run.

Fact: Running is not an ideal weight-loss strategy. In fact, weight gain is common for people who have just started to run. Running will cause your body to release hormones that will increase your appetite because your body is craving fuel.

If you are concerned about weight gain, or are trying to lose weight by running, keep an eye on your scale. If you see your weight tipping higher, keep track of the calories you are eating in comparison to those you burn during your runs. Though it’s tempting, don’t start overeating just because you are exercising more.

Stick with three meals filled with protein and carbohydrates spaced throughout the day. Don’t skip meals, it will leave you starving at night and may cause you to overeat.

If you find yourself hungry between meals, have small, nutritious snacks on hand to stave off cravings — some chocolate-covered nuts, an apple or a few carrots.

Myth: Carb-loading is essential before a race.

Fact: Carb-loading — eating a meal heavy in pasta and bread — is so engrained in running culture that a lot of races will organize pasta dinners the night before the big event. Carb-loading is based on a reasonable assumption: carbs provide power, and you need power during a race. However, eating too many carbs will cause weight gain because when muscles pack in glycogen, they also add water — and therefore weight, giving you more to carry around on your race.

The scientifically proven way to use carbs to help your performance is to eat a lot of them a full day before a race. Carbs eaten days earlier or for breakfast before a race do not seem to impact performance.

Myth: Low-carb, high-fat diets are a proven way to improve performance.

Fact: Recently, serious runners have begun to try fueling with a low-carb and high-fat diet. This approach forces the body to use fat as its fuel source instead of glycogen (which is the fuel created from carbs). We have more fat stores in our body than glycogen, so the theory goes that with this diet you can run further without needing to restore your fuel supply. This eating plan caught on first with the ultramarathon community and is trickling down to shorter races.

One study of serious athletes showed that exercising strenuously in the afternoon, depriving yourself of carbohydrates afterward, training gently the next morning and then swallowing a mound of pancakes might be a useful way to improve endurance and performance. But there is scant science showing that this type of diet enhances performance in the average athlete.

Myth: You can’t run and be vegan.

Fact: Scott Jurek, who has won the Spartathlon, Hardrock 100, Badwater 135 and Western States 100 and once held the Appalachian Trail thru-hike record, is a vegan ultrarunner, so it certainly can be done. It takes planning and food know-how to be sure you are getting enough vitamins and minerals to perform well.

“You do have to be diligent about protein intake if you’re vegan,” says Nancy Clark, a sports nutrition expert in Massachusetts. “You can’t eat a quarter of that cake of tofu. You need to eat the whole thing. It’s not that there aren’t good sources of vegan protein. But it’s not as bioavailable as meat. So you need to have more.”

To replace the protein in three ounces of chicken, for example, you should eat one and a third cups of black beans or one and a half cups of chickpeas.

The other concern for vegan (and vegetarian) athletes is the consumption of vitamin B12, which is found in animal products.

“B12 is important for endurance athletes, since it affects red blood cell production,” says David C. Nieman, a professor of health and exercise science at Appalachian State University. Another potential problem: iron.

Some of these nutrients can be added to a vegan diet through the foods we talk about below, but if you’re not performing how you want to on a vegan — or vegetarian diet — you may want to have your B12 and iron levels tested to see if a supplement can help – but don’t just start popping iron pills because you feel sluggish because you could overdo it.

Make sure you incorporate soy, nuts, seeds, legumes and to increase your intake of protein. Fortified cereals and soy milk can also contain protein, B12 and iron.

Myth: You need prepackaged energy products to run.

Fact: If goos, gels and sports drinks turn your stomach, you prefer less-processed products or even if you just want to save money, you can make your own fuel. It’ll take some testing and culinary skills, but it’s possible (and the only option people had before running fuel became big business).

Nature has made it’s own energy foods in the form of raisins, dates or dried cherries. You can make your own sports drink with water, salt and sugar or create your own energy gels by puréeing and combining things like bananas, honey, peanut butter, lemon juice, agave nectar, coconut water and salt. Below, we provide you with two recipes to get you started.

Make it Yourself

Make Your Own Sports Drink

Courtesy of Rocket Fuel, here’s a homemade alternative to your regular sports drink — a little lighter and a lot more natural. The combination of sugar and salt is important because the glucose accelerates the body’s uptake of the solution, speeding rehydration.

2 cups (480 ml) water or coconut water
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
4 teaspoons honey or white granulated sugar
1 large slice lemon or lime

Mix all the ingredients together well, pour into water bottles and keep chilled until you are ready to go.

Try other flavors: add 1 tablespoon fresh mint, half a cup fresh berries, or half of an orange.

Make Your Own Energy Shots

Try one of these economical, fruity energy shots from The Athlete’s Fix instead of a packaged gel.

These energy shots are best chased with some water (about four ounces) to help encourage absorption and hydration.

1/3 cup dried blueberries
2/3 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1/8 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup dried cherries
3/4 cup boiling water
1 tablespoon smooth peanut butter
2 teaspoons honey
1/8 teaspoon salt (omit if using salted peanut butter)

Place dried fruit and boiling water in a blender and let soak for 30 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and blend until as smooth as possible. Let cool and then transfer to a reusable gel flask.These can be made a day in advance and kept chilled until use.

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