Listen to a conversation between people training for a marathon, and you’ll hear three main topics: how many miles they’re running this week, which part(s) of their body are sore or tight, and what to eat. Runners know that food fuels exercise, but what type of food and when to eat are key questions.
What to Eat
Running all those miles means your body needs more fuel than usual, which translates into choosing foods that are good sources of healthy carbohydrates, supply plenty of vitamins and minerals, and help promote muscle recovery. Fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free milk and yogurt, and protein found in soy, legumes, or fish give your body the energy and stamina required for marathon training. Choose less processed foods whenever possible: baked potato instead of French fries, fruit instead of a candy bar, or a tuna sandwich on whole wheat bread instead of an energy bar. A marathoner’s body craves the nutrients naturally found in foods, not the sugar, fat, sodium and flavorings added to processed food.
Tips for Vegetarian Runners
The Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition Dietary Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends vegetarian athletes include plant-based iron-rich foods such as legumes, nuts, seeds, whole and enriched grains, dark green leafy vegetables, or dried fruit on a daily basis for optimal energy levels. Include foods high in calcium and vitamin D such as fortified soy milk or tofu made with calcium for strong bones and to reduce the risk of stress fractures. Vegan runners need a source of vitamin B12 found in nutritional yeast, soy milk, or fortified foods like many breakfast cereals.
When to Eat
Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD , a nationally-recognized sports nutrition expert, recommends three stages of fueling for endurance running: before the run, during the run, and after the run. Choose easily digested foods high in carbohydrate to provide energy before you run. This is not the time for high-fiber cereal or slow-digesting legumes, which could lead to stomach upset or cramping during a run. Instead, choose small amounts of pasta, rice, bagels, fruit, cereal or yogurt one to two hours before exercise. Limit fat in your pre-run meals, because fat takes longer to digest and could cause nausea. Refuel during runs lasting longer than one hour with a carbohydrate-based sports drink, gel, chew or real food such as Fig Newtons or pretzels. Encourage muscle recovery by eating a balanced meal with both carbohydrate and protein within one hour after finishing a run. The carbohydrate helps restore muscle glycogen and the protein promotes muscle repair. Enjoy a rice or quinoa pilaf with legumes or tofu, peanut butter sandwich and glass of milk, or a vegetable stir-fry with shrimp. Refueling after a long run preps your body for a run the next day.
Food choices and timing of meals and snacks are just as important as long endurance runs or fast tempo runs. Skip meals, and you’ll find yourself dragging through a workout. Plan your food choices just as carefully as you choose your shoes or track your heart rate, and your body will respond with increased energy for the entire 26.2 miles.
Guest Blogger Lynn Grieger is a registered dietitian, American College of Sports Medicine certified personal trainer, Wellness Coach, and Road Runners Club of America certified running coach and contributor to Everyday Health and its calorie counter tool.