Everything You Need to Know about Nutrition for Runners
As runners and triathletes, what we put in our bodies is critical to get what we want out of our bodies. The number one topic runners tell me they want to know more about is nutrition – what to eat and when to eat to maximize your training and racing. Since March is National Nutrition Month, it’s the perfect time to talk about nutrition for runners.
Last October, I was fortunate to meet Kyle Pfaffenbach, a performance nutrition consultant for the Brooks Beasts Track Club. Kyle has a BS and MS in Exercise Science and a Ph.D. in Nutrition. In addition to helping Brooks’ middle-distance elite runners properly eat and fuel, Kyle is also a professor of nutrition at Eastern Oregon University and is a runner and triathlete himself.
Kyle’s guidance has helped me perfect my own pre-race and race day nutrition strategy, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve run 5 personal best races since meeting him (Yes, my training plays the biggest factor, of course, but I’m finally using nutrition to maximize that training … to see what I ate before, during and after my recent marathon, click here). Today, Kyle is sharing his guidance on nutrition for runners with all of you. In addition to your training regimen and what you are doing to build strength and endurance, perfecting your nutrition and fueling strategy is a key way to enhance your overall performance.
rUnladylike: As a nutrition consultant for the Brooks Beasts Track Club, you work with a lot of runners. Is running part of your life, too?
Kyle: I competed as a runner in high school and as a triathlete in college. I have completed marathons, an IRONMAN, a half IRONMAN and multiple century bike rides. Along with continuing to run and bike, I now spend a lot of time ski mountaineering, hiking and climbing mountains. And I also just built a skate ramp in my garage and am pretty much obsessed with skateboarding too.
rUnladylike: What basic guidance would you give to long distance runners and triathletes when it comes to nutrition?
Kyle: My approach is fairly simple and expected. I think athletes should have a balanced diet based on whole, unprocessed and mainly organic foods, including quality lean protein sources, whole grains, complex carbohydrates, nuts and a lot of fruits and vegetables. This criteria then needs to be applied to each athlete individually based on their personal dietary philosophy and tastes. As long as one is aware of the overall nutritional needs of an athlete for fueling and recovery and takes into consideration their personal needs, there is usually a way to make most “dietary approaches” work. I do not subscribe to one form of diet, and I feel that finding your nutritional approach as an endurance athlete is an individual experience. There are absolutely some things you want to avoid (in my opinion), for example high-fructose corn syrup, trans fat, too much saturated fat, refined grains, processed meals, sugar alcohols (artificial sweeteners), soda and fruit juice from concentrate. But whether you go Paleo or are vegan, vegetarian, a gastronome or just a plain old omnivore, there is a way to make it work for you as an athlete.
The other guidance I would offer is that attention to nutrition should be an everyday part of training. There is often too much emphasis in the running community on race day eating. That is, runners may have a tendency to ignore nutrition throughout their training, but become hyper-focused on the belief that eating the perfect thing on race day will allow them to run fast. It’s my feeling that what makes you run fast on race day is training! And training consistently. Nutrition is absolutely a critical part of that training and preparation. To stay healthy and to recover and adapt optimally to your workouts requires a sound nutritional approach every day.
rUnladylike: What makes a great pre-race breakfast? How much should people eat and when? Any sample pre-race breakfasts you think are ideal?
Kyle: Pre-race meals depend on the individual athlete as well as the race, but there are a few approaches that can work. For longer races (half marathon and beyond), I would recommend eating a mixed meal 2.5 to 3 hours prior to the start of the race. Examples could include:
- Eggs, toast, fruit and some mixed greens
- Yogurt, granola, fruit and orange juice
- Pancakes with fruit
The idea here is that you are consuming a mixed meal rich in carbohydrates to top off liver carbohydrate stores (glycogen), which are used during longer endurance events. The reason some consider the 3-hour before timing important is due to the hormone insulin. The quick explanation is that at rest, when we consume a meal, insulin is released in response to a rise in blood sugar and insulin facilitates the uptake of glucose out of the blood stream and into skeletal muscle. Interestingly, when we exercise, insulin levels go down, but exercising muscles still take up glucose from the bloodstream. That is, muscular contraction during exercise ‘mimics’ what insulin can do in terms of getting glucose into the muscle. For some athletes, eating a mixed meal (which causes a rise in insulin) and then racing too soon after consuming that meal (i.e. within 3 hours) activates the muscle contraction mode of glucose uptake PLUS the insulin mode of glucose uptake. When these 2 modes of glucose uptake from the bloodstream are combined, it may lead to feelings associated with low blood sugar which could affect performance. Some athletes are not bothered by the insulin exercise combo, but others are. If you are looking for a safe approach without a lot of experimentation, go with the mixed meal high in carbs 3 hours before your race starts.
For shorter races (anything less than a half marathon), the large morning meal is less important because carbohydrate stores (glycogen) are not a limiting factor during these races. So if your race starts at 8 a.m., there is no reason to be up at 5 a.m. eating pancakes! However, you do want to provide your body with ample simple carbohydrates which can be used as immediate fuel. Also, you want to avoid the insulin spike which we discussed above. Therefore, it is important to consume your pre-race carbohydrates (e.g. Gatorade, gel, GU, Clif Shot Bloks, etc.) within 10 minutes of the start of your warm-up. The light exercise of your warm-up will suppress the insulin response and prevent the risk of those low blood sugar feelings. Again, the low blood sugar thing is not universal for all athletes, but consuming your simple carbs within 10 minutes of your warm-up is a safe policy (in my opinion).
rUnladylike: Every athlete is different, but what general recommendations do you have when it comes to fueling during a race? What should people think about when they are choosing the fuel and strategy that is right for them? How much should be consumed and when?
Kyle: Fueling during a race is really the black art that every endurance athlete tries to master, because as you said, ‘every athlete is different.’ Again, for shorter distances, carbohydrates are not a limiting factor and therefore there is really no need to consume nutrition during those races. However, any event or training going more than an hour will require supplemental carbohydrates if you want to maintain your race pace. For this reason, it is critical that athletes experiment during training sessions with products that can be used during their race. Regarding specific products, there are so many options, but basically my advice would be to stick with a carbohydrate-only drink or gel (protein provides minimal energy during an event). Examples include Gatorade Perform, Gatorade Pre (which is actually a very good in-race carb source), PowerBar Drink, GU, Clif Shot, Clif Shot Blocks and many others. Another way to approach your choice of in-race product is to look on the race Web site or email the race director and find out what products they will have at the aid stations. Leading up to that race, you can train with and get used to the specific race product. So many well-trained athletes have their race day derailed because they trained with one thing and the race aid stations provided something different. So thinking ahead in regards to that can go a long way.
For in-race nutrition, longer races, such as the marathon, require simple carbohydrate consumption early and often. This not only keeps the flow of glucose going to the muscles but it can also abate fatigue caused by the central nervous system. Basically, don’t wait to start sipping on sports drink. Six to 8 ounces every 2 miles will go a long way in allowing you to keep your race pace throughout a marathon.
rUnladylike: What is the ideal post-long run or race recovery meal? How much should be consumed and when?
Kyle: Using nutrition as a recovery tool for hard workouts is a critical part of maximizing your response to training. The important thing is providing your body with the right mix of carbohydrates and protein immediately after exercise as well as throughout the day. The post-exercise window (within 30 minutes after your workout is over) is critical to jump starting recovery. Getting back the calories you burned during the workout is not the goal with this initial recovery intake, but providing your body with the correct nutrients to maximize protein synthesis and adaptation is. Therefore, I think athletes should consume 30 to 40 grams of carbohydrates and 10 grams of complete protein, preferably in an easily digestible form. For me, I mix Gatorade powder and organic whey protein powder in water to make a shake. A mixed fruit smoothie with protein powder is also a great option. (Click here to see one of Kyle’s recipes.) I prefer these drinks over solid food for 2 reasons: 1) they are quickly absorbed and easily digested and 2) after hard workouts and long runs I often don’t have the appetite for a mixed meal within 30 minutes of finishing. The next 23.5 hours is the time for mixed meals, and providing your body with enough quality calories and nutrients to recover and stay healthy. This means meals with lots of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and complex carbohydrates.
rUnladylike: How should people approach nutrition the week prior to race day?
Kyle: For long endurance events, the typical recommendation heading into race week is to ramp up carbohydrate ingestion to 60 to 70 percent of total calories. This can help maximize muscle carbohydrate storage (glycogen). Outside of this, you will want to follow your normal diet, full of healthy, fresh, nutritious foods.
rUnladylike: We’ve all heard that caffeine is good to consume before and during a race. Is that true?
Kyle: Yes, there is ample evidence that caffeine can act as an ergogenic aid. If runners want the most bang for their buck, then the best strategy is to avoid caffeine for at least 7 days prior to your race. This lowers the tolerance for caffeine so that when you drink your double espresso race morning ,you get the maximum effect. For habitual coffee drinkers this is tough, but I know several runners who use this strategy. The evidence for in-race caffeine consumption is not as cut and dry, and therefore depends on experimentation on an individual basis. There are an increasing number of gels and sports drinks with caffeine that one can try out. There are also a lot of homemade concoctions that athletes swear by, like Red Bull spiked Gatorade. Again, finding what works for you within what is known is the key.
Be sure to stop by runladylike.com next week as Kyle shares his top 10 foods for runners and issues a recipe challenge that I’ll be testing my cooking skills on. I’ll be sharing a few recipes using his recommended ingredients. Later this month, I’ll also be reviewing the Runner’s World Cookbook, which I’ve been making recipes from, as well as Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald. Don’t miss the fun as National Nutrition Month continues here on the blog!
Have you found your silver bullet when it comes to nutrition and running? Did you learn anything new or interesting that you want to try from what Kyle shared about nutrition for runners?