Athletes that I coach regularly ask me questions about nutrition. How much should I eat? What should I eat? Should I eat before my run? It is an interesting topic that I have researched very carefully. The below methods are ones that I have used many times, and they always work. Nutrition is not a problem for me and it shouldn’t be for you either.
Just like any other aspect of running, correcting your nutrition strategy takes time. Your stomach is a trainable muscle and you can adapt to intake many foods while running. You will most likely see me running with a Tribe bar, cheese sandwich or some leftover halloumi fajitas. I don’t get any gut problems for this, and that’s because I have practiced over time and conditioned my digestive system to be able to handle it.
There are many reasons why you should optimise your nutrition strategy. Eating too little will cause fatigue, negatively impact your performance and delay recovery. All of these effects will mean you are not performing at your best both in training and in racing. On the other hand, eating too much can cause gastric distress or sickness which will also negatively impact your performance.
First, calculate your calorie expenditure:
Your calorie expenditure refers to how many calories (energy) you are going to use during your run. You can calculate these approximately using this simple equation:
First, convert the elevation gain on a route to horizontal distance by multiplying it by ten. 1000m of elevation is equivalent to 10km of horizontal distance. Add this onto the horizontal distance of your run.
This gives you your grade adjusted distance, then you just multiply that by your weight in kilograms. Here is an example.
Horizontal Distance: 50km
1000m elevation gain x 10 = 10km extra horizontal distance
60km grade adjusted distance x 70kg runners weight = 4200kcal
This gives you the amount of calories you are going to use during this run. It can be used for any run but is most effective for long runs over two hours.
Before you panic, this doesn't mean the example runner would need to consume 4200kcal on their 50k run. They would be very bloated if they attempted that! When you are on a long run, you are going to become depleted (use more calories than you consume). This is OK as long as your body can tolerate the depletion rate. You need to eat enough food to compensate for this and keep the depletion tolerable. Tolerable depletion differs between runners and you need to experiment to find what works for you. As a general rule of thumb, eat more rather than less.
Your next step is to work out how many calories to consume before, during and after your run. If your run is going to take less than eight hours, use the following percentages:
10-30% before your run
30-40% during your run
30-60% after your run
If your run is over eight hours, you need to replenish more energy while you're moving to make sure you don't 'bonk' or run out of usable energy. For runs over eight hours, use these percentages:
10-30% before your run
40-60% during your run
10-50% after your run
What To Eat Before You Run
Fuelling correctly before you train or race is of great importance. Without energy, your body can't function. If we take that a step further and perfect your energy intake, you can perform to your best ability. Eating well before you run can prevent sudden fatigue mid-workout (aka hypoglycaemia, or bonking) and will have a direct impact on your performance.
Eating before you run tops up your glycogen stores, the energy reserve that your body first dips into when you begin exercise. It is also easier on your digestive system to process food before you start running, rather than on the move, so you can get a head start on your calorie intake. If you start a run depleted of calories, you will struggle to overcome that depletion throughout the run when your body is using energy so quickly.
You may have heard different views on fasted running (running without eating), but I suggest avoiding this approach unless you have good reason to do so. There is some very limited evidence that training in a low glycogen state (fasted) can help to regulate fat adaptation. However, it is unclear how transient these adaptions are. Fasting does not always promote a low glycogen state depending on when the fast occurs relative to the workout. If done incorrectly, fasting can promote a decrease in fat adaptation causing the complete opposite effect of its aim. There are some limited scenarios where running on low glycogen availability might have some limited benefits, but as a coach, I don't usually deploy these strategies as the benefit and evidence is still very unclear however the potential downsides can be major.
Long story short, if you fuel up for your training session, you are going to perform at your best during that training session and therefore get better results from it. If you are competing, you should have a nutrition plan in place which includes details on what you should consume before your race begins.
For almost all training sessions and races, you will benefit most from a balanced pre-run meal. The best pre-run foods will be high in complex carbohydrates and moderate to low in Protein and Fat. This is because Complex Carbohydrates provide you with long lasting energy and is also quick to digest. Protein and fat are necessary, but take longer to digest and are more important in your post-run recovery meal. Base your pre-run food on a complex carbohydrate such as oats, wholegrain pasta, wholegrain rice, wholegrain bread, potatoes or fruit and vegetables.
If you are just fuelling for a training run, you can just aim for a snack or approximately 200-300kcal. My favourite options are either the Tribe Choc Salt Energy Bar or the Tribe Nut Butter Triple Decker. If you are racing, particularly a long distance event, you should plan your nutrition carefully and work out how many calories you should intake before your run. Other than Tribe bars, I will often have porridge oats cooked in water with chia seeds or wholemeal toast with peanut butter.
What To Eat During Your Run
Your choice of nutrition on a long run can be a gamechanger. There is an abundance of information out there describing different foods and products you can eat during your run, but you should be vigilant. Some products are less healthy and less effective.
When choosing what food you will take on your run, you should look at the ingredients carefully. First, check the sugar content. Don't avoid sugar completely, but it may be wise to avoid foods that are primarily made up of sugar. Just because you run, doesn't make you immune to the negative effects of sugar like potential health problems and tooth decay. They won't do you any harm on race day, but you shouldn't be consuming high sugar snacks every day. You should also avoid products with lots of unnatural ingredients such as preservatives and flavourings.
Lucky for us, there are many products you can buy and foods you can make at home which are a balance of complex carbohydrates (long lasting energy), fats and proteins. The best food to eat on your run will be balanced. This gives you optimal energy and nutrition while also reducing the risk of gastric distress.
First, I want to mention Tribe bars again. They are a favourite of mine and I use them regularly for running nutrition when I do not have time to make something myself at home.
If you don’t want to buy products, there are loads of options for things you can make at home. You could make some flapjacks and add chia seeds, simply bring a sandwich, or my personal favourite is anything inside a wholemeal tortilla wrap. You could fill it with leftover dinner, cheese, hummus or almost anything else. As I mentioned before, if you train your stomach and practice, you will adapt and be able to eat these foods while running without issues.
I would also like to mention a relatively new energy gel brand called Vala. They make natural energy gels from maple syrup, date paste, chia seeds, lemon juice, lime juice, matcha tea powder and Halen Môn sea salt. There are no other ingredients in the gels and this makes them 100% natural. Check them out at valaenergy.com.
What To Eat After Your Run
Re-fuelling correctly after your run should be prioritised more than it is by most people. It can speed up your recovery by three times, meaning you should not skip this step.
If you are an experienced runner, you will know all too well how it feels to be mega hungry after a run. That feeling is your body telling you that it is depleted of energy which you must replenish by consuming calories. Failing to re-fuel correctly will cause fatigue, delay recovery and you may find yourself struggling to stay awake day to day.
You should eat immediately after you finish your run to replenish your glycogen stores. By eating at least 200kcal of carbohydrate rich food within 60 minutes of the end of your run, you will reduce your recovery time by up to three times. If you have completed a long run which will take 60 hours to recover from, replenishing your glycogen stores immediately could reduce this recovery time to as little as 20 hours.
Instead of feeling drained for the rest of the day, and even the following day, you will feel re-energised and ready to run again much sooner.
You should also aim for a moderate amount of protein in your post-run snack. Protein aids the repair of muscle fibres and strengthening of bones which in turn aids recovery and muscle development.
I have a great routine for after my runs. First, I have a Tribe Protein Shake the second I walk in the door. They contain a perfect balance of protein, fat and carbohydrates to replenish runners and endurance athletes. Following this, I will make sure I have a substantial meal with whole grain carbohydrates and plenty of vegetables within 3-4 hours of finishing my run (preferably sooner). This is an optimised routine for fast and healthy recovery and I suggest you try a similar routine, tailored to your own tastes and requirements.
When planning your long run or race nutrition strategy you should;
1. Start by calculating the calories you are going to burn during the run.
2. Calculate how many calories you should eat before, during and after your run.
3. Plan how often you need to eat during your run (calories per hour is an easy way to remember this).
4. Plan what you will eat and when.
5. Enjoy some delicious food and running without bonking!
I hope you found this article useful. I would be interested to hear your thoughts so please do leave them in the comments. Please take a minute to have a look around my website and read about becoming a coached athlete if that would interest you. Thank you for your support.
Disclaimer; I am sponsored by Tribe, but only because I love their products. I approached them to ask for support after years of using their products and am very grateful that they decided to support me. Tribe did not influence or contribute to this blog at all. Thanks Tribe!