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Performance Nutrition: A Runner’s Guide To Eating Healthy


A man laces his shoes before going on a run.

A Runner’s Guide To Eating Healthy

Running is one of the most common forms of exercise in America. If not the world.


According to a 2017 study by Statista, 60 million US citizens alone regularly run or jog. The reasons to lace up their shoes for the first time varied from the wanting to get fit to losing weight and even the desire to compete in a race. 


Whether you’re just hitting the pavement for the first time or you're a seasoned runner, this post is for you. We’ll outline basic nutrition information for runners including recommended carbohydrate, protein and micronutrient intakes. We’ll also address notable nutrition running strategies including carb-loading, ‘train low, compete high’, and sports supplements. We even provide a quick word on known nutritional differences between female and male endurance athletes. 


With so much distance to cover, let’s get ready in 3, 2, 1, READ!


Macro & Micro Nutrition for Running

Carbohydrates

As we discussed in detail in our recent blog post, Should Carbs Be Part of Your Diet?, carbs are one of our most important sources of energy and fuel. For joggers and runners alike, proper fueling is exceptionally important—depending on pace and body weight, a runner can burn anywhere from 500–740 calories by the 5mi/8km checkpoint.


But as discussed, not all carbs are created equal. Refined, whole and complex carbohydrates all have different effects on our body. Refined carbs can provide the impression of an immediate boost of energy and are often found in sports supplements and gels (more on these later). 


Meanwhile, whole and complex carbs like vegetables, legumes, beans and whole-grain breads are known for their longer-lasting fuel. This family is key to endurance and high performance.


It’s also important to note that some studies have shown the timing of carb ingestion around significant runs (let’s say runs exceeding 10mi/16km) can impact performance and recovery. Specific recommendations vary, but it is unequivocal that carbs should be eaten within 30 minutes of completing a long-distance run for optimal recovery.


To reiterate, carbohydrates are the most important component of a runner’s diet and proper fueling on whole and complex carbs are especially important to reduce fatigue and enhance performance. 


Protein

Next to carbohydrates, proteins are the second most important fuel source for runners.


This important macronutrient simultaneously provides long-lasting energy, ensures proper bodily function, and most notably aids in recovery and muscle growth.


For runners, recovery nutrition (especially from runs exceeding 10mi/16km) is extraordinarily important. Fuel sources need to be replenished and muscles fibres need to be rebuilt.


To ensure you’re recovering properly, a diet high in lean proteins like chicken, tofu and egg whites can be beneficial.


The amount of protein runners should ingest is highly dependent on the distance and training intensity. While elite runners and individuals training for a marathon require a surplus of protein (one study suggests elite runners need twice the intake of an average person), studies have proven the average jogger does not necessarily need to increase their protein intake above normal recommendations. While some exceptions may apply, the casual running hobbyist should stick to the recommended protein intake listed in their GenoPalate DNA nutrition analysis.


Fats

As we’ve discussed on this blog time and again, fats are a widely misunderstood macronutrient. Countless packaged good companies have skillfully crafted marketing campaigns lumping all fats into one “bad” basket. Consequently, consumers continuously seek low-fat or no-fat foods under the false perception that cutting all fat intake is “good”.


While there is certainly some truth to the claim that saturated and trans fats are linked with high LDL cholesterol, strokes and blocked arteries, other fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated play important roles in body function. For a runner, these fats help keep your body fueled, warm, and injury-free.


Just like carbs and proteins, your DNA will play a considerable role in deciding what type of fat and how much fat you should be consuming. By analysing your genetic makeup, nutrition scientists can help you achieve optimal speed and endurance potential.


Micro-Nutrients

The world of micronutrients is vast and complex. But as their name entails, you only need a small intake of most of them to achieve optimal health. However, thanks to the growing library of sport nutrition science, we now know endurance athletes should increase their intake of some micronutrients. 


Nutri-Facts—a non-profit health journal—recommends athletes of all stripes pay special attention to the following micros:


Antioxidants:This important subcategory of micronutrients can help protect cells from oxidative damage from exercise. Examples of antioxidants include vitamin C, E, and beta-carotene.


B Vitamins:These micronutrients aid in energy production and amino acid metabolism. 


Vitamin D: Is directly correlated with protein synthesis and muscle strength.


Iron: The most important micro for runners, iron helps oxygen transportation and enzyme function. According to some studies, long-distance runners are especially susceptible to iron-deficiency anaemia. This can be exacerbated in females, vegetarians and vegans. 


Minerals & Calcium: These important micros play a significant role in muscle contraction, blood clotting, and bone density.


Notable Nutrition Strategies for Running

Carb-loading

Of the numerous nutrition strategies for running, carb-loading is the most famous and scientifically backed.


Essentially, carb-loading refers to a significantly increased carbohydrate intake in the days leading up to a race. The positive outcome is not about how fast the runner can go, but for how long. In other words, short-distance runners do not need to be concerned with this strategy—it is specifically for half- and full-marathon runners.


Exact recommendations about how early to start carb-loading, and how many carbs to ingest vary wildly from article to article and blog post to blog post. 


In Runner’s World magazine, a 2019 article quotes Monique Ryan, R.D., author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes stating runners should begin carb-loading three days out, consuming 85%–95% of their caloric intake in carbohydrates. She gets even more detailed recommending 4 grams of carbs for every pound of body weight (so a 150lb individual should be consuming 600 grams of carbs per day).


Keep in mind, the carbohydrates recommended are whole and complex. 


Train Low, Compete High

Another common nutrition strategy for runners is to train on a low-carbohydrate diet and then increase to a high-carbohydrate diet right before the competition.


The theory is that by lowering glycogen and carbohydrate availability, the body will increase metabolic adaptations. Then just before the race, the runner can hit their system with a surplus of carbs resulting in improved speed and endurance.


At best, there is little evidence to substantiate this technique. At worst, prolonged carb reduction in endurance athletes can increase the risk of illness, injury and reduce training capacity. 


Sports Supplements

Perhaps the most capitalized strategy is to purchase sports supplements and drinks to consume during both training and competition.


In most instances, sports supplements have not undergone significant enough peer-reviewed study to substantiate any claims of increased performance.


The one exception is caffeine. Some studies have proven that reasonable intakes of caffeine before or during a race can boost overall performance. However, how much and when to intake the caffeine remains up for debate. And given our work in nutrigenomics, we know some athletes may be more affected by caffeine than others due to their specific genetic makeup. It is best to trial and error the effects of caffeine on your personal performance. In other words, have a cup of coffee before your next training session and record how you feel compared to how you feel without it.


Sex Differences in Nutrition for Running

While it may seem logical to assume nutritional recommendations and strategies for male and female runners are the same, some differences apply. Most notably, multiple peer-reviewed studies have found female endurance athletes do not benefit from high-carbohydrate diets to the same degree as men. 


Female digestion oxidises fat (aka breaks down fat) faster than men, and vice-versa with carbohydrates. Because of the connection between fat and carb energy, to benefit from nutritional strategies such as carb-loading, a female athlete would need to also increase their fat/energy intake as well. Even with this adaptation, women still won’t experience the same boost their male counterparts receive from carb-loading.


In short

Nutrition for running can be as complex or as simple as you make it.


On the complex side, hundreds of scientifically proven and yet-to-be proven/disproven strategies such train-low, compete-high may nudge performance and output one way or the other. Meanwhile, small intakes of micronutrients and performance supplements like caffeine may also increase performance.


On the simple side, the importance of carbohydrates during training and recovery is unequivocal. Eating whole and complex carbohydrates is key to reducing fatigue and increasing performance.


For optimal nutrition results, we recommend a DNA nutrition analysis. By sending us a non-intrusive saliva sample, we can unlock your genetic code and tell you which macro and micros your body absorbs and reacts to best. This health and wellness blueprint will ensure you’re eating the correct foods to best fuel up before hitting the pavement.


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References


1. Effects of Carbohydrate Loading on High Performance Athletics. Ali Mueller, Amelia Reek, Josh Schantzen


2. Journal of Sports Sciences. Nutrition for Distance Events, December 2007. Louise Mary Burke, Gregoire P Millet, Mark Tarnopolsky


3. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Nutrition Concepts for Elite Distance Runners Based on Macronutrient and Energy Expenditure, September–October 2008. 


4. Nutri-Facts. Micronutrients and physical activity, September 1, 2012. 


5. Runner’s World. How Proper Carb-Loading Can Help You Crush Your Next Race, October 21, 2019. Dimity McDowell


6. Statista. Running & Jogging - Statistics & Facts, November 16, 2020. David Lange



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