NUTRITIONAL PILLARS FOR DISTANCE RUNNERS
Dr. Kristopher Bosela DPT
A runner’s running routine, mileage, and strength training are the foundation of performance. So it only makes sense that you need to fuel that performance the best way possible. In order for that engine to run you need to fuel it well, fuel it often, and make sure that you are consistent for your particular needs. No amount of training will yield lasting performance benefits without having good nutrition for performance and recovery.
#1 WEEKLY PLANNING:
Success is in the details and planning out your diet is going to take some attention to detail. Counting calories and tracking your food with an app is not the goal or even necessary. The goal is to create a weekly plan for your grocery shopping and meal prep so that gives you access to healthy food when you need it. Going to the grocery store without a plan is a recipe to come home with a ton of power bars, add ons, and the easiest to grab foods. This in turn may mean that you will have increased cravings and eat out more during the week. It is best to have a good volume of grains, proteins, healthy fats, vegetables, and fruits at your disposal. Make a plan for which foods you will eat for regular meals, for snacks, for pre-run fuel, and also your recovery meals.
#2 BALANCED MEALS:
Your main daily meals are where a good runner sets the foundation for their body. Pasta is a classic carbohydrate, but there are plenty of other excellent high-carbohydrate foods, such as farro, couscous, brown rice, baked potatoes, beans, sweet potatoes, and quinoa. It is important to have carbs make up the majority of your diet at 70-75% for distance runners. So having clean and unprocessed carbs is vital. Highly processed or highly fatty carb dishes will seriously decrease your nutrition’s effectiveness. So plan to keep meals like lasagna, boxed pizzas, and sugary granola to a minimum. Instead plan meals like sitr fry with rice, roasted veggies with farro and chicken, and egg sandwiches on whole-wheat bread.
#3 SNACKING CONSISTENCY:
An important point for protein intake is that our bodies don’t process much of it quickly. Our bodies will only process between 20-25 grams of protein every 2-3 hours so having healthy, protein-dense snacks is important to have during the day between meals. Avoid high-fat snacks such as potato chips, milk chocolate, and even sugary protein bars. Instead find snacks combining a healthy dose of protein and carbohydrate, which make the best fuel. Fruit, especially bananas with nut butters, mixed nuts, plain popcorn, and greek or full-fat yogurt are great options.
#4 SUPPLEMENTS SHOULD SUPPLEMENT:
I am all for supplements when they are used to supplement what you are eating. The term supplement is defined as, “something that completes or enhances something else when added to it.” So make sure when you are picking out a supplement that you have steps 1-3 already consistent and taken care of. The supplement is never meant to replace good eating, but should rather enhance it. When used correctly, a supplement can enhance your diet effectively, so make sure to get the basics down and find supplements that complement your eating.
#5 EAT BEFORE YOUR RUN:
Most runner’s that I know and work with run mostly at two times during the day: right when they wake up and right after they finish work. This often leads people to get on the road without any food in their system first. Plan time to be able to eat ~15 grams of carbs and drink 8 ounces of water 15 minutes before your run. This will jumpstart your body’s system to be ready to metabolize the carbs once you start running.
#6 HYDRATING & EATING DURING RUNS:
Our body is only capable of storing enough carbohydrates to use on runs for about an hour or a bit more depending on how well you are trained. So it is very important to take water and snacks with you in order to last out those efforts. Hitting the dreaded “wall” or “bonking” is highly influenced by how well you refuel during a long race. To keep yourself going make sure to have 30-60 grams of carbs and 20-30 ounces of water every hour. This will take time to get your stomach used to so make sure to practice this during training and try not to change up your fuel dramatically on race day.
#7 POST-RUN RECOVERY:
As soon as a race is over your body is going to cool down, slow down, and start rebuilding. So once you are done with a race or a hard training run, make sure to get a good meal with protein and carbohydrates. There’s no need to have something waiting for you at the finish line. However, the window for success is about 4 hours after you start cooling down. This is the time that your body will work best for taking on new glycogen to replace what you have lost while working hard.
Keeping all these considerations in mind can seem daunting, but I guarantee that if you start at the top of this list and work on improving one step of your plan at a time, you'll start feeling significant improvements in the way that you train, perform, and recover. When done well, combining healthy nutrition with distance running will leave you with boundless amounts of energy to carry you through both your day and your race.
Dr. Kristopher Bosela, DPT
Dr. Bosela graduated from Ithaca College in 2019, earning a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. His primary interests include orthopedic rehab as well as athletic coaching, specifically focusing on lower-body injuries stemming from problems caused by running, hiking, and/or walking.