4 Nutrition Tips for Distance Running
Updated: Dec 21, 2021
By: Sarah Martel, MHSc(c) & Aja Gyimah, MHSc, RD
Last weekend, I (Sarah) ran the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon 10k. It felt great to be racing in-person again but as I planned my pre-race meals, I realized fuelling for running likely doesn’t come easy for most! As a future registered dietitian and recreational runner, I know proper fuelling can make a world of difference in 10km+ distance runs. Thus, I have put together my top tips to help you perform your best and boost recovery from long runs!
1. Carbs are your best friend
Carbohydrates are the main energy source during most forms of exercise, and they require particular attention in distance running (1). You should be eating plenty of these in the day before, the day of, after a run, and even during some longer runs!
The term “carb-loading” simply refers to eating more carbohydrates for 1-2 days before a bout of endurance exercise (1). Loading up on carbs will ensure that your glycogen stores (storage form of glucose) are sufficiently topped up to get you through your run. Aim to have a variety of carb sources like fruit, starchy vegetables, yogurt, rice, pasta, breads and cereals in the 24-48 hour period prior to your run.
Your pre-run meal should mainly consist of easily digested carbs. Having something like toast with peanut butter, banana, honey and a glass of orange juice 1-4 hours before your run should do the trick. While you should eat whole grains *most of the time*, sticking to white pasta, breads and rice the day-of and the night before a long run is best (2). By keeping the fibre lower, you might be saving yourself from having to run to the bathroom, mid-run!
Lastly, when you’re getting into the 15km+ distances, carbohydrates while running are very useful. “Hitting the wall” is another common running term, which refers to the point when glycogen levels become depleted and exhaustion hits hard (1). This generally happens around the 1-hour mark, and can be avoided by having 30-60g of simple carbohydrates 45-50 minutes into your run (1, 3). Sports gels, gummies and drinks, or even honey packets, are easily eaten and digested while running.
Afterwards, it’s important to replenish glycogen stores and refuel, so keep carbs high once again.
2. Pre-hydrate, hydrate, and re-hydrate
We all know to drink plenty of water, but when it comes to endurance exercise, long term hydration really does matter. Men and women should aim for 2.7L and 3.7L of fluid daily respectively, although the amount will depend on factors like body size, sweat rates, etc (4). Stay hydrated the day before your long run by drinking plenty of fluids, and eating hydrating fruits and vegetables such as watermelon, cucumber, tomatoes, and oranges. Continue with fluids the day of to prevent starting your long run dehydrated. The easiest way to check for dehydration is by looking at the colour of your urine (4). If it’s clear or a very pale yellow, you are well hydrated, if it’s a darker yellow... get sipping!
Did you know that losing just 2% of your body weight through sweat and other losses can impact your running performance (3)? For runs lasting an hour or longer, particularly in hot and humid weather, you’ll want to start thinking about hydrating while running. Aim to have about 400-800 mL of fluid per hour of running (3). This could simply be water or a sports drink with carbohydrates if you’re going for a longer distance. After your run, you’ll want to rehydrate with water and sodium (through an electrolyte drink or your post-run snack), to replace what was lost through sweat.
3. Focus on protein for recovery
High impact exercise like distance running is extremely hard on our joints and muscles, and protein is crucial for their repair and recovery. Have 20-25g of protein paired with carbohydrates, ideally within two hours of your run (1). You’ll want to aim for a ratio of 1:3 of protein to carbs (e.g. 25g protein and 75g carbs). If you experience discomfort when eating after running, try having a snack with easily digested proteins like milk, yogurt or protein powder (4). For example, sipping on a smoothie with fruit, Greek yogurt, rolled oats and milk or juice is easy on the stomach. However, make sure to have a full meal once feeling up to it, and continue to have protein every 3 hours throughout the day (1). Some other great easily-digested protein sources are eggs, any white fish, chicken, tofu or lentils.
4. Test out your nutrition strategy before a race
I’ve given you a lot to think about, especially if you’re planning out your nutrition for your first 10km or half-marathon! I suggest you play around with your pre-run meal to see what makes you feel best while running, and make note of this.
Fuelling during a run may also be new to you, and can take some trial and error to nail a strategy that works best. If you’ve never had sports gels or gummies, start with a smaller amount of carbs in a sports drink. Then, work your way up to an amount and form of nutrition that is tolerable and energizing. Lastly, if you’re really looking to hone in on your running nutrition, speak to a Registered Sports Dietitian to help you meet all your nutrition goals!
(1) Vitale, K., & Getzin, A. (2019). Nutrition and supplement update for the endurance athlete: review and recommendations. Nutrients, 11(6), 1289. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11061289
(2) Unlock Food. (2019). Sports Nutrition: Facts on Carbohydrate, Fat and Protein. Retrieved from https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Physical-Activity/Sports-Nutrition-Facts-on-Carbohydrate,-Fat-and-P.aspx
(3) Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, L. M. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(3), 501–528. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2015.12.006
(4) Unlock Food. (2021). Facts on Fluids - How to Stay Hydrated. Retrieved from https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/articles/water/facts-on-fluids-how-to-stay-hydrated.aspx