When Runners Should Eat
Knowing when to eat as a runner is almost as important as knowing what to eat. The timing of when we eat is critical to improve performance.
Before my very first Saturday morning high school cross country meet, my dad thought he was being helpful by making me a big breakfast. I loaded up on pancakes, eggs, bacon, hash browns… this did not help my performance.
Today, I’ve mostly mastered my race morning eating since. Now I am more focused on what I’m eating on the myriad of random days I’m not racing. Understanding my nutrition timing is key for long term success.
In the book Racing Weight, Matt Fitzgerald has a chapter all about when runners should eat – nutrient timing, the impact of when you eat. Below are a few things I’m learning, along with some examples.
1. Consistency is Key
It’s important to eat at roughly the same time and frequency each day. Skipping lunch or eating a really late dinner once in a while isn’t going to kill you, but it should be the exception, not the rule.
Fitzgerald notes that eating on a consistent daily schedule is more important than eating frequently throughout the day. “Once you have found a daily eating schedule that works for you, whether it entails, three meals a day or three meals and three snacks, stick with it.” Erratic eating likely creates energy partitioning that favors fat storage, while consistent eating favors immediate energy use and muscle maintenance.
Also, adjust what you eat depending on daily workout load. Give your body the nutrition it needs, but adjust calories accordingly on easy running days versus long run days.
2. Eat Breakfast Everyday
My college Physical Wellness professor always said to, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper!” Those who front load their daily calories, tend to be leaner overall. Fitzgerald notes that eating a good quality breakfast including protein, “reduces your food cravings throughout the day and boosts the effects of your workout, including its overall fat-burning effect.” It is also linked to a bunch of other great benefits.
So we know eating breakfast (containing protein) is great for us, but what about eating before you run in the morning?
3. Eat Before a Long Run or Workout
If you’re doing a tough workout or running longer than 60 – 90 minutes, eat something. If not, don’t bother… but of course it’s up to you.
Eating something light enhances the effects of your workout. There’s nothing worse than doing 800m repeats on an empty stomach, only to ditch the last few because you’re light headed. Fitzgerald also notes that by eating something before you run, it will increase the caloric burn after.
Knowing when to eat this is up to the individual, dependent almost exclusively on how food will reeact in your stomach. Personally, I eat the following at least 60 minutes before leaving the house:
- Whole grain toast with peanut butter & honey
- Medium sized banana
- 8 oz of water
- Cup of coffee
Totally unoriginal, but it works like a charm for me. If I can’t get 60 minutes of “settle,” I’ll skip the coffee and take a PowerGel with caffeine and 6 – 8 oz of water.
4. Eat While you Run
Eating while running is perhaps the most important thing to master for long distance runners. If you plan to be out longer than 90 minutes, you need to consume something if you want to optimize your performance.
According to Fitzgerald, “Consuming carbs during exercise increases the muscles’ reliance on carbs as fuel and decreases their reliance on fat. Less fat is burned during a workout in which a sports drink or gel is used. When muscles burn more carbs during a workout, they tend to burn more fat after that same workout.” You will tend to burn more calories in a harder workout when you consume carbs because it will elevate your performance.
While this is true, it can also be important to occasionally not fuel on a long run.
30 grams of carbs per hour is about what you need for best performance. The PowerGel’s I use contain 27g per. Two an hour works for me!
5. Eat After you Run
A post long run brunch is one of my favorite things ever. Fitzgerald says that when we eat within two-hours after tough run, it promotes lean body composition by “shifting energy partitioning towards muscle protein and glycogen synthesis and away from body-fat storage.” It also accelerates muscle recovery.
At Runners Connect, Abby Housefield points out that in many scientific studies, there are two windows by which we need to eat. Within 30 minutes, consume 100 – 300 calories from a 3:1 or 4:1 carbs to protein ration. This could be fruit with peanut butter, yogurt, or even a sweet potato and some beef jerky.
Sometimes, all I can stomach in the 30 minutes is one of these smoothies.
Within three hours, she says to eat “a meal or snack higher in protein but also includes a healthy fat and carbohydrate…” The goal is to, “…give your body the right combination of nutrients at the right time, decrease inflammation, increase muscle glycogen stores, and rebuild damaged muscle tissue.”
Get creative, but some options may include:
- Grilled chicken or steak on top of a Power Salad
- Veggie omelet + fruit
- Chili (An amazingly well balanced meal)
- Protein Pancakes + fruit
No doubt, you have heard some version of this before. What have you found to work best for you? What of this is still a struggle? Share below.