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What’s in a Runner’s Diet?

The wonderful Utah spring thaw seems to have taken hold. With the mercury rising and your log boasting more miles, it is important to consider how you are fueling those miles. I am often asked how much a training athlete needs to eat in order to maintain health and boost performance. The answer, of course, depends on various factors including age, height, weight, gender, medical concerns, and training regimen; however, there are some key pointers for all training athletes to consider.

  • Eat breakfast – whether you choose to eat before or after a run should depend on what you want to get out of that particular training session and what your body is telling you. If you head out the door first thing in the morning for an easy distance run (under an hour), you are safe to have some water and head out the door with breakfast planned upon your return. Should you have a more intense session planned for the morning (tempo run, long run, or interval training), your performance and energy level will benefit from a light breakfast prior to the workout. Experiment with various carbohydrate rich foods to find what works best for you. Choices may include sport drinks, toast, cereal with milk, yogurt, sport bars etc… Since this pre-run breakfast is likely a smaller meal, a recovery snack (or breakfast part II) is a post-workout MUST.
    • EXAMPLES:
      • Breakfast After light morning run: 1 ¼  c cooked oatmeal topped with almonds, banana, and blueberries. Enjoy with a cup of milk
      • Breakfast split around workout:
        • Before workout – 8oz Gatorade; slice of toast with peanut butter, banana & honey
        • Post workout – 1 ½ cups cereal with 1 cup milk, & fruit
        • Stay Hydrated – keeping yourself hydrated during the day will help you stay in better touch with your body’s signals (i.e., hunger, fatigue, thirst). Remember that your hydration status is not dependent only on water consumption. Milk, sport drinks, fruits, veggies, soups, coffee, tea, juice – all of these foods and beverages contribute to your hydration status. If your urine is light yellow and you are going several times per day, you are on the right track. Keep a water bottle with you and get into the habit of drinking with meals.
        • Hungry? Pay attention to what your body is telling you. It is easy to get busy and forget that your body actually sends messages to your brain about when to eat and when to stop eating. Snacks during the day can help curb hunger and the potential to overeat if you do get too hungry. Plan snacks to support workouts. If you workout in the afternoon, consider having a light lunch and a recovery snack after the workout. Then have dinner. If you eat before your run in the morning, maybe a light mid morning snack before lunch will help keep your hunger at bay.  No matter when you incorporate your snacks, be sure to include both carbohydrate and protein for maximum performance benefit AND better staying power (adding protein helps keep you full a bit longer, and carbohydrate will replenish the “tank” after a workout or provide fuel for an upcoming workout.)
          • SNCAK EXAMPLES:
            • Whole grain crackers or pretzels & string cheese
            • Apple or banana with peanut butter
            • Veggies with hummus
            • Sport bar
            • Yogurt with or without  1/4c granola
            • 1/3 c Nuts & dried fruit
            • toast with peanut butter/almond butter & honey
            • glass of chocolate milk (great post workout snack)
            • Packet of instant oatmeal
            • Granola
            • Fruit with string cheese
            • Recover! Remember to recover with a carbohydrate & protein rich snack within an hour (preferably within 30 minutes) after long runs and interval sessions. You will recover faster, experience less muscle soreness, and be ready to go sooner than if you wait. Check out the specific recovery article on UtahRunning.com.

So what does a typical runner’s eating plan look like? Keeping in mind that portion sizes will vary based on the considerations listed above, runners should eat breakfast, a mid-morning snack, lunch, an afternoon or post workout snack, dinner, and then possibly an evening snack based on hunger level, training volume, and goals. Here is an example of a 2600-calorie eating plan.

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What to eat before a race?

One of my favorite episodes of the TV show “The Office” is when Michael Scott decides to put on a 5k.  A charity 5k to raise money to find a cure for rabies, which already has a cure.  Just before the race begins Michael “carbo-loads” on a huge serving of fettuccini alfredo.  As you can imagine, he feels the weight of the alfredo like a rock in his stomach as soon as he starts running.  I’m sure all of us at one time or another can relate to that feeling and as a result we do everything we possibly can to avoid it!  We stress about what to eat, how much to eat, and when to eat it.  Unfortunately there’s not one specific solution that works for everyone every time.  The key is finding what works for you.  The foods that work for you before hard workouts or long runs will be what works for you before a race, so keep the same routine.  That doesn’t mean you have to eat the same thing before every race, you can have options and still feel confident that you’ll be fine for the race.

Pasta is probably one of the most popular choices for people before a race, and it is a good choice, but there are plenty of other foods that you can be safe eating before a race as well.  Plus, some pasta dishes leave you feeling heavy and that’s the last feeling you want to have going into a race.  If I have pasta I choose some kind of pesto with vegetables instead of alfredo or meat sauce.  Some other options could be grilled chicken, salmon, halibut, rice (I prefer brown rice but do what works for you, especially if you’re not used to eating brown rice), steamed vegetables (easy on the butter if you use any at all), baked potato with cottage cheese and salsa, fajitas (easy on the sour cream, cheese, etc.), etc.

Some things to keep in mind when deciding what to eat before a race:

-Avoid fatty foods.

-Avoid food that takes a long time to digest.

-Eat foods that you’ve eaten before harder runs or workouts.

-Don’t try new foods, now is not the time to experiment.

-Drink plenty of water, ALWAYS a good idea whether you’re a runner or not!

-Eat healthy foods.  Again, always a good idea whether you’re a runner or not.

The best thing you can do for yourself as a runner and as a person in general is to create healthy habits so that when the hard part of the race comes your body has the fuel it needs to perform and do what you want it to do.

As for when to eat . . . this is kind of a personal preference, and it takes some trial and error.  So try different things before workouts to find what works for you.  Personally, I like to eat my last “meal” about 2.5 to 3 hours before my race.  I’ll continue to hydrate leading up to the race and possibly have a small snack (mostly comprised of carbohydrates) an hour or so before the race.  If I’m racing in the morning (which is when most road races are) I usually wake up a few hours early to get some food in my body and depending on what time the race is I may even go back to sleep for a while before I get up to start getting ready for the race.  When I race in the morning I’m definitely more picky about what I eat for breakfast because my stomach tends to be more sensitive in the morning.  Some ideas are oatmeal, toast, a little bit of fruit, yogurt, etc.  Sometimes if it’s a shorter race I’ll just have some kind of a powerbar and a banana or something similar.  Again, the key is to find what works for you.  Some people can eat an hour before they race, some people have to eat four hours before.  Try a few ways and then once you’ve found what works, make it a routine so your body knows what to do and what to expect on race day.

The nice thing about having a set routine is that it’s one less thing you have to worry about on race day.  You’re naturally going to be nervous and if you have a set routine you can have confidence in the fact that your body will be ready to perform.  You just have to go out and do it!  Which brings out another point, don’t stress if things don’t go perfectly leading up to a race.  They rarely do!  Have confidence in the things you can control, your training, the foods you eat, the amount of sleep you get, etc.  And know that you’re ready, you’ve prepared yourself and now you get to go show off all the hard work you put in!  Enjoy the race and as Coach Pilkington always says . . . “Look forward to the hard part of the race.”  That’s what we train for, to prepare ourselves for the hard part of the race so that when it comes, as it inevitably will, you’re ready and you can still run fast when it hurts.

by Lindsey Anderson – Olympian | Professional Athlete

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