Whether you are new to running and running to help lose some weight and get fitter, or if you a serious amateur and want to compete in road races, diet and nutrition is vital.
Your diet determines how much energy you have to fuel your muscles when you are running, and also provides the nutrition required to repair and grow new muscle tissue.
Nutrition is also important for ensuring total health, to make sure that your blood flows well and the nutrition passes into the muscles efficiently and quickly. Here is our nutrition advice for runners.
Carbohydrates = Muscle Fuel
Carbohydrates are the nutrients that fuel your muscles. Specifically, muscles store glycogen and use this as fuel. When you exercise your glycogen reserves are depleted and then need to be replaced if you wish to continue to exercise.
The body can obtain extra energy from the fat depots by breaking down triglycerides (TAGS) into glycerol and fatty acids. This is essentially how exercise helps us break down fatty tissue.
Also note that everyone maintains the same number of fat cells throughout their lives (more or less). When people become fat it is because they store more TAGS inside the fat cells, because the fat cells take up excess blood sugars (glycogen). So excess carbohydrate leads to accumulation of fat in the fat cells, which is then only released when the body is depleted of glycogen in the muscles.
Your diet should be around 60% to 65% carbohydrate, and ideally these should be sourced from a variety of fruits and vegetables, and not all just staples (bread, pasta, rice). Sweet potatoes are a great source of carbs for athletes as are whole grains.
Proteins Build Stronger and Faster Muscles
While carbs are the fuel for muscles, proteins are what make muscles stronger, they are the building blocks.
Some interesting research was published last year that showed that when protein was added to sports drinks (carb based drinks) athletes did realized an increase in intensity at the end of an endurance race.
“Long distance runners, cyclists and other endurance athletes often refuel mid-race to help maintain carbohydrate levels (glycogen in the muscles). Traditionally drinks are just carbohydrates (glucose, maltodextrin, and fructose) and other some vitamins. However, sports nutritionists have found that adding protein increases performance.”
Your diet should be 15% to 20% protein, and ideally this should be a mixture of casein (egg) and whey (milk by product) and contain a healthy dose BCAA (branch chain amino acids).
The best sources of protein are the low fat and low cholesterol ones, such as lean meats, fish, eggs, chicken and low fat dairy as well as beans and whole grains (to a lesser extent).
How Much Protein Should Runners Take?
Runners do not require as much protein as bodybuilders but still need around 1 – 1.5 grams per kg of bodyweight (about 0.5-0.75g per pound).
Dietary Fat – Keep It In Check
It is still important to not consume too much fat. Keep fat intake to around 20% of calories. Foods should be low in saturated fats and cholesterol. Many foods do contain healthy fats, such as nuts, oils and deep water fish such as mackerel, sardines and salmon. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered very good for health.
Cod liver oil is good to aid joints, many runners take cod liver supplements to keep the joints well oiled.
In addition to consuming the correct quantities, and quality, of these macronutrients it is also important that you consume a wide range of minerals and vitamins. Most important for runners are vitamins C, E and A which combat free radicals (which increase during exercise).
Calcium is also essential nutrients for runners as they help to maintain bone density and strength which can reduce risk of fractures. Good dietary sources are low fat dairy, dark leafy vegetables and eggs. Generally a well balanced and varied diet that contains lots of vegetables and fruits will provide adequate calcium.
Iron is vital for transporting oxygen in the blood to the muscles. When iron is depleted you feel tired quicker as oxygen cannot be carried to the muscles to aid aerobic exercise. Best sources of iron are lean meats, leafy greens, nuts and seafood.
If you run a lot and sweat a lot then you may lose salts, so sodium is sometimes important. Some sports drinks contain sodium to help rehydrate after an intensive workout.