While my friend consistently munched on her favorite dry cereal, I always went for the banana and peanut butter combo before a race. We each found the food that we felt gave us the best chance of performing well. With so many differences in tastes and needs, what are the best foods for runners?
Timing, type of run, recovery or training all affect which foods benefit a runner most. With the high energy demands of running and the consistent need for tissue repair and maintenance, nutrient dense foods are the best foods for runners. Nutrient dense foods encompass whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, lean meat, seafood, eggs and unsweetened dairy products.
Runners will want to choose a variety of foods from each food group. Some top foods for runners are oatmeal, quinoa, eggs, salmon, nut butters, plain yogurt, chocolate milk, bananas, tart cherries, beets and broccoli.
Continue reading to find out how these foods benefit a runner and more about dietary choices that boost athletic performance.
The Best Foods For a Runner
All foods can have a time and place in a runner’s diet. However, certain foods provide specific performance benefits and make great regular additions to a runner’s overall balanced eating pattern.
Here are some of the top, nutritious choices:
Energizing complex carbohydrates, heart healthy fiber, energy supporting B-vitamins and an abundance of health promoting compounds makes oatmeal an important running staple.
This versatile food makes a great breakfast, but can also transform into many different options for other eating occasions. Combine oats with peanut butter and dried fruit for on-the-go energy balls or granola bars, add some homemade granola to a parfait, prep ahead some overnight oats or make a tasty version of baked oats to help fuel runs through the day.
Runners often require a higher amount of carbohydrate and protein in their diets. Quinoa helps an athlete meet these requirements through its high quality combination of carbohydrates and protein.
This impressive seed contains all essential amino acids, which is rare among plant foods. Amino acids are the building blocks of the body and support a wide range of functions including body tissue repair and growth, the immune system, blood clotting and much more.
Another complete protein, eggs are also high in choline, healthy fats and other nutrients to support optimal brain health. As for meeting the needs of a busy athlete, eggs are a quick and easy protein addition and contain other important recovery nutrients.
There is a reason leading health experts recommend eating seafood twice a week. Fatty fish, including salmon, offer the important essential fatty acid omega 3. This nutrient fights inflammation and increases heart health. As a good source of high-quality protein, salmon makes a great addition to a runner’s meal.
Peanut, almond, and other nut butters are high in protein, vitamin E and heart healthy fats. The additional processing of nut butters allows for easier digestibility than other whole nuts or other high fat foods. Also, vitamin E acts as an antioxidant to assist in recovery along with the protein content. Spread some nut butter on toast, add to oatmeal or combine with fruit for a solid pre-performance snack.
Looking for a perfect carbohydrate and protein option for recovery or to fuel a run? Yogurt meets this need on top of offering many other great health benefits. The calcium maintains strong bones, the potassium keeps the heart healthy and probiotics promote a happy and healthy gut. Combine yogurt with other top running foods such as peanut butter, bananas, tart cherries and granola to make a star-studded parfait.
Why do so many athletes associate chocolate milk with recovery? Research indicates that the protein/carbohydrate ratio, fluid content and availability of electrolytes of chocolate milk is great for recovery after a workout. One study suggests better recovery with chocolate milk over other sports drinks
The high sugar content of chocolate milk makes this food beneficial to runners as a targeted recovery drink, not as a consistent part of an eating pattern.
Quick and easy to digest carbohydrates help an athlete fuel a run immediately prior to and during runs. Bananas offer a perfect fast acting carbohydrate snack. They also contain potassium, an important electrolyte lost through fluid loss on long runs. Preventing dehydration with fluids and electrolytes will protect a runner’s ability to perform.
Usually consumed as a juice, studies demonstrate a significant reduction in soreness with consistent intake of tart cherry juice in the days leading up to and after a workout. Tart cherries also boast of a myriad of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to protect a runner’s health. Furthermore, as a rich source of melatonin, tart cherries may assist with improved quality of sleep, which is essential to top performance.
Studies have found a significant association with beet consumption and athletic performance. The heart and mitochondrial benefits seem to come from the high amounts of dietary nitrates found in beets.
On top of these amazing benefits, beets contain high number of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to help a runner stay strong, fit and healthy. Just be aware that beets can cause gut distress when eaten too close to running. In fact, research seems to suggest the most benefits from beet consumption come from eating them 2-3 hours before an event.
Yes, follow the often repeated advice to eat that broccoli! This vegetable offers up countless health benefits. The high amounts of vitamin C protect the immune system and fight inflammation. Other compounds fight cancer, boost heart health and may protect the eyes. An array of vitamins and minerals improve overall health and the fiber helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels and a healthy digestive system.
Similar to beets, runners should limit broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables in the hours before a run to avoid issues such as bloating and gas.
These top runner foods offer countless performance benefits. However, a runner benefits most from a varied and balanced diet. Runners should note that no one food can meet all the necessary nutrient needs and should strive to incorporate a wide array of foods from each food group.
How Does Timing Affect What Foods a Runner Should Eat?
The best nutrition for a runner can change a little bit depending on the circumstance and time. Some amazing, nutrient dense foods offer great health benefits on any given day, but may cause unpleasant gut symptoms when eaten too close to running. Other foods and beverages contain less vitamins and minerals but offer certain nutrients to achieve success during a run.
The Average Day Nutrition
Overall, any food can find a place in a runner’s diet. The MyPlate model offers some basic guidelines with the suggestion of making half the plate fruit and vegetables, a quarter protein and a quarter grain. Balance among these food groups and variety within each food group best supports an athlete’s wellbeing.
In reference to macronutrients, athletes should avoid restriction of any of them. Instead, they should consume 45-65% of calories as carbohydrates (athletes usually need a higher percentage of this energy yielding nutrient), 10-25% of protein and 20-35% fat. They should also drink water or other unsweetened beverages consistently for adequate hydration.
In the hours before a run, athlete’s meals and snacks should focus on easy to digest carbohydrates and moderate amounts of protein. Foods high in fiber, fat, excessive protein, sugar and non-nutritive sweeteners can all cause varying negative symptoms that decrease performance.
The 3-4 hours before a run, an athlete can consume meals such as a peanut butter and banana sandwich, chicken and lettuce wrap with crackers, pasta with lean meat and fruit or an egg and potato casserole.
1-2 hours before the run, athletes may find it helpful to consume a higher carbohydrate snack such as yogurt and berry parfait, peanut butter with toasted bagel, oatmeal with banana, string cheese and crackers, egg on bread
Runners should avoid eating less than 30 minutes before a run but may find fruit or other quick carbohydrate foods helpful in the 30-60 minutes before the run. Athletes should stay hydrated and drink 16 ounces (oz) 2 hours before a run and 8 oz in the 15-minutes before.
During a Run
Most runners do not need food during runs or trainings that last less than one hour. Water works well during these shorter runs as well.
During longer workouts or in extreme temperatures, runners may find easy to digest carbohydrate snacks or drinks helpful to keep up energy levels. Sports drinks or juice help with hydration during these longer runs to replace electrolyte, fluid and glucose losses. Easy to digest snacks can range from pre-manufactured gels to fruit or even jelly beans.
Stressing about the exact timing of a recovery snack is less helpful than simply ensuring adequate protein and carbohydrate intake before and after a run.
Runners who participate in larger eating occasions before a run, need to worry less about consuming a snack right after than those who do not eat well close to running time. The body uses available protein for repair and growth of body tissue and carbohydrate to replenish energy stores independent of whether those available nutrients come from before or after a race.
That being said, athletes do need to recover with nutrient full meals and snacks. A carbohydrate and protein combination in the 30-120 minutes post-run will ensure an athlete has available nutrients for recovery. They should also replenish fluid stores by drinking 16-24 oz for every pound of fluid lost.
Good recovery combos include chocolate milk, trail mix with pretzels, fruit and cottage cheese smoothie, tart cherry juice with cheese, nut butter on pancakes, fish and rice, roasted beets with quinoa bowl and other meals with quality protein and carbohydrate.
See Some of My Other Running Posts:
- What Should High School Runners Eat?
- What Foods Make a Runner Slower?
- How Many Calories Should A 16-Year-Old Female Runner Eat?
- How Many Calories Should a Teenage Runner Eat?
- What Should Teen Sprinters Eat?
- What Should A Sprinter Eat After A Race?
The best foods for a runner not only depend on circumstance, but the individual as well. Runners should find what foods and eating routines work best for them by building off basic guidelines. However, runners should save experimenting with new foods and food routines for non-race days to avoid surprising food reactions. As a rule of thumb, runners should include more nutrient dense foods and less of foods high in sugars, saturated fats and sodium.
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