What Should High School Runners Eat?

From a 100-yard sprint to a 3.1-mile cross country race, most high school runners put in hours of training. The goal…to run as fast as possible during race day. The competitive edge achieved through this sweat and pain can be diminished by poor nutrition and self-care. So, what should a high school runner eat?

Adolescent runners may need to consume up to 2,200-3,000 calories through a balanced and varied meal pattern. A healthy diet for a runner will include fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and healthy fats. An athlete should also stay well hydrated by drinking water for most occasions.

Runners use a lot of energy and will want to meet those energy demands for top performance. Continue reading to learn more about nutrition for runners in different scenarios such as before a race, after a race, during training and during day to day life.

What does a healthy diet look like for high school runners?

Each runner will have different needs when it comes to nutrition. However, the growth and development along with the high energy demands of training and competing make eating an overall balanced, varied and adequate eating pattern essential for all teen runners.


First, adequacy is crucial. Eating an adequate diet means consuming enough calories and nutrients to meet the daily demands of the body. Insufficient calories and nutrients through dieting can lead to decreased development, growth, cognitive ability, performance, social, physical and mental health. 

Teenage runner calorie needs will differ widely among individuals due to differences in sex, weight, height, body composition, physical activity, genetics and environment. Each teen should eat enough to where they feel energized and satisfied throughout the day. In general, an active teenage boy may need anywhere from 2,600-3,000 calories while an active girl may need 2,200-2,400 calories daily.


Teenage runners not only need to eat enough calories to fuel their bodies, but also need to meet micro- and macro- nutrients recommendations for top performance and well-being. Balance means eating an appropriate amount of these nutrients and avoiding extreme restriction or excess consumption of one food or nutrient.

Macronutrients are nutrients the body needs in larger amounts from the diet. These nutrients include carbohydrates, protein and fat. Micronutrients are needed in smaller amounts from the diet and include vitamins and minerals. 

Macronutrient recommendations 


The body uses carbohydrates as the main source of energy. When runners do not eat enough carbohydrates, they fatigue easily. Depletion of carbohydrate stores in the body corresponds with the common notion of, “hitting the wall”. Teenage runners should try to consume 45-65% of their calories as carbohydrate.

Healthy and satisfying carbohydrate foods include whole grains, fruits, starchy vegetables, beans and some dairy products.


Protein acts as the building block of the body. Inadequate protein will cause building, maintenance and repair of body tissue, including muscle, to suffer. Protein also assists in digestion, cell communication, hormone production and a strong immune system. The recommendation for protein is 10-30% of calories or the body weight (in pounds) x 0.45-0.6 grams.

Healthy and satisfying protein choices include lean meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds and some dairy.


As an athlete trains and increases in fitness, the ability to use more fat earlier as energy also increases. This adaption protects the storage of glucose, the energy component of carbohydrates, and allows a runner to perform longer. Fat provides energy, increases vitamin absorption, protects organs, increases skin and hair health, and much more. Teenage runners should not fear fat and will want to ensure 20-35% of calories comes from fat.

Healthy and satisfying fat sources include olive oil and other plant oils, fatty fish, olives, avocados, seeds and nuts.


The micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) along with other health and performance promoting food components will not all come in one food item. One special superfood does not exist; rather, an athlete looking to obtain all the beneficial nutrients available should look to consume a wide variety of foods within each food group.

The following table lists some foods from each food group along with the recommended servings and benefits. The wide array of benefits specific to each food show why variety plays an essential role in eating a healthy meal pattern.

Fruits-Recommended 2-2 1/2 cups (c) 
1 c fruit = 1 c fresh or frozen fruit, 1/2 c dried fruit, 1 c 100% fruit juice
Blueberries-High amount of disease and inflammation fighting food components called antioxidants 
Apples-High in soluble fiber and prebiotics to promote gut health 
Oranges- A great source of vitamin C to protect immune health Avocado- A good source of healthy fats and potassium for heart health
Vegetables-Recommended 3-4 c 
1 c vegetables = 1 c raw/cooked vegetables, 2 c leafy greens, 1 c 100% vegetable juice
Spinach-Provides bone strengthening vitamin K, magnesium and potassium along with iron and folate for healthy blood cells 
Broccoli-A powerhouse of antioxidants and other disease fighting phytochemicals to protect against cancer, heart disease and even eye disease 
Carrots- The beta carotene in carrots not only protects the eyes, but also the immune system, skin and hair health 
Protein- Recommended 6-7 ounces (oz)
1 oz protein = 1 oz meat/seafood, 1 egg, 1 Tbsp peanut butter, ¼ c cooked beans, peas, or lentils
Seafood- some of the best options for brain and heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids 
Beans-also considered a vegetable, beans are packed with fiber, antioxidants and other nutrients 
Eggs-contain high quality protein, vitamin D and Choline among several other essential nutrients
Grains- Recommended 7-10 oz
1 oz grain = 1 slice bread, 1 oz ready-to-eat cereal, ½ cup cooked rice, pasta, or cereal
Quinoa- Extremely high in fiber and a complete protein 
Oatmeal- A great source of the fiber Beta-Glucan which lowers cholesterol and helps control blood sugars 
Popcorn- A low calorie snack full of phenolic acids that may reduce risk of hypertension, heart disease and diabetes 
Dairy- Recommended 3 c
1 c dairy = 1 c milk, 1 c yogurt,
1½ oz hard cheese
Milk-Often fortified with vitamin D and a great source of calcium for strong bones 
Yogurt-Contains probiotics, which may support a healthy micro biome 
Cheese-Along with calcium, cheese contains a good amount of B-12, vitamin A and K.

Source: https://www.myplate.gov/myplate-plan/results/3000-calories-ages-14-plus

In summary, a runner should look to eat an overall adequate, balanced and varied meal pattern. Continue reading for additional nutrition tips regarding specific circumstances for a runner.

Pre-Run Nutrition

When gearing up for a practice run or a race, runners should find what works best for them. However, the following tips may help runners improve their performance.

First, drinking enough fluid for proper hydration is key to running well. Studies show even a slight dehydration of 2% will lower performance. 

How much fluid is enough? Well, it depends on many factors such as gender, size, physical activity, food eaten, environment, etc. The best way to ensure an athlete drinks enough comes through consistently drinking water throughout the day so that urine color is a pale yellow. Darker yellow or orange means an athlete needs to drink more.

Water remains the gold standard for hydration. Milk, plant-based milks and even 100% juice on occasion can also help with hydration. An athlete should limit sugar sweetened beverages like soda, tea, energy drinks and even sports drinks.

Second, do not skip out on carbohydrates, especially for longer races. The body breaks down carbohydrates to form glucose, the main source of running energy. A limited amount of glucose can be stored as glycogen in the body. The term, “hitting the wall”, where a runner’s performance significantly decreases, comes from the depletion of body glucose and glycogen. 

Carbohydrate loading is where athletes consume a higher amount of carbohydrates in the days prior to an event. This practice increases glycogen stores. 

Carb loading is more helpful to endurance runners as sprinters do not run long enough to deplete glycogen stores. Even a 5k is usually not enough to completely deplete stores. Therefore, eating enough carbohydrates is important, but high school runners shouldn’t be too concerned about stuffing in more pasta than what feels comfortable the night before a race.

Third, both sprinters and distance runners can benefit from a snack 1-4 hours before a race or workout. Running on an empty stomach can lead to fatigue, lightheadedness and poor performance.

This snack or light meal should be high in carbohydrate and moderate in protein. Avoid snacks high in fiber, fat, sugar, sugar alcohols and lactose if lactose intolerant. These types of foods can impair running ability through digestive issues.

Examples of these snacks include:

  • Bagel with peanut butter
  • Greek yogurt with fruit
  • Egg on toast
  • Banana with almond butter
  • Tortilla with lower-fat cheese

During the Run Nutrition

For most high school runners, little to no extra nutrition during the run is necessary. For training session lasting longer than 60 minutes and with excess sweating, a runner may want to drink a sports drinks or eat a small snack like a banana. This snack or drink will provide electrolytes, carbohydrates and fluid to allow an athlete to keep performing. 

During a long and intense workout aim to drink 4-8 oz (1/2 – 1 cup) every fifteen minutes, especially with heavy sweating. 

Additionally, consuming about 30 grams of carbohydrates (carbs) per hour can help an athlete maintain good energy throughout the training session. About 20 ounces (oz) of a sports drink per hour of heavy-sweating or intense exercise will provide this amount of carbohydrates. 

In summary, nutrition before and after a run, in addition to an overall adequate and balanced meal pattern will affect the performance of a runner more than what is consumed during the run.

Post-Run Nutrition 

The energy expended, and the stress experienced from training and racing makes post run nutrition especially important. This time after a run is where the body works to restore energy, repair body tissue and build the body before the next run.

A high school runner will want to rehydrate as soon as possible after the training or race is completed, especially if unable to drink fluids during the event. A general rule of thumb is to drink 16 oz for every pound of sweat lost. Water works great for runs shorter than 60 minutes. A runner may want to drink a sports drink with carbohydrate and electrolytes for runs or training sessions that last longer than 60 minutes.

Consuming some protein and carbohydrates within 30-120 minutes after a workout will optimize the recovery process. 

Studies also show foods high in antioxidants can help with recovery. One study even suggested eating these types of foods 1-2 hours before running may help combat some of the inflammation that occurs. Some specific anti-inflammatory foods are listed below, but most plant-based foods contain antioxidants.

  • Tart cherries
  • Beets
  • Blueberries
  • Fatty fish
  • Black Currants 

Nutrition and Food For High School Runners

A high school runner’s performance ability depends on many factors. Training and nutrition make a significant difference along with quality sleep, stress management and self-care. 

In regard to nutrition, no one specific food will change the outcome of a run. Enjoy an occasional treat right along with an overall adequate, balanced and varied diet. Self-care involves finding time to rest and allowing oneself the small enjoyments of life like favorite foods. A high school runner should find a way of living that best helps them perform and enjoy a satisfying and fulfilling life.

Katherine Harmer, RDN

I'm a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a love for coaching others to success in their health goals, especially teenage athletes. Tennis was my sport of choice in high school. Now I'm a little bit older, a little bit smarter, and a little bit worse at tennis.

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