Whether you're a professional track star or just the average person looking to lose a couple pounds, there are a lot of choices for those who are born to run. Indoors or outdoors? Shoes or barefoot?
And with a seemingly endless supply of supplements, performance-enhancing snack bars and the like, choice bleeds over into confusion when it comes to deciding what to eat before running.
Like any other athlete, a runner has to consider what kind of food he or she takes in to strike the right nutritious balance. While many supplemental items on the market today can help an athlete's performance, you don't have to break the bank to make sure you're getting the right nutrition.
Let's consider what types of food a runner needs before a long run, many of which could already be common staples in your diet.
The most important things for runners to consider are carbohydrates, protein and fat. And getting the right balance of these three is important. Of a pre-race meal, about 60 percent should be carbohydrates, 20 percent protein and 20 percent fat [source: Tufts].
Of course, runners can tweak this ratio to their liking. For long-distance runner Justin Andrews of Kansas City, Mo., it's more like 70-10-20.
"For higher performance, you need more carbs," said Andrews, a regionally competitive runner with the Kansas City Smoke, a USA Track & Field Elite Development Club.
Why carbohydrates? Because the body converts them into glycogen, a source of energy stored in the liver and muscles [source: Daniloff].
And a good store of glycogen prevents the body from sapping proteins, which are needed in the rebuilding of muscle after a long workout [source: Daniloff].
As for fats, it's the category that often gets a bad rap. But remember, there are fats that are better and worse for you, and a runner should stick to the good ones, like fats from lean meat and low-fat dairy products [source: Tufts].
One more note: Timing is everything. Just as people shouldn't scarf down a huge meal and jump in the pool, runners shouldn't eat right before walking out the door. Long-distance runners typically eat three to four hours beforehand, giving the body time to digest the needed nutrients.
Now let's look at a handful of foods necessary for a healthy runner.
The Big Three: Carbohydrates, Protein and Fat
As we've discussed, getting the right balance of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats is key to staying energized during a long run.
Let's take a closer look at each category, starting with carbs.
Carbohydrates are the No. 1 source of energy for endurance athletes, primarily for the glycogen [source: Tufts].
For Andrews, the long-distance runner from Kansas City, simple foods like whole-wheat bagels and oatmeal are part of his running diet.
"I really like bagels," Andrews said. "They're very dense, a good carb-to-weight ratio, they're typically a whole grain, and they're convenient. I definitely eat a lot of bagels."
Stick to complex carbs, like high-fiber grains found in whole-grain breads, pastas and oatmeal, as well as fruits and vegetables [source: Tufts]. Like many other runners, bananas are a favorite of Andrews, because they're easy on the stomach and pack a lot of carbs.
As for protein, the key here is lean meat, like poultry or fish, and eggs. Meat takes longer to digest, so the less dense the better.
Many runners like Andrews also prefer nut butters, like peanut or almond, because they spread easy and pack a lot of protein.
If you're vegetarian or vegan, foods like nut butters or tofu are great protein sources. In fact, Andrews knows a number of ultra-marathoners who "have a [vegetarian/vegan] diet that you wouldn't have seen 20 to 30 years ago and to think, it can support high-mileage."
Regardless of dietary restrictions, make sure to include some sort of protein. It's necessary for rebuilding muscle during an intense run [source: Daniloff].
And let's don't forget that last category, fats.
Athletes want to steer clear of "unhealthy" fats, like the saturated fats found in butter and whole milk [source: Tufts]. Healthy fats, like those found in lean meats and low-fat dairy products, are needed by the human body. Yogurt and low-fat milk are good choices.
Some basic food staples, like nuts, eggs or yogurt, will provide a healthy dose of both protein and fat before a run. Just remember to give yourself a few hours between eating and going on a long run.
And a final note: No runner's diet is complete without plenty of hydration. Make sure to drink water before and during a long run to replace fluids lost through sweat.
- Andrews, Justin. Regional competitive distance runner, USA Track & Field Kansas City Smoke Elite Development Club. Personal interview. March 31, 2012.
- Daniloff, Caleb. "Running on empty." Runner's World. Vol. 47, no. 3. Pages 70-111. March 2012. (April 5, 2012) http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-241-285--14203-0,00.html
- Epstein, David. "Running away from gluten." Sports Illustrated. Vol.115, no. 18. Page 129. Nov. 7, 2011. (April 5, 2012) http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1191808/index.htm
- Puterbaugh, Delores T. "Swim! Bike! Run!" USA Today Magazine. Vol. 140, no. 2796. Pages 37-38. September 2011. (April 5, 2012) http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P3-2470683401.html
- Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter. "Marathoners (and You): Staying in Energy Balance." Vol. 25, no. 2. Pages 4-5. April 2007. (April 5, 2012) http://www.tuftshealthletter.com/BackIssue.aspx?Id=9&cn=arch