Whether you’re a competitive runner or just do it to stay fit and healthy, your diet plays an essential role in your performance. What you eat and when directly impacts your energy levels and how well you can run. To help you perform and feel your best, we’ll take a thorough look at the best diet for runners and how food can help improve your running experience.
What is the best diet for runners?
The best diet for runners is a well-rounded diet of whole foods. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, it should include a healthy mix of lean protein, healthy fats, vegetables, fruits, and healthy carbohydrates.1 However, the best diet for a runner also depends on the person and what works best for them.
Let’s look at each of these food groups in greater detail to help you understand why they’re essential to a runner’s diet.
Basic nutrition for runners
Your body doesn’t use protein to fuel your runs. Instead, protein aids in the recovery process by helping the body produce oxygen-carrying red blood cells, repair and regrow muscles, and prevent injuries.2 As you run, your muscles break down, but protein helps rebuild them while you recover.
Good examples of protein sources for runners include:
- Cottage cheese
Carbohydrates are an essential part of any diet for a runner because they’re the body’s primary fuel source. When you run, your body breaks down the carbs you eat into glucose, which your muscles use for energy to fuel your workout.3
Since your body uses carbs very quickly and they’re readily available during exercise, they’re an ideal energy source, especially for high-intensity workouts. Good examples of healthy carbs for runners include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Whole grain bread
- Whole grain pasta
Unsaturated fats (the healthy kind) are another excellent fuel source for your body and an important part of a runner’s diet. And unlike with shorter distance runs or sprints, if you’re on a lower intensity longer run, your body will dip into your fat stores as a source of energy to keep you going.4
Although you might typically think of fat as one of the “bad guys,” it’s essential for a well-balanced diet! It helps you maintain healthy joints and is beneficial for hormone production and overall nerve function.5
Ideal healthy fats for runners include:
- Olive oil
- Fatty fishes like salmon
Fruits and vegetables
Fresh fruits and vegetables provide important vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants essential to any athlete’s diet. It’s critical for runners to get an adequate supply of these micronutrients because they support the body’s metabolic functions and help supply energy to cells and muscles.6
You can’t go wrong with a variety of fruits and vegetables, but some of the best vegetables for runners are:
- Brussels sprouts
- Bell peppers
Excellent fruits for runners include:
- Dried figs
What should I eat before a run?
If it’s been more than three or four hours since you’ve eaten, grab a healthy and light snack that’s high in carbohydrates about 30 minutes before you head out for a run. Examples include:
- A banana
- A piece of toast
- A few dates
Avoid eating a large meal right before you run, as it’s likely to make your stomach upset or you feel bloated. Instead, eat at least two hours before. That way, you have time to digest. If you need to eat something quick, grab one of the smaller snack options listed above.
Also, be sure to drink enough water leading up to your run. Being dehydrated can negatively impact your run and how you feel after exercising.
What should I eat during a run?
If you’re running for 45 minutes or less, you shouldn’t need to eat anything during your run. Otherwise, if you’re running for longer, you may need to refuel with carbohydrates mid-route.
Depending on how long your run is, you may want to consume the following things:
- Small sips of a sports drink
- An energy gel
- An energy chew
- A banana
What should I eat after a run?
Even if you don’t feel hungry after a run, it’s a good idea to replenish your body’s glycogen stores and start rebuilding those muscles with a snack or a light meal. Focus on eating complex carbohydrates and protein within the first hour after running.
For example, you could eat:
- A protein shake
- A sandwich
- Avocado toast
- Yogurt with granola
- A hard-boiled egg with a piece of fruit
- Trail mix
These types of healthy snacks will help you refuel and recover after a challenging run.
Healthy snacks for runners
Regardless of timing, the following snacks are all great options for a well-rounded and healthy runner’s diet:
- Apples with peanut butter
- Plain yogurt with fruit
- Pineapple and cottage cheese
- Pretzels and hummus
- Cottage cheese
- Dates and a handful of raw nuts
- Crackers and cheese
- Plain popcorn
- Dried fruit
- Rice cakes with nut butter
- Tuna with whole-grain crackers
- String cheese
- Protein bars
- Roasted chickpeas
What foods should runners avoid?
If you run regularly, it will benefit you to carefully choose the foods you eat and the ones you avoid. To help your body function at its best, it’s ideal to avoid or limit the following foods and drinks:
- Soda and other sugary drinks
- Excessive amounts of alcohol
- Spicy foods (These foods can cause heartburn and gastrointestinal issues.)
- Artificial sweeteners (These can contribute to dehydration and sugar cravings.)
- Cookies, cakes, and baked goods
- Frozen meals
As a runner, your diet may include one or more of these foods every so often, but you should always consume them in moderation.
Other nutrition tips for a runner’s diet
Listen to your body. Pay attention to how certain foods make your body feel before, during, and after a run. Adjust as necessary, so you can feel your best and stick to what works best for you.
Limit your fiber consumption before your runs. High-fiber foods can cause gastrointestinal distress while you’re running. Although fiber is essential for a healthy diet, it’s best to avoid it immediately before running.
Hydrate. Sip water throughout the day to keep your body well-hydrated and ready for your runs. Avoid chugging large amounts of water immediately before or during a run. Doing so could make cramps and side stitches worse.
Go to the bathroom before running. On a run, one of the worst feelings is when you realize you have to use the bathroom. To avoid that discomfort, use the bathroom before you leave. If you are going on a really long run, you might want to plan ahead and figure out if you’ll need a restroom and where you can find one on your route.
Key Takeaways:A runner’s diet should primarily consist of a variety of whole foods, including lean protein, healthy fats, carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables. The ideal timing and amount of food you should eat varies from person to person, but listening to your body will help you determine what works best for you.
- Runner’s Diet. (2022, June 3). Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/runners-diet
- Jäger, R., Kerksick, C. M., Campbell, B. I., Cribb, P. J., Wells, S. D., Skwiat, T. M., Purpura, M., Ziegenfuss, T. N., Ferrando, A. A., Arent, S. M., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Stout, J. R., Arciero, P. J., Ormsbee, M. J., Taylor, L. W., Wilborn, C. D., Kalman, D. S., Kreider, R. B., Willoughby, D. S., . . . Antonio, J. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
- Carbohydrates. (2021, January 12). Www.Heart.Org. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/carbohydrates
- Pramukova, B. (2011). Current knowledge about sports nutrition. Australasian Medical Journal, 4(3), 107–110. https://doi.org/10.4066/amj.2011.520
- Harvard Health. (2021, April 19). Know the facts about fats. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/know-the-facts-about-fats
- Slavin, J. L., & Lloyd, B. (2012). Health Benefits of Fruits and Vegetables. Advances in Nutrition, 3(4), 506–516. https://doi.org/10.3945/an.112.002154