The Runner's Diet: Eating Before, During and After a Race
Runners are like high-performance vehicles; they need quality fuel to perform at their best. But that doesn’t mean lots of fancy supplements or special diets. For the most part, a runner’s nutrition plan should be based on eating a balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, starches, dairy products and lean proteins, such as meat, nuts or beans.
That said, there are some dietary guidelines that runners can follow to help them train effectively and do their best on race day.
What should I eat during training?
During training, you should eat a balanced diet, but also experiment with a variety of healthy foods and snacks—and when you eat them—to figure out what works best for you. If you’re training for a race, you want to know in advance how you should prepare and what you should bring. You never try anything new on race day.
If you’re training for a shorter race (anything less than 10 miles), follow a common-sense, balanced diet that includes all food groups. Although it might be tempting to load up on carbohydrates and restrict other food groups, be sure to continue eating healthy fats and proteins to build your endurance.
If you’re training for a longer race such as a half marathon or a marathon, aim to eat a balanced diet while staying away from empty calories. Also pay attention to the timing and frequency of your meals and snacks so you can avoid feeling too full or too hungry during your training runs.
By eating small, balanced meals every three to four hours, you can keep your energy levels high throughout the day. Also, try not to eat high fiber foods within an hour before a run as they may make you feel uncomfortable.
What should I eat before my race?
By the time race day arrives, you should have a pretty good idea of what foods help you feel energized and when you should eat them.
To avoid running on a too-full or too-empty stomach, you should eat about 90 minutes before your race. Breakfast ideas include:
- An English muffin with peanut butter and fruit
- Some oatmeal and a small glass of orange juice
- One egg, a piece of whole-wheat toast and a small glass of orange juice
It’s a good idea to avoid foods that are very high in fiber or any type of alcohol the night before your race. It’s OK to drink coffee or tea the morning of your race as long as it is part of your normal pre-run routine.
It isn’t necessary to carb-load on the morning of your race. Maintain your diet with the same amount of carbohydrates and decrease your activity levels in the days before your race. Your body will naturally store those carbohydrates as energy in your muscles to utilize during your race.
Should I eat during my race?
During a short race, it isn’t necessary for you to consume anything other than water. If you’re running a longer race, plan to take some type of fuel with you. Again, it’s important to test this fuel during your training so you don’t have any race-day surprises.
Because your body uses your carbohydrate stores during a long run, you should plan to take something sweet with you to provide some additional quick energy. Some ideas include:
- Energy gels or chews
- Swedish fish
- Fruit leather or dried fruit
If you experience cramping during your race, it may mean that your electrolytes are out of balance. Electrolyte gels and tablets can help you restore proper electrolyte balance and relieve cramping. You may want to drink a sports drink, but try to stay away from drinks with a lot of sugar.
What’s the best way to stay hydrated?
As every runner knows, adequate hydration is critical. Whether you’re running a 5K or a marathon, the best way to stay hydrated during your race is by drinking water. You can figure out how much water you need to drink by weighing yourself before and after your training runs—for every pound you lose, you need to consume 16 ounces of water.
If you’re running a race or long run and have cramping, sports drinks or orange juice can help restore electrolyte balances. Drinking energy drinks can cause stomach upset, so it’s best to avoid them during a race.
What should I eat after my race?
Your body will need to refuel after your run, but you may not feel hungry right away. For an easy meal or snack with a good ratio of protein and carbohydrates, opt for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a smoothie with protein powder, fruit and yogurt instead.
If you’re feeling sore, eat foods with anti-inflammatory properties. This includes beets (or beet juice), celery, blueberries, wild-caught salmon, green tea and healthy fats such as avocado and olive oil.
Although there are a few general nutrition guidelines that you should follow before, during and after your race, the most important thing to remember is that every runner is different. By figuring out what works best for you, you can use your food intake to maximize your race-day performance.
Fuel your goals with help from the experts
Virtua's registered dietitians who are trained in sports nutrition can help you devise an eating plan that helps you reach your goals. Call 1-888-VIRTUA-3 to make an appointment.
Updated May 3, 2022