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Nutrition for Runners

Posted Feb 12 2012 10:38pm
Last week I finally got around to doing something I've been meaning to do for a long time - I met with a sports nutritionist. Training for triathlon and distance running, I place pretty high demands on my body and I was fairly certain that I wasn't fueling it properly... And I didn't really know where to start.

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According to Canada's Food Guide , this is what I should be eating every day

But this doesn't tell me anything about when to eat it and what kinds of things I should be eating to provide my body with optimum fuel. It also applies to the average woman in my age group...

** A little off topic, but as I was reading the Stats Canada info, I found this stat: 43.7% of women aged 20-39 in Canada are overweight (24.2%) or obese (19.5%). Almost 53% of women aged 40-59 are overweight (30.7%) or obese (21.6%). That's scary!

Back on track - According to this table , only 4% of women aged 20-39 exercise for half an hour 5 days a week; 5.5% of men in the same age category reported exercising for half an hour five times a week.

I mention this because when you look at a food guide or a tool that estimates how many calories a day you should be eating, it's generally based on the activity levels of average people... And as it turns out, I am more active than at least 96% of people in my age group.  This is why I think runners and athletes should consult with a sports nutritionist - we have different needs than the average person.

Gotta fuel those muscles!
If you're interested in stats on Canadian fitness levels (spoiler alert: we're pretty much abysmal!), Stats Canada summarized the findings of the research here . I could go on about this - it's terrifying that we lead such unhealthy lifestyles, and we're the first generation who aren't expected to outlive our parents. I'm passionate about trying to get people to be more active! But I'll save that one for another day.. I'm getting WAY off topic!

So nutrition for runners. 

First of all, I must admit something.. I was shocked by how little I really knew about it. I thought for my height and weight, I should be eating about 1700-1800 calories a day. I also thought that because of my addiction to candy, sugar and snacks, I was probably eating way too many calories - but Pete (the fitness consultant/ nutritionist) told me that based on my height, weight, activity level, body fat percentage and other factors he measured, I need to be consuming 2200-2400 calories a day just to maintain my weight! That was a shock.

Not so much a surprise - I am currently getting my calories from all the wrong sources (I'm looking at you, delicious Life Savers Gummies!) Oh - and apparently these DON'T count as a fruit/ vegetable serving even though they're fruit flavoured. Not cool.

The lessons: 

1. My nutrition plan should be based around 50% Carbohydrates, 25% protein and 25% fats. NOTE: this was my plan based on all my information - it may not apply to everyone!! It's pretty inexpensive, I recommend seeing a sports nutritionist to get your own breakdown :)

2. Carbs can be divided into 3 groups: Complex carbs, fibre and sugar. When you see a nutrition label on food, usually you're given total carbs, grams of fibre and grams of sugar. To find the total complex carbs, subtract grams of fibre + grams of sugar from the total carbs given on the label.

For example, looking at my Skittles package (yeah, I know. I'm still eating Skittles. But I have a head cold dammit!) Total Carbs = 51g; Fibre = 0g and Sugar = 42g. So complex carbs = 9g.


1-3 hours before (depending on how you tolerate food before running and time you need to digest) you want to fuel up on complex carbs. These take a little longer to digest but provide your body with stable levels of blood sugar and energy. It is stored as glycogen.

Examples include granola, rice, oatmeal, whole grain breads and many vegetables (be careful eating vegetables too close to run time though, these also contain fibre and might um, make you need to make an unplanned pit stop to take care of business during your run!)

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but too many words in a row are boring :)
20-60 minutes before (again, depending on how you tolerate food before running) you want to eat simple carbs (food containing sugar) and maybe some protein too (no more than 15g).  Simple carbs are quickly digested and provide quick, but short-lived fuel for your body. Pete used a great example to explain this - think of pouring lighter fluid into a fire - you get a burst of intense flame, but it is burned off quickly and doesn't last long.  Because sugar is digested and ready to be burned quickly, it makes good pre-run fuel and fuel for during your run. But you want to make sure that you've eaten enough complex carbs as well so that once your simple carbs are burned off, you have enough glycogen stores to fuel your workout.

Examples of complex carbs: breads made with white flour, fruit juice, syrup, soft drinks, candy

A good pre-run food is crackers or white bread/ bagel with peanut butter or an apple with almond butter.

If you don't eat enough complex carbs, your body tends to break down protein - you don't want this! I don't fully understand the whole process, but the result is a slowdown in metabolism = not good. Don't do it. Word.

4. Avoid high fat foods before exercise. I've forgotten the exact reason, but I underlined it in my notes, so it must have been important!

I don't know why I never remember to take a picture of my food until after I've eaten it... 
5. Consume simple carbs (sugar) during your run. This could be gels or energy products like Gu, Hammer Gel, Sharkies, Jelly Belly Sport Beans (my fave!), Honey Stingers, etc - but you don't need to spend a fortune on this stuff - HONEY is just as effective (just pour it in a gel flask) or candy.


I know, I did it again. I just get so excited for my chocolate milk. 
This is pretty widely known, but chocolate milk is the BEST post-run fuel! It contains the optimal ratio of carbs: protein (4:1) to promote recovery and muscle repair.

After a run, you want to re-fuel ASAP. At this point, your body needs protein and glycogen (interesting note: 'hitting the wall' or 'bonking' are caused by depletion of glycogen stores in the body - this is why we carb-load!). The best source of glycogen is MEAT. Post-workout you want to consume proteins that contain the most amino acids as possible.

Try to eat .5g of carbs per pound of body weight in the FIRST HOUR post exercise. Repeat that amount 1-3 hours later.

7. Fats - these have gotten a bad name, but your body NEEDS fat to be healthy. Try to consume as close to ZERO trans fats as possible. Saturated fats should comprise less than 10% of your daily fat intake, and the rest should be unsaturated fats and omegas (salmon is an excellent source of this!). Check nutrition labels to find the fat breakdown information.

8. Sodium - Americans consume WAY too much of this. Aim to consume no more than 1,500 mg/day. You can reduce this a lot by making food from scratch when possible and not eating too many canned or frozen foods. I know that's tough, especially for busy people but one idea is to make sauces and soups in large amounts then freeze them yourself to avoid store-bought frozen foods, which tend to be loaded with sodium.

9. Get your nutrients from real foods when possible - supplements should be used as just that! Your body doesn't derive the same benefits from supplements as whole foods, but they are better than not getting enough nutrients, vitamins and minerals at all.

10. Runners and active people should try to drink 10-12 cups of water a day!

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