As a coach, the biggest questions my athletes have are about nutrition. “What are the nutrition guidelines for runners? How much should I eat during marathon training? What should I eat the night before a long run? What should I eat after a workout?” Figuring out a nutrition plan is as important as having a running training plan. You don’t want to run all of those miles only to recovery improperly or fuel poorly. Once I started fueling myself correctly, I PR’d in every distance from the 5k to the marathon in one year! Read on for the general nutrition guidelines for runners.
One of the reasons nutrition is an unknown is because it is much more individual than training plans. Yes, I believe that each athlete should follow a personalized training plan, but I believe even more so that each athlete has personal nutrition needs that are vastly different from the person who toes the line next to them in a race. You must test out what works best for you AND keep notes about it! In my training log I always include what I ate the night before, the morning of and during a key workout. I’m continuously honing my nutrition, and my needs change from year to year, even from month to month! Speaking with an RD who specializes in athlete nutrition is also advisable.
According to UESCA, carbohydrate intake for an individual should be between 2.3 – 5.5 grams per pound of body weight per day. Take how much you weight in pounds and multiply by either 2.3 or 5.5 to get the range. You’ll notice that range is pretty large. As a general rule of thumb, on your easy training days, aim for the lower end of the spectrum, on the harder days, aim for the higher end. Remember that you also get carbs from fruits and vegetables, not just grain sources.
During exercise that’s longer than 90 minutes, aim to consume .32 – .45 grams per pound of body weight per hour. Again, this will give you a range that you can manipulate based on the intensity, weather, altitude, and personal adaptation. The beauty of marathon or ultra training, is that long runs provide the opportunity to experiment!
I know personally for me, the sweet spot is about 35-40 grams of carbs. Any more and I have GI stress, any less and I feel lethargic. But that’s for ME. During an ultra and during 3 hour plus long runs, I typically will get my carbs from dried fruits, cherry energy bites, sweet potato cookies and Nuun performance. When I am competing in road races or marathons, my go-to fuel is Huma Gel.
I have a history of avoiding fats, but I’ve learned that healthy fats are an athlete’s friend. At low intensities, athlete’s derive energy from fats; fats also play a vital role in absorption recovery during a training cycle. General nutrition guidelines for runners are to get about 20 – 30% of our diets from healthy fats. Vegan athletes don’t need to worry much about consuming too many saturated fats, but if you follow an animal-based diet you need to also pay attention to limiting that to less than 10% of your total calories per day according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Ahh, protein, one of my favorite topics as a vegan endurance athlete. Yes, I am a vegan athlete and I get enough protein, don’t worry. Most standard American diets are actually too high in protein. Also an important factor to note, at one meal, you can really only absorb 20-25g of protein. Everything else gets stored as excess fat or excreted. So you want to spread your protein out over the day in snacks in addition to 3 standard meals.
The nutrition guidelines for runners suggest that ~15 – 20% of our diet come from protein sources, up to 30% during peak training times. For endurance athletes that’s about .6 – .8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. Strength athletes need .7 – .8g, and sedentary adults only need .4 g. Again, you’ll be at the higher end of the range when you have a harder training load.
In terms of sources of protein, eating a variety of plant protein provides ALL of your essential amino acids. Eating a variety of animal protein provides ALL of your essential amino acids too, but it also provides you with cholesterol, saturated fat, hormones and antibiotics, all of which come with substantial health risks. I switched to a plant-based diet for athletic performance, seeing a Boston Qualifying time the next season.
I hope these nutritional guidelines for runners are useful, or at least a jumping off point for you to start doing your own research and testing out what works best for you. Record what works and replicate it, refine it and see results. Check out my other blog post on what you should eat on an easy training day, a moderate training day and a hard training day here. Also be sure to check out these high protein, nutrient dense recipes for runners: mushroom chard tofu scramble, jackfruit chili, vegan crab cakes, and cherry-beet recovery smoothie.