If you are a solo runner, you know the benefits that come from fueling your body wisely. When runners gather in teams, however, they can easily be swayed to participate in group meals that may focus less on nutrition and more on fun foods. (Nachos and wings, anyone?) Coaches may find it hard to convince all of their runners to fuel responsibly. Yet the team that fuels wisely will have an edge over the team that eats a sub-optimal sports diet, particularly when traveling to competitive events.
Running teams and their coaches—as well as individual runners—want to seriously acknowledge that smart food choices can help them get to the next level. Nutrition is invaluable for optimizing performance as well as health throughout a long season. When all athletes pay attention to what, how much, and when they consume foods and fluids, their chances for enjoying a winning season get stronger.
Preparing for Game Day
The day before the competitive event, runners should:
• train only lightly; this allow muscles time to refuel.
• hydrate well; the goal being copious light-colored urine.
• choose carbohydrate-based meals and snacks.
For a 150-pound runner, the goal is to eat about 1,800 to 2,100 calories from grains, fruits, veggies, sugars, and starchy foods to replenish the muscle and liver glycogen stores that got depleted during training sessions. That’s no Paleo or Keto diet!
More precisely, the target is 3 to 3.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight (6-8 g/kg). For a 150-pound runner, this means about 450 to 525 grams carb the day before the game to refuel—plus for two to three more days afterwards. Divided into three meals plus two snacks, we’re talking oatmeal + bagel for breakfast, sub sandwich + fruit for lunch, a pile of pasta with dinner, plus some pretzels and dried fruit for snacks.
Every meal should be carb-based. Runners who fill-up on excessive protein at meals, plus choose protein bars and shakes for snacks, commonly eat only half this recommended carb intake. While protein helps build and repair muscles, it does not fuel muscles. We know that players on teams who start a game with low muscle glycogen tend to run less distance and be slower than carb-loaded players. This is particularly noticeable in the second half of the game. As a runner, you don’t want the same drop in performance needlessly happen to you.
Race Day Fueling
A pre-race meal, eaten 3 to 4 hours before start-time will optimize liver glycogen stores that can drop by 50% overnight. Anxious runners who sleep poorly could burn even more. A pre-event meal helps fuel high intensity sprints; it delays fatigue so that you can perform better. An adequate pre-event meal is particularly important for late-morning or afternoon start times.
For a 150-lb runner, “adequate” means 300 to 450 calories from grains, fruit or other source of carb that settles well and digests easily. This could be a bagel and a banana; oatmeal with raisins and maple syrup, or two packets of Nature Valley granola bars. More precisely, target ~0.5 to 1.5 g carb/lb. body weight (1-3 g/kg).
• Runners want to tank-up with water, sport drink, coffee or a familiar fluid in the 2 to 4 hours pre-game. This allows time for them to void the excess fluid.
During endurance events
The overall nutrition goals during long runs and marathons are to:
1) drink ample fluid to prevent dehydration (but not over-hydrate), and
2) consume ample carbohydrate to prevent blood glucose from dropping. The brain uses carbs to think clearly and focus on the task at hand.
After warm-up and again every 30 to 45 minutes, runners want to consume about 100-250 calories from carbohydrate (~30 to 60 g carb) to help keep you feeling “sharp.” Sport drinks and gels can be handy sources of carbohydrate at this time. Most gels offer 25 grams carb. Runners who poorly tolerate gels can get the same benefit from natural foods (banana, raisins, honey). Real food works just as well.
• For runners who cannot tolerate any food or fluid in their anxious stomach, swishing and spitting a sport drink can potentially enhance performance. No need to spit it out if you can tolerate it!
• Sweat rates vary from 500 to 2,500 ml/hour. The goal is to prevent a drop of more than 2-3% in pre-run body weight (and also to avoid over-hydrating). That means a 150-pound runner should lose less than 3 to 4.5 pounds per run. Weight yourself (without clothing) before and after a run to see how close you come to replacing what you lose.
Runners need less time to fully recover if they do a good job of fueling and hydrating before and during the event. This is particularly important in tournament situations and back-to-back games.
• To rapidly replenish depleted glycogen stores, a 150-pound runner wants to consume about 300 calories of carbohydrate per hour for the four next hours (more precisely, 0.5 g carb/lb. body weight (1 g/kg).) This can be accomplished with carb-based drinks and snacks in the locker room, followed by a post-race meal near the event site, and snacks while traveling. Plan ahead!
• Runners with a poor post-game appetite may initially prefer commercial sport foods, but natural foods (chocolate milk, vanilla yogurt) offer more electrolytes along with carbs, protein and fluid. Tart cherry juice might help reduce muscle soreness.
• The post-game goal is to maintain a carb-rich diet (3-3.5 g carb/lb.; 6-8 g/kg) in the 24-hours post-game, and again for the next 2-3 days. As a runner, you are either fueling up or refueling! Every meal and snack has a purpose.
• To repair muscles, runners want to target 20 to 25 grams of high quality protein (milk, soy, eggs, meats) at 3 to 4 hour intervals. While more research is needed, cottage cheese before sleep might enhance overnight muscle repair. Tart cherry juice might help reduce muscle soreness.
• When adult teams want to celebrate with alcohol after an event, take note: More than two drinks (2 beers, 10 oz. wine, 3 oz. alcohol) can impair glycogen replacement, muscle repair, and rehydration—to say nothing of hurt the next day’s performance. When recovery is a priority, athletes should avoid alcohol. Good thing the thrill of victory comes with a natural high!
Sports Nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes in the Boston-area (Newton; 617-795-1875). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook can help you eat wisely yet simply and win with good nutrition. For more information, visit www.NancyClarkRD.com.