Sports Nutrition for Endurance Runners
Updated: Sep 13
What is sports nutrition to you? What kind of foods do you associate with sports nutrition? If you are a long distance runner, you might have already practiced what I am about to share. Note the information here is general and should not be taken as professional advice. There are no set rules, no right or wrong. If you are doing something different that works well for you, you feel strong, run fast and remain injury-free, do stick to what has been tried and tested, unless your circumstances change.
Sports Nutrition for Trail Runners
I suppose many trail runners are familiar with sports drink, energy gels, bananas, dried fruit bars, rice balls, protein powder and BCAA when it comes sports nutrition. There are also salt sticks, hydration tablets, ginger tea, magnesium, a wide variety of supplements, creams and ointments. In this blog, I will cover common types of food or supplements athletes use for pre-, during and post exercise, why and when to take them, also how we can incorporate real food with anti-inflammatory and antioxidants properties, which is highly relevant because all athletes need protection against the oxidative stress from endurance exercise.
Exercise Fuelling vs Nutrition
Exercise fuelling is clearly high on the agenda for athletic performance and injury prevention. It is important for athletes to have enough energy, nutrients and hydration to support their training and race performance, in addition to a balanced nutrition for every day. Fuelling foods and supplements tend to be high in carbohydrates, low in fibre and Iow in fat. High carb, low fat foods have the advantages of being easily digested and quickly absorbed to provide instant energy to spare muscle glycogen, without upsetting the gastrointestinal system. Hydration with electrolytes are important to help replenish mineral loss through respiration, sweating and metabolism during exercise.
As for overall nutrition, ideally we should consume a wide variety of fresh whole food, including high quality proteins like whole eggs, grass-fed meats, wild-caught fish, as well as fresh vegetables and fruits covering a rainbow of colours. Having a diverse range of fresh food is the most effective way to ensure we get enough energy from macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and proteins), and keep healthy from micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytonutrients). Real food should be tasty, enjoyable and nourishing to support our post exercise recovery and maintenance of health. For example, protein and omega-3 rich foods like salmon, nuts and seeds, whole eggs can help our muscles repair and grow, also to protect against inflammation and oxidative stress from endurance exercise.
Nutrients of Focus for Endurance Athletes
Before we go further into fuelling for exercise, I'd like to highlight a few nutrients of focus for endurance athletes. Each individual's ability to digest and absorb various nutrients can be very different. Please do take it as general information, as some (few) people may be able to do better than others on more restricted diets.
Macronutrients for endurance athletes
High quality protein to protect from muscle loss, support muscle protein synthesis, muscle growth and repair
Healthy fats such as omega 3 fatty acids for anti-inflammation
Micronutrients for endurance athletes
Calcium and vitamin D3 for healthy bones, found in dairy, small fish, dark leafy greens
Iron for oxygen transport and iron loss through sweat, pounding of the pavement and gastrointestinal loss induced by long distance running. Dietary iron can be found in red meat, dark leafy greens.
Antioxidants include vitamin C found in fresh fruits, vegetables, and vitamin E in nuts and seeds
Vegans and vegetarians, especially females need to pay more attention to iron, calcium and vitamin B12. This is because plant-based foods contain non-heme iron which is less bioavailable for our body, some plants have oxalates which inhibit absorption of calcium and vitamin B12 is only found in animal based foods.
Dos and Don'ts Let’s look at some dos and don'ts for race nutrition. For Dos, always plan ahead, be realistic, for each long training run - make one change at a time so you can figure out which specific thing works or not.
Make detailed notes and track your progress. As for Don’ts, don’t try anything new on race day, always stick to tried and tested.
List of Dos and Don'ts
Log your intake, amount and type of food & hydration of all long runs, details of how you feel, including any nausea, headache, bowel movements, even underwear, clothes, and shoes
Plan what you have before race day
Plan what you have during the race
Plan what you have after the race
Stick to tried and tested
Train your stomach with checkpoint foods, sponsors' branded foods
Only make one change at a time as you try new foods or drinks in your training runs
Plan the logistics of where to buy, what to bring and how to store
Practice opening the packages during the run. Will it melt, stick together or freeze in the weather?
If you have problems with nausea or vomit, watch out for salt, dehydration, low blood sugar
If you have a weak stomach, test and log your reaction to every type of food before race day - use your long runs to test
What is proven to work for someone else or even the rest of the world may not work for you. Be patient to experiment on your own.
Recognise You are Unique
Understand your own body and personal preferences. What is proven to work for someone else or even the rest of the world may not work for you. Take time and be patient as you experiment with different foods and drinks in your long training runs. It may take several runs to figure out the right food, amount and time of your feeding.
Respond to Changes
Even if you know your body and health history back to front, careful to note your fuelling and nutrition should change with race type, distance, terrain, weather conditions and seasons. It also depends on what kinds of food and drinks are available at the race. If you are racing abroad, be mindful that the food culture may be very different and your usual energy bars or gels may not be available there. It is worth doing some research before you go. Study the restaurant or hotel menu where you will eat before your race day. Be prepared to bring your own fuels and supplements.
Why Do We Need to Fuel For Exercise?
Most runners have to keep fuelling during long distance runs because our muscle glycogen store is limited. Our body can store up to about 400 grams or 1600 kcal in our skeletal muscles. As a seasoned runner, you may already have an idea how quickly you can burn through 1600 kcal, probably a couple of hours if you run fasted at a relatively high intensity. Imagine an average athlete running for 3 or 4 hours without any fuel, what would happen?
The Role of Muscle Glycogen
As we exercise for a long duration at moderate to high intensity, our body gradually breaks down muscle glycogen into glucose for our muscles to use as fuel. If we do not replenish the glucose needed for an endurance event, our muscle glycogen store will get depleted, and we run out of glucose to burn. Then our muscles cannot fire up to maintain the same intensity, meaning we hit the wall and are unable to maintain the same speed. Our liver is able to generate some glucose but those are not available for the muscles and certainly not enough to power your run at the same intensity. That’s why it is important to keep fuelling to prevent muscles glycogen from running out. (1)
Pre, During and Post Exercise Nutrition
Following are some general guidance for exercise nutrition, which may be different because everyone is unique. It's all about sticking to what you know works through numerous trials and errors, and learning from all the successes and mistakes from your past experience.
1) Pre- Exercise
Carbohydrates and hydration with or without electrolytes
No carbohydrates for mild exercise or intense exercise for less than 75 minutes (2)
30-60g / hour for endurance sports (>2.5hrs), roughly 1 gel every 45 - 60 minutes (2)
Carbohydrates for muscle fuel & to maintain blood glucose (to protect the brain)
Either glucose or glucose & fructose are found to enhance performance
Heavier athletes do not need more because absorption rate is the limiting factor
Individuals need to experiment and find out what works
2) During Exercise
Carbohydrates and hydration with electrolytes
Roughly 30- 60 grams carbohydrates per hour (2)
Source of 30grams of carbs can come from
500ml sports drink
1 energy gel
1-1.5 energy bars
Individuals need to experiment
3) Post Exercise
Post run nutrition is important because
muscles depleted of glycogen
Protein post exercise is important for supplying amino acids to repair and rebuild these damaged muscles (3, 4)
Combination of carbohydrates and protein post workout can help (6,7,8,9)
reduce muscle breakdown
muscle growth and repair
restore glycogen store
Protein: 0.5 to 1 gram protein / kg of body mass or 20–40 grams (c. 2 scoops protein powder)
Carbohydrate: 1.1–1.5 grams/ kg of body mass, e.g. 60-100 grams (c. 2 toasts & 1 banana)
Feeding window is usually within 30 minutes - 1 hour but can vary between individuals (5), (6)
Omega 3 fatty acids (salmon, tuna, flax, chia, hemp) (10) and antioxidants (vitamin C and E)
Examples of post run recovery foods (easy to prepare and ingest if no time and poor appetite)
Blueberry yoghurt with chia and flax seeds
Smoothie with protein powder, banana, blueberries and even some fresh veggies
Ice cream or chocolate milk (if you can tolerate dairy)
Co-Ingestion of Carbohydrates & Protein Post Exercise Several scientific journals (admittedly they were mostly done on resistance training rather than endurance athletes) suggested that the combination of carbohydrate and protein post exercise can help restore glycogen, support protein synthesis, to repair and rebuild our muscles. To help explain this, consider what happens when we consume carbohydrates, our blood glucose level increases and our insulin secretion is stimulated. (9) Since insulin is an anabolic hormone that promotes glycogen synthesis, consuming both carbs (to stimulate insulin secretion for growth) and protein (as source of amino acids for muscle protein synthesis) after exercise can maximise protein and glycogen synthesis. (6,7,8,9)
Challenges with the Post Run Feeding Window A common issue with post run nutrition is that many people are not hungry after a run. They may risk missing the feeding window of 30 minutes to 1 hour post run. This lack of hunger is due to shunting of blood flow. During exercise, our blood flows preferentially to deliver oxygen and nutrients to our heart, lungs and exercising muscles, away from digestive organs, therefore slowing down digestion (also explains why glucose and fructose are great fuel source because they can be absorbed directly without digestion). In addition, exercise suppresses hunger hormone ghrelin, and stimulates appetite suppressing hormone peptide YY. Hence we aren't hungry during or right after exercise.
Post Run Nutrition Ideas If you struggle to eat enough after your long training runs or races, here are a few ideas to help you obtain both protein and carbohydrates efficiently. These can be supplements or in real food format, whichever works best for you.
Recovery drink made with protein powder and milk or yoghurt (cow or plant-base)
Smoothie made with protein powder, nut milk, fruits (banana, blueberries) and healthy fats (avocado, nut butter, chia seeds)
Ensure recovery food contains both carbs & protein
Carbohydrates : Protein ratio around 3: 1 or 4:1
Add healthy fats rich in omega 3s, chia, flax, hemp, in food and drink like soups, salads, smoothies and dressings
Real Food Examples:
Blueberry (carbs, vitamin C) yoghurt (protein) with chia and flax seeds (omega 3)
Banana or blueberries (carbs) smoothie with protein powder (protein), fresh veggies such as dark leafy greens, carrots, fresh herbs, spices like ginger or turmeric powder with plenty of colours (for vitamins, antioxidants and phytonutrients)
Ice cream or chocolate milk (if you can tolerate dairy) contain protein, carbs and fats
Hard boiled eggs, lean meat / grass fed steak (protein) and grass fed bone broth (minerals/ electrolytes, vitamins) with noodles (carbohydrates) if you fancy something hot and heart warming.
Anti-inflammatory Foods to Protect against Oxidative Stress (11)
Here are some anti inflammatory foods which are excellent for all runners, athletes as well as non-athletes. You would notice most of these are superfoods, meaning they are fresh, whole foods which are highly nutritious and healing for our immune and digestive systems.
Oily fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, anchovies
Fresh colourful (rainbow) vegetables and fruits to provide vitamin C, E and phytonutrients
Berries: blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, cherries
Dark leafy greens: kale, spinach, broccoli, chards, choi-sum, bak choy
Nuts and seeds - walnuts, almonds, chia, flaxseeds
Extra virgin olive oil
Tart cherry juice
Grass fed bone broth
Spices like ginger, turmeric, black pepper, cinnamon
All green herbs are fantastic for gut health. They are low in calorie and can be easily incorporated into most meals and cuisines!
Thank you for getting this far. Hope the above is helpful. Please feel free to share your thoughts, personal experience and any new information about sports nutrition, as I fully appreciate what we know about nutrition is always changing and requires updating.
If you want to know more about healthy eating and healthy living, get in touch for a consultation. I can help you incorporate one little healthy habit at a time and grow towards a healthy lifestyle in a sustainable way. You may also sign up to a FREE self-guided health coaching guide here!
References: 1. Murray, B., & Rosenbloom, C. (2018). Fundamentals of glycogen metabolism for coaches and athletes. Nutrition reviews, 76(4), 243–259. https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuy001 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6019055/
2. Thomas DT et al. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Journal of Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. 2016; 116: 1 – 28.
3. Biolo, G., Tipton, K. D., Klein, S., & Wolfe, R. R. (1997). An abundant supply of amino acids enhances the metabolic effect of exercise on muscle protein. The American journal of physiology, 273(1 Pt 1), E122–E129. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpendo.1997.273.1.E122 4. Tipton, K. D., Ferrando, A. A., Phillips, S. M., Doyle, D., Jr, & Wolfe, R. R. (1999). Post exercise net protein synthesis in human muscle from orally administered amino acids. The American journal of physiology, 276(4), E628–E634. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpendo.1999.276.4.E628 5. Aragon, A. A., & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2013). Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(1), 5. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-10-5 6. Kerksick, C., Harvey, T., Stout, J., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C., Kreider, R., Kalman, D., Ziegenfuss, T., Lopez, H., Landis, J., Ivy, J. L., & Antonio, J. (2008). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 5, 17. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-5-17 7. Poole, C., Wilborn, C., Taylor, L., & Kerksick, C. (2010). The role of post-exercise nutrient administration on muscle protein synthesis and glycogen synthesis. Journal of sports science & medicine, 9(3), 354–363. 8. Ivy J. L. (1998). Glycogen resynthesis after exercise: effect of carbohydrate intake. International journal of sports medicine, 19 Suppl 2, S142–S145. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-2007-971981 9. Biolo, G., Williams, B. D., Fleming, R. Y., & Wolfe, R. R. (1999). Insulin action on muscle protein kinetics and amino acid transport during recovery after resistance exercise. Diabetes, 48(5), 949–957. https://doi.org/10.2337/diabetes.48.5.949
10. Jouris KB et al. The effect of omega 3 fatty acids supplementation on the inflammatory response to eccentric strength exercise. Journal of Sports Sciences and Medicine. 2011; 10: 432 – 438. 11. Harvard Medical School. (2021). Foods that fight inflammation. Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/foods-that-fight-inflammation