Do I need a special diet for running?

plate of food

by Carla Gibbons |

Personal trainer and run leader Carla Gibbons on the basics of nutrition for runners

The most important things to get right with your running diet are, firstly, that it provides you with sufficient fuel for your training and daily activities and, secondly, that you eat the right type of foods to ensure you have all the nutrients you need for recovery, repair and rebuilding your body from training.

Your diet is made up of macronutrients which are carbohydrates, protein and fats (macros). You need these in relatively large amounts. Vitamin and minerals are also important; these are the micronutrients as you need only relatively small amounts of them in your diet.

Your exact requirements will depend on the amount of training you are doing, age, sex and size, as well as whether you are trying to maintain, gain or lose weight. There are calculators available online or on apps such as MyFitnessPal that can help give you a fairly accurate estimate of your daily needs and also allow you to track your macros and calorie count. This is by no means necessary and plenty of people manage their diet by eating intuitively guided by how much they feel they need.

The main differences in terms of diet between a runner and non runner is the amount of calories required to meet your daily energy needs. The NHS suggests that an average woman needs 2000 calories and a man 2500 a day but most runners would need more than this to meet their daily needs.

Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of energy. They are broken down to form glycogen which provides energy for the working muscles so this should make up the largest contribution to your diet with about 60% of your calories from carbohydrates, compared to more like 40-50% for non runners. For the most, part try to go for nutritious, wholegrain sources such as brown rice, oats, brown pasta rather than high sugar and processed options.

Protein is very important for growth, repair and recovery, and building muscle tissue and should contribute approximately 20% of the calories in your diet. Examples include lean meat, fish, dairy and beans/legumes.

Fat is important for many processes in your body but especially your brain, mood and helping you feel satisfied after a meal. It is also a source of stored energy in your body and can contribute to your energy requirements in low-intensity sessions but can only be broken down along with glycogen (the term that describes carbohydrates when they have been broken down and stored in your liver and muscles ready to fuel exercise). Fat contributes more as the intensity slows so becomes more important as a source of energy in marathon and ultramarathon events. Great sources are nuts, avocados, oily fish and olive or vegetable oils try to avoid trans fats in processed cakes and biscuits and too much saturated fat found in animal products.

Vitamin and minerals may only be needed in relatively small amounts but they are important for all sorts of important processes in your body. If you eat a wide variety of fresh food with plenty of wholegrains, fruit and vegetables you are likely to meet your needs for these. But it may be worth looking more closely at them if you are vegan or on a special diet as you are more likely to be susceptible to deficiencies.

Making sure you stay well hydrated on a day-to-day basis will help you body prepared for any training you are doing.

In terms of timing it's best to eat 2-3hrs before your run to allow time for your body to digest the meal but also to benefit from the energy it provides, though you may find you can manage with less if it's just a light meal or snack. After finishing your session, make sure you rehydrate and follow this with a snack or meal, depending on when you run. Try to make sure it contains both carbohydrates and protein to replenish stores and help your body recover.

Finally remember this is a guide and some runners may thrive on a different balance of macros. If you are happy with your weight, generally feel like you have enough energy to complete your training and recover well you are probably on the right track. If you often feel out of energy or become ill or injured, your diet is something you could look at. Keeping a food diary or log is one way to do this and, of course, you could consult a dietician for further specialised advice.

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