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Nutrition for Runners

Glass of water

When you’re training to run a race, you’ve probably got your brand new running shoes, your amped-up playlist, and your training schedule all ready to go. But there’s another element that’s just as important: your grocery list.

“I view nutrition as the foundation of a lot of the training that runners do,” says Kayli Hrdlicka RD, LDN, CSSD, sports nutritionist at the University of Pennsylvania. “It can allow your body to handle more miles and recover better.”

Kayli knows all about what it takes for runners to eat properly. She’s a competitive runner and half-marathoner. She develops nutrition plans for all of the University’s 33 athletic teams, including the football players, gymnasts, swimmers, and wrestlers. Here, she separates myth from fact about nutrition and hydration for runners.

True or False: Runners can eat whatever they want

Answer: Both

Running is an excellent way to stay fit. A 150-pound person running a 9-minute mile can burn nearly 750 calories an hour, according to MyFitnessPal. But that doesn’t always mean they can eat whatever they want.

“Think about food as fuel for training, competition, and recovery,” Kayli says. “Focus on how food makes you feel.” “It’s not that anything is off limits,” she adds. “But in viewing food as fuel, ask if this versus that is going to provide you with better or worse fuel.” Kayli advises having an 85/15 rule - meaning 85 percent of your food is for nutrition and fueling your training. The remaining 15 percent is reserved for treat foods.

True or False: Runners can eat whenever they want

Answer: False

Timing is important. Runners should eat before a run, but if it’s an hour or two before hitting the pavement, the meal shouldn’t be too heavy. “You don’t want to eat fettuccine alfredo and go and run long,” Kayli says. Heavy meals can take longer to digest, and can lead to cramping or indigestion during your run. “I ask athletes, ‘What would you eat if you were nauseous?’” she explains. “That’s probably the lightest thing you can think of and the easiest to digest.”

This goes for early morning runners as well. If you’re heading out at 5 am for a training run, grab foods like a banana and granola bar. They’re filling enough to stop the hunger and get you through a run, but are also quick and light.

True or False: Your appetite might change during your training

Answer: True

As you ramp up your training, you might notice several changes in your appetite:

  • You crave different foods.
  • You get hungry at different times, like mid-afternoon or evening.
  • You’re hungry more often.
  • Your hunger pangs are more aggressive than before.

Because you’re increasing the physical demand on your body, your needs might change, and your meals might not sustain you for as long as they did before.

“When you’re training, your body is telling you what it wants,” Kayli says. You might also notice that after your long runs, you’re not as hungry. But just wait. “That day, you might have a low appetite,” Kayli says. “But it may occur a few days later because the couple days afterward, your body needs to repair itself from that run.”Nutrition for Runners

True or False: Sports drinks are like any other drink

Answer: False

Sports drinks are not like water or natural juices. They are packed with sugar and electrolytes, and they should only be consumed before, during, or after a training session, Kayli advises. That’s because of the sugar. “It’s designed to give you quick fuel,” she says. “But if you’re drinking one at dinner, you’re already getting fuel.”

True or False: Runners can drink whatever they want

Answer: Both

Some drinks will benefit you more during training than others. Water is the best source of hydration, and sports drinks are good sources of fuel. Kayli says the best way to figure out how much hydration you need throughout the day is to divide your body weight in half. That’s how many ounces you should be drinking each day—if not more—since you may be sweating out a lot of fluids during your runs.

But there’s a catch: Soda doesn’t count. “An occasional can of soda is okay. I like a Diet Coke every now and then,” she says, “But just remember, soda doesn't replace water.”

True or False: Too much water during a training run can cause cramps

Answer: True

“Drinking large quantities of water immediately before running can cause cramps,” Kayli says. “This is because it takes a little time for the water to leave your stomach. Until then, you may feel it slosh around, causing an upset stomach or cramping.”

During training runs, Kayli says another good rule to try is to drink about a glass of water (8 oz) for every 20 minutes that you’re training.

Another way to tell if you’re getting the right amount of water is by the color of your urine. Too yellow means you’re not getting enough water and need to drink more. Too clear could mean you’re not getting enough electrolytes.

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