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Nutrition and Running

If you’re new to running, you’re likely also new to how to adequately fuel yourself for running.

Good news! Before we move on to the next piece in our Movement Mondays series, we’ve got one more piece of the puzzle when it comes to running: nutrition.

We’ll start with what you’re eating, move on to how much of it, and finish with the equally-important topic of what you’re drinking.

Macronutrients: The Building Blocks of Nutrition

All foods can be broken down into their component parts, called macronutrients. There are three macronutrients: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Each of them contain varying amounts of calories, which are units of heat that indicate how much energy the food they’re in will produce in the human body when burned. More calories = more available fuel to burn (with leftover fuel stored as either muscle or fat mass, depending on how you use your body).

Proteins are found in things like meat, fish, beans, eggs, and dairy products. In every 1 gram of protein, there are 4 calories. When it comes to running, proteins are valuable for their role in building and repairing muscle tissue.

Fats are found in large quantities things like oils, butter, nuts, seeds, and, yes, avocados. Each gram of fat contains 9 calories. Most fat-containing foods also contain other macronutrients–butter contains protein and carbohydrates, nuts contain protein, avocadoes contain carbohydrates. Most foods aren’t composed of just one single macronutrient.

Carbohydrates are found in things like bread, pasta, fruits, and vegetables. In every 1 gram of carbohydrates, there are 4 calories. Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source of your body in general, but especially while running. Your body converts carbohydrates to simple sugars to be burned straight away, or complex sugars to be stored and used later.

Sidenote: if you’ve heard that you need to cut the amount of carbs in your diet in order to lose weight, and you’re worried about this being a primary food source, DON’T PANIC. For one thing, carbohydrates aren’t evil. It’s entirely possible to get most of your carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, and healthy whole grain sources; it’s a problem if your primary carbohydrate sources are white breads, white flour pastas, and simple sugars like the kinds found in candy. But there’s nothing inherently bad about carbohydrates, as long as you recognize that just like any other calorie, you need to burn as much as you take in to maintain weight and that you need to burn more than you take in to lose it.

And if you’re really worried about carbohydrates and don’t believe me, it’s entirely possible to have a healthy and active lifestyle while eating a protein-heavy diet. It’s even possible to exercise on the keto diet, although you should consult with your doctor first about this as there’s a period of time your body needs to adapt to using fat as the primary fuel source.

There are a variety of ways you can distribute your calorie intake across macronutrients. A common range of macronutrient percentages for serious runners is 55-65% carbohydrates, 20-30% protein, 20-30% fat. Generally, carbohydrates will make up the bulk of your diet. If you’re new to running and not doing more than 25 miles a week, a range of 50-55% carbs, 25-35% protein, and 25-35% fat is a good place to start.

How big is my tank? How many calories do I need?

You’ll notice we’ve been talking about percentages so far, not raw numbers. That’s because the total number of calories you need will depend on three main things: your size, your activity level, and your goals.

There’s a certain basic amount of calories everyone needs in a day for their body to function. This is your basal metabolic rate, and it’s a measure of the energy required for things like your heart to pump blood, your stomach to process food, and your brain to keep the whole machine running.

There’s an additional amount of calories you need depending on how many calories you’re burning and what your goal is. If you’re highly active, you need extra calories just to maintain your weight. If you’re mostly sedentary, those same extra calories won’t get burned and the macronutrients will instead be stored as body fat.

So how do you figure out exactly how much you need? The most accurate number you can get without the help of a nutritionist is with a Total Daily Energy Expenditure or TDEE calculation. If you’re interested in calculating your TDEE, enter some of your information into this calculator to find out! Or if you really enjoy math, the calculation you’ll need is below:

TDEE = BMR x activity multiplier

BMR (Men) = 66 + (13.7 x weight in kg) + (5 x height in cm) – (6.8 x age in years)

BMR (Women) = 655 + (9.6 x weight in kg) + (1.8 x height in cm) – (4.7 x age in years)

Activity Multiplier

Amount of Activity Description Activity Multiplier
Sedentary Little/no exercise, desk job 1.2
Lightly active Light exercise 1-3 days/week 1.375
Moderately active Moderate exercise 3-5 days/week 1.55
Very active Heavy exercise 6-7 days/week 1.725
Extremely active Very heavy exercise/physical job 6-7 days/week 1.9

“That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always hungry.”

The sensation of hunger is regulated by two hormones: ghrelin and leptin. When your stomach is empty, or your body thinks your stomach is empty, ghrelin is released so that your brain gets the message “hey, I need to eat”. When your stomach is full again, leptin is released to “shut off” ghrelin.

However, just like certain eating habits (high fat, high sugar, low fiber foods) can lead to resistance to the hormone insulin, those same eating habits can lead to your body being more sensitive to ghrelin and less sensitive to leptin. Sometimes, a sensation of hunger doesn’t actually mean your body needs to eat–it just means it’s overreacting to ghrelin.

That’s part of why it’s so important to pay attention to what you’re taking in and how much. If you’re aware of how much your body should need, you’re able to provide just that. If you only ever let hunger be your guide, you’re liable to mix up what your body’s telling you and take in too much. This isn’t Skyrim; your body won’t recover just because you shove food in it. It depends much more on what you’re taking in.

Hunger can also be the result of your body being in the early stages of dehydration. Often, what we interpret as a sensation of hunger is actually our bodies trying to tell us that we’re thirsty. If you’re getting appropriate nutrition but are still feeling hungry, consider both how much you’re drinking and what you’re drinking.

If what you’re drinking is high in sugar, it may be making you hungry more than it’s relieving your hunger. Other drinks, like coffee and soda, can act as diuretics, which stimulate your body to get rid of fluid and can make you more dehydrated, not less. That’s not to say you should never drink coffee or soda–just that you need to be aware of how much of them you’re drinking, how your body responds to them, and to make sure you’re taking in other fluids as well. Water, green tea, and 100% juice/no sugar added juices (as long as you pay attention to total sugar content) are all good options. If you find water too bland, there are plenty of flavored waters that make it a little less boring.

I know what I need to eat to run. But what do I eat while I run?

Mid-run fueling is really only a concern once you get to longer distances, with one notable caveat. If you’re running in extremely hot or extremely humid weather, you should bring a water bottle with you regardless of the distance. Your risks of dehydration and heat stroke are significantly higher in those conditions.

If your weather conditions are a little more mild and you’re not running more than 3-4 miles, you may not need a water bottle with you; you may be fine with just taking in fluids before and after your run. If you are doing a longer run, keep in mind that you’re not just losing water when you sweat, you’re also losing salt and electrolytes. Your body needs these for normal physiological function, so it’s important to replenish them with a fluid that provides hydration as well as nutrition (like Gatorade, Powerade, Nuun, or similar sport performance drinks). Keep in mind that just like anything else, sport performance drinks can be overloaded with sugars; pay attention to what’s in what you’re taking in.

If you’re doing a run that will last over an hour, it’s also worth considering mid-run food. Plenty of runners use Gu gel or Gatorade/Powerade gummy bites; it’s also possible to fuel with whole foods like fresh or dried fruits, honey, or granola. Your mid-run snacks should made with simple sugars so that your body can process and use them quickly and easily.

Tl;dr 

  1. Proteins, fats, and carbohydrates are all important parts of your diet.

  2. A good range of each (like 50-55% carbohydrates, 25-35% protein, and 25-35% fat) is also important.

  3. Hunger shouldn’t be your only guide for when to eat.

  4. Stay hydrated with water, green tea, 100% juice/no added sugar juices; not with sodas and sugar-heavy drinks

  5. If you need mid-run fuel (1hr+ runs), it should have simple sugars and be easy to digest.

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