Many runners know exactly what they should eat and when they should eat it. It’s the practical application of this theory that messes them up. You are either ravenous when you don’t want to be – during training – or not hungry when you should be – immediately after training. The problem is that when you are planning your run around a busy work schedule, your brain, leg muscles and stomach don’t always stay in sync.
An early-morning run, for example, can leave you feeling fatigued during your working day. A midday training session may become no more than an afterthought if hunger overrides your motivation. And an after-work jaunt may press your dinnertime perilously close to bedtime.
If you are looking for ways to get back into sync, read on. The following advice will help you coordinate your meals with your training schedule, based on the time of day you run.
To eat or not to eat? That is the eternal question of those who like to run as the sun is coming up.
The answer is, if you can, you should fuel up before your morning run. This performs two functions. First your muscles receive an energy supply to help you power through the run. Secondly, your entire body, especially your brain, receives the fuel and nutrients it needs for optimal functioning. It shouldn’t be a surprise that studies support this and that eating before a run boosts endurance compared with fasting for 12 hours. People who eat before exercise rate the exercise as better and as less rigorous compared with those who fast.
That said, not everyone can eat before a morning run. If you’re the type of person who sleeps until the minute before you head out of the door, you might not be able to fit in the meal before you run. Eating too close to your run may spoil it by causing cramps and nausea. On the other hand, if you’re a true early bird, you may have the time to eat breakfast, read the paper and wash up before you head out of the door. Here are a few refuelling strategies for both types of morning exercisers:
Choose high-carbohydrate foods that are low in fat and moderate in protein. Aim for about 400-800 calories, which will fuel your training without making you feel sluggish. Drink about half a pint of water two hours before your run to offset sweat loss.
Try these 400- to 800-calorie pre-run breakfasts:
- Two slices of toast and a piece of fruit
- Cereal with skimmed or semi-skimmed milk and fresh fruit
- A toasted bagel topped with low-fat cheese and tomato slices
Most runners fall into this category and don’t have time to eat and digest a full meal before they head out of the door.If you fall into this camp, experiment to see what you can stomach before you train. Here are a few suggestions:
- Half a pint of a carbohydrate drink
- An energy gel washed down with water
- Half a bagel
If none of these sits well with you just before a run, then fuel up the night before with a large dinner. As long as you don’t plan a long or intense run in the morning, a high-carbohydrate evening meal should power you through your pre-breakfast run.
For both types
Whether you are an early or late riser, your body needs calories from carbohydrate, protein and other nutrients after you have finished running. A recovery meal will help fuel your morning at work, preventing post-run fatigue. Eat within an hour of your training and be sure to include both carbohydrate and protein. Here are some options:
- A fruit smoothie made with a tablespoon of protein powder
- Eggs on whole-wheat toast and fruit juice or fresh fruit
- Leftovers from dinner – pasta, soup, chilli or even vegetable pizza
The Lunchtime Crowd
People who run during lunch hours sometimes find that hunger gets the better of them. That’s because if you ate breakfast at 6am, you’ve gone six hours without food. By noon, your fuel from breakfast is long gone and your blood sugar may start to dip. Rather than increasing the size of your breakfast (which may just leave you feeling sluggish), you should bring a light, pre-run snack to work.
Remember the following three points as you run:
1) Timing Eat one to four hours before your run to allow enough time to food to leave your stomach.
2) Quantity Eat 100-400 calories, depending upon your body size and what you had for breakfast.
3) Content Select foods that are rich in carbohydrate, low in fat and moderately high in nutrients. Try these mid-morning snacks:
- A breakfast or energy bar with five grams of fat or less
- One slice of whole-wheat toast topped with fruit spread
- A 75g serving of dried fruit with a can of vegetable juice
- One packet of instant oatmeal made with skimmed milk
The obvious problem with lunch-hour exercise is that you don’t have time for lunch. But you need fluid and food to recover and fuel your brain for the rest of the working day. Packing your own lunch becomes a must – unless you have a work cafeteria where you can grab food for desktop dining. Packed lunches don’t have to take a lot of time. Try these tips:
- Opt for convenience and shop for lunch items that save time, such as yoghurts, raisins, nuts and cereal bars
- Always add fruit. Toss one or two pieces of fruit in your lunch bag for a reliable source of nutrient-packed carbohydrate
- Make the most of leftovers. Choose any food from the previous night’s dinner that you’ve already packed in a sealed container ready for transport, reheating and eating
After a stressful day at the office, there’s nothing like a run to burn off excess tension. The problem is that you sometimes don’t feel like heading out of the door if you’re hungry or just exhausted. If you do manage to run, sometimes you return home so ravenous that you eat everything in sight as you make your evening meal. Then you might eat dinner as late as 8pm and end up going to bed with a full stomach.
What to do?
It’s very simple – just stick to the following two principles:
1. Eat healthily during the day to avoid any intestinal upset that might thwart your training plans. Also eat often and enough that you’re adequately fuelled for your session to avoid the ‘I’m too hungry’ excuse.
2. Eat lightly after exercise to recover well without causing digestion to interfere with your sleep.
Here are some tips for evening exercisers:
- Never skip breakfast. Eat at least 500 calories for your morning meal. For example, quickly throw together a fruit smoothie made with yoghurt, fruit and juice. Or try cereal topped with nuts, skimmed milk and a piece of fruit.
- Make lunch your main meal of the day. Focus on high-quality protein, such as fish, tofu, lean beef, chicken or bread with cooked grain, along with fresh fruit.
- Always eat a mid-afternoon snack. Around three hours before your run, eat a snack of fruit or an energy bar together with half a pint of water.
- Drink more fluids. Grab a drink as soon as you step back through the door after your run. And keep drinking as you prepare your meal. This helps replace sweat loss and may prevent you trying to eat everything in sight.
- Eat moderately at dinner. Some people worry about eating too close to bedtime because they fear the calories will go straight to their fat cells. That’s simply not true. Your body will use those calories to stockpile fuel in your muscles. On the other hand if you eat more calories than your body needs – no matter what time of day or night – your body will eventually store the excess as fat.