Good, Better, Best: 10 Snacks & Meals For Runners

Making healthy, performance-enhancing food choices isn't just about picking a salad rather than a quarter-pounder in McDonalds, or replacing Mars Bars with apples on your weekly shopping list. The decisions we make every time we sit down for a meal, or grab a quick snack, can have a bearing on how we run, perform in an important business meeting and even how well we sleep. Don’t worry, though, you’re not going to have to make drastic changes to your diet. Just a few simple tweaks will make the good food you’re already eating even better. Now, will it be mushrooms, fried onion rings...

On waking

Good Coffee
Better Water and lemon juice
Best Water

Why? You lose up to 600ml (a pint) of fluid through sweat during the night so replenish your losses with an early-morning drink. Coffee may be a good choice if you’re planning an early run – caffeine can make you feel more alert and wide-awake, and it helps increase endurance – but excessive amounts can increase nervousness, trembling and even trigger the runner’s trots. It’s also a diuretic unless you're exercising.

Water with lemon tastes more refreshing than coffee and will rehydrate you better; but, best of all, omit the lemon juice – it’s an acid bath for your teeth – and drink plain water.

Breakfast

Use your loaf: a fruity snack in the morning gives a slow release of carbs
Good Bran flakes with semi-skimmed milk
Better Muesli with grated apple
Best Porridge with toasted pumpkin seeds and honey

Why? To kick-start your metabolism and replenish liver glycogen reserves, you need nutritious carbs. Fibre-rich cereals are good choices – a bowl (30g) of bran flakes supplies around a quarter of your fibre needs, 50 per cent of the RDA for folic acid and 25 per cent of the RDA for the B vitamins and iron. Yet they contain almost twice as much salt as salted peanuts (1.87g versus 1g per 100g).

Muesli with a portion of fresh fruit makes a better choice. Oats and rye flakes are rich in cholesterol-lowering soluble fibre, naturally rich in B vitamins and iron, and apples are rich in the cancer-protective antioxidant quercetin. For the longest-lasting energy fix, try porridge (use rolled oats, not instant oats, as they have a lower glycaemic index (GI: the rate at which energy is released): 42 versus 65) with honey. Add pumpkin seeds for their Omega-3 fat content to help boost oxygen delivery during exercise and promote rapid recovery.

Mid-morning snack

Good Rice crackers
Better Wholemeal toast with honey
Best Fruit loaf

Why? A carb-rich snack mid-morning will keep your blood sugar levels steady and your mental concentration high. Rice crackers provide quick energy (GI = 91, almost as high as pure glucose at 100), but may spike insulin levels too rapidly in some people. Cut the GI and risk of a drop in blood sugar levels by adding peanut butter or opting for wholemeal toast and honey instead. The GI lies between 69 and 58 and you’ll get extra fibre and iron. For a slower energy release have a slab of fruit loaf. The dried fruit and fat in the loaf lower the GI to a respectable 47.

Lunch

Souper: lentil and vegetable soup contains a near-perfect balance of protein and carbs
Good Tuna and mayo baguette
Better Cheese and tomato pizza with extra vegetables
Best Lentil and vegetable soup

Why? Lunch should supply around one third of your daily calories and an equal mix of protein and carbs. A tuna-mayo baguette satisfies around one third of your daily need for protein (24g) and around one quarter of your daily carb needs (66g) but it’s low in fibre and high in fat (23g, equivalent to four teaspoons). Vegetable-topped pizza is a better choice. The tomato sauce is packed with prostate-protecting lycopene (it also lowers your risk of breast and lung cancer). This antioxidant is better absorbed from cooked tomato products than raw.

Add red peppers for extra vitamin C – a couple of slices (30g) give you 100 per cent of your daily vitamin C needs. The best choice for runners is lentil and vegetable soup, a good way to get at least a third of your daily fibre as well as at least two of the recommended five daily portions of fruit and veg. Lentils also contain a near-perfect balance of protein and carbohydrate as well as iron and B vitamins. A University of Sydney study found that eating lentils an hour before exercise increases endurance and performance.

Mid-afternoon snack

Good Ripe banana
Better Strawberry and banana smoothie
Best Handful of cashews and raisins

Why? Avoid mid-afternoon energy slumps by choosing your snack wisely. High-carb foods such as ripe bananas (GI = 51) will boost blood sugar levels – avoid under ripe specimens as they contain wind-producing resistant starch – but a protein-carb combo will also provide amino acids, which is what you need to remain anabolic (muscle-building).

Try a smoothie – whiz a handful of strawberries, a banana, a pot of natural yoghurt and a dash of skimmed milk – for your protein and carb fix as well as 100 per cent of your daily vitamin C requirement. Better still, try some cashews and raisins – a small handful (50g) gives you as much iron (2.6mg) as a grilled steak.

Pre-workout

Good Raisins
Better Banana cake
Best Low-fat strawberry yoghurt

Why? Snack on slow-burning carbs 30 to 60 minutes before your run to cut the risk of hypoglycaemia and boost your endurance. A handful of raisins has a fairly high GI (64) and will give you fast energy. A slab of banana cake with its lower GI (47) would release its energy over a longer period – useful for runs lasting more than 30 minutes.

A large pot of low-fat strawberry yoghurt (GI 33) would be the best choice as the protein slows down the release of energy, perfect for runs in excess of 45 minutes.

During your workout

Good Energy gel
Better Isotonic drink
Cheapest Apple juice diluted half and half with water

Why? If you plan to run longer than 60 minutes, consuming 30 to 60g of carbs per hour will help delay fatigue and increase your stamina. Slurp a pouch of energy gel (around 25g of carbs) together with 350ml water. Unless you hunt down an isotonic gel, if you fail to drink enough water, you’ll end up with a gelatinous goo in your belly.

A better choice would be an isotonic drink, containing 8g carb per 100ml (if you want more, choose a complex-carbohydrate drink), which takes the guesswork out of drinking on the run as well as shunting fluid to your muscles faster than plain water. A cheaper alternative is to mix your own isotonic drink by diluting apple (or any other) juice with an equal quantity of water, adding 1-2g of table salt per lire.

Post-workout

Good Breakfast cereal bar
Better Energy bar
Best Protein bar

Why? The goal is to provide glycogen-building carbs within two hours of exercise. Cereal bars are a convenient source of fast-acting carbs to raise insulin levels, which in turn drives carbs into your muscle cells. Most brands, unfortunately, are laced with processed (hydrogenated) fats. Energy bars are a healthier choice (GI 53), but, for speedier recovery, try a protein bar. University of Texas researchers found that carbs and protein eaten in a 3:1 ratio boost glycogen refuelling by up to 40 per cent.

Dinner

Fine dining: turkey for protein and and broccoli for vitamin C
Good Rice with chicken
Better Pasta with prawns and stir-fried vegetables
Best Soba noodles with turkey, broccoli and pine nuts

Why? For dinner, half your plate should be covered with vegetables, one-quarter carbs and one-quarter protein. Rice with chicken covers your carb and protein needs but lacks essential vitamins and fibre. Fibre and vitamins from stir-fried vegetables reduce the breakdown of carbs in pasta (which has a much lower GI than rice anyway: 45 versus 87).

The best carb choice would be soba noodles, made from buckwheat, which has a GI of 46, as well as magnesium, iron and fibre. Mix it with broccoli, which contains sulphoraphane, a powerful anti-cancer compound that cuts the risk of stomach, bowel, breast and lung cancer. One portion also gives you 100 per cent of your daily vitamin C needs. Combine with turkey, a lean source of protein, and scatter with pine nuts for their heart-healthy monounsaturates and vitamin E.

Bedtime

Good Tuna sandwich
Better Bowl of cornflakes
Best Glass of milk

Why? Certain foods can help promote a good night’s sleep. Tuna is rich in calming tryptophan, an essential amino acid your brain uses to regulate sleep. A bowl of cornflakes is rich in carbohydrates that help to raise levels of soothing serotonin in your brain. Best choice is a glass of milk, rich in serotonin-boosting natural sugars as well as tryptophan. It also contains calcium, crucial for promoting sound sleep.