Did you know that what you eat when running is just as crucial for your performance and results as your actual workouts are? This may come as a surprise! But, we’ve worked with PhD Exercise Physiologists who believe athletes can achieve the same results with half the training hours if they correctly plan what to eat when running.
But despite this, many runners overlook the importance of workout nutrition, missing out on improved performance and health outcomes.
Today, we will explore the concept of “workout nutrition periodization,” where you align your nutrition with your workout plan to maximize its effectiveness. It may sound complicated at first glance, but we’ll break it down and provide a simple framework you can easily follow to help your body run as well as possible. Let’s dive in and take your workout results to the next level!
In this article, you’ll learn:
- What to eat when running
- How often to eat when running
- What to drink while running
- How much to drink when running
- How to adjust workout nutrition if you’re a heavy or salty sweater
- How to fuel during a running race
- What the biggest mistakes are in endurance workout nutrition, and how to avoid them
Special Note: While the title of this article is about running nutrition, the same principles apply to cycling nutrition and swim nutrition. These principles will work for all endurance training nutrition.
4 Key Benefits of Best Foods For Runners During Workouts
A well-structured workout and race nutrition strategy is essential to ensure effective training, top-notch race day performances, and overall health. Simply trying to “eat right” is not enough; you need a structured, periodized strategy that provides your body with the right running fuel at the right time. A well-designed nutrition strategy has four primary benefits:
- Benefit #1: Better performance. A study published in PubMed highlights the importance of using carbohydrates before and during intense endurance exercise. By incorporating carbs into your pre- and during-workout nutrition, you’ll be able to reach higher speeds and ultimately achieve better race times and stronger training effects.
- Benefit #2: Increased fat burning. Another benefit of a periodized nutrition strategy is increased fat burning. By carefully planning when you consume carbs and when you limit them, you can improve your body’s ability to access fat as fuel during exercise. This opens up a nearly unlimited supply of energy, which will be crucial for endurance events.
To illustrate this concept, let’s compare an athlete who hasn’t trained their body to burn fat versus an athlete who has. As you can see in the chart, being able to burn fat at a high rate becomes critical for longer endurance races, or you risk running out of energy and experiencing the dreaded “race day bonk.”
|UNTRAINED CARB BURNER||TRAINED FAT BURNER|
|Stored Muscle Glycogen||2000 calories||2000 calories|
|Fat Burned During Race||0.4g of fat/minute x 4hr marathon x 9 calories per gram of fat = 864 calories||0.1.2g of fat/minute x 4hr marathon x 9 calories per gram of fat = 2592 calories|
|Calories Consumed During Race||60g carbohydrates per hour x 4 hours x 4 calories per gram of carbs = 960 calories||60g carbohydrates per hour x 4 hours x 4 calories per gram of carbs = 960 calories|
|Total Available Calories||3824 calories||5552 calories|
|Calories Burned||4000 calories approximately||4000 calories approximately|
|OUTCOME||176 calorie shortfall||1552 calorie surplus|
3. Benefit #3: Better hydration. Hydrating correctly is essential for your performance and health. Drinking only when you feel thirsty is not enough. According to one study, when half-marathon runners followed a hydration plan (as opposed to just drinking to thirst), their body temperatures were lower while running, and their heart rates were lower. This demonstrates the importance of having a strategy for hydrating and fueling during your workouts.
4. Benefit #4: Improved health. Exercise burns a lot of calories and makes you sweat, so it is crucial to replace those calories and fluids to avoid being underfed and dehydrated. Chronic underfeeding has been linked to poor bone health, while chronic dehydration is associated with a higher risk of falling and getting injured, worse heart health, and shrinking of the brain.
It’s critical to eat and drink properly when running, cycling, swimming, or performing any extended exercises. Let’s dive into some rules of thumb for what “periodized nutrition strategy” and “proper fuelling” actually means.
How to Stay Hydrated Properly During a Run
Staying hydrated during a run is essential to maintain physical performance and overall health. It’s a delicate balance, though; drinking too much can result in an upset stomach during a run, while drinking too little can lead to dehydration.
How Much Should You Drink While Running?
It’s been established that the goal when training or racing is to drink enough so you don’t lose more than 2% of your body weight. However, measuring this accurately during a workout or race can be difficult.
A rule of thumb is to drink 200-300ml or 7-10 ounces of fluid every 10-20 minutes of endurance exercise. This works out to about one large water bottle per hour of exercise. However, this is a broad range and may not be suitable for everyone, especially if:
- you are a salty sweater
- you’re training/racing in hot weather
- you experience stomach problems during a race
The Hydration Strategy We Recommend:
- plan to drink one large water bottle every hour
- stop drinking if you’re burping
- drink more if you feel thirsty
- see what works best for you personally using trial and error during your training workouts, then take this knowledge into your races
Special Note: Taking a water bottle out with you during every run is overkill. If the run is less than 90 minutes and you can’t easily carry a water bottle with you (or you don’t want to), make sure to drink extra right before a run, right after the run, and again later in the day.
What Should You Drink While Running?
When it comes to what to drink, sports drinks, water, and electrolyte-rich beverages are a runner’s best options for hydration during a workout. However, the type of drink should be adjusted based on the type and duration of the workout.
During intense workouts, taking in calories and hydration that enhances performance is important, so consuming light electrolytes or a more concentrated sports drink will keep blood glucose and available energy high. Water or light electrolytes work best during low intensity workouts by keeping blood glucose levels low.
Use the following chart as a guideline of what you should drink while running, based on the type of workout you’re doing:
|INTENSE WORKOUT||LOW INTENSITY WORKOUT|
|75 MINS OR LESS||Interval runs, tempo runs, interval rides: light electrolytes, or more concentrated sports drink||Recovery runs and rides: water or electrolytes|
|76 MINS OR MORE||Race simulation workouts: practice your race nutrition with light electrolytes and less than 20g of carbs per bottle||Low intensity long runs and rides: water or light electrolytes|
It can be tough to know what to take for each of the various workouts you might do in your training plan. That is why every single workout in our app has a nutrition recommendation written right in the workout, so our athletes always know what to consume.
This is an example of the nutrition recommendation for an Intense Run workout in a marathon training plan in our app.
PRO TIP: If you’re in a race and your stomach starts feeling bad or you’re feeling queasy and don’t want to consume calories, switch your hydration to water until your stomach feels better. Switching to water should settle your stomach down within 30 minutes. Continuing to drink water and take in calories is how you avoid an upset stomach and turning into a race disaster.
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What Foods to Eat During a Run
Consuming calories during endurance exercise is just as important as hydration. In other words: eating the right kind of fuel is just as important as drinking.
FOR WORKOUTS LONGER THAN 75 MINUTES: It is critical to take in calories if you want to maintain energy levels and prevent fatigue.
FOR WORKOUTS SHORTER THAN 75 MINUTES: Consuming additional calories beyond hydration is unnecessary because the stored energy from your pre-workout nutrition should be enough to last.
During exercise, the digestive system only has access to 20% of the blood flow that it usually has and functions at a reduced capacity, so it’s important to consume easily digestible food and the right amounts, so you don’t cause stomach problems.
What to Eat During Run Workouts
Here are some rules of thumb that can help you avoid common endurance nutrition mistakes.
- Liquid when running: Liquid calorie sources such as sports drinks, gels, or sodas are the most effective.
- Solids or liquids when cycling or swimming: Energy gels, bars, or chews specifically designed for endurance exercise tend to work well for most people.
- Real food for ultramarathons: Ultra-endurance athletes tend to prefer real foods. Studies have shown they need to consume as much as two times more than runners and triathletes during their races. Dried fruit, or portable fruit like bananas, pretzels, energy bars, rice cakes, and baby food packets are some of the most effective options for ultra-endurance events.
- Glucose vs. Fructose vs. Maltodextrin: Glucose has always been the preferred carbohydrate source for endurance athletes. Sports nutrition companies have found that mixing glucose and fructose allows athletes to consume more calories, but it also increases the likelihood of digestive problems. We recommend maltodextrin because it is the most easy-to-digest carbohydrate source; maltodextrin requires more fluid to digest, so it’s important to monitor thirst signals and drink a little more than average.
- Mistake to avoid: An all-in-one nutrition product often results in nutritional race disasters (in other words, extreme stomach or gastrointestinal distress), so we do not recommend them. The problem with all-in-ones is that it’s impossible to separate fluids and calories in these products. If you have stomach problems, it’s not possible to switch to water to keep drinking, or if you’re burping and need to stop drinking fluids, you’ll also be taking in fewer calories and ruining your fuelling strategy.
How Much Should You Eat When Running
The recommended safe range for athletes to consume during intense exercise is around 60 grams of total carbs per hour. However, hydrogel companies say that 100-120 grams of carbs each hour is the ideal range that athletes should consume. Other companies mix glucose and fructose, so they can recommend consuming 90 grams of carbs per hour.
The problem with these recommendations is that these are just arbitrary numbers that are not personalized to you.
To determine the right amount of calories to consume, you can use this calorie calculator below that takes into account your weight, pace, and the type of endurance event. The calculator will calculate the number of calories burned and target replacing 25% of those calories, which tends to get most people in the right ballpark.
To determine the right amount of calories and what to consume during each workout, use the calorie calculator above and the table below. This strategy will keep your blood sugar high during intense efforts and low during endurance-building efforts to maximize workout effectiveness.
|INTENSE WORKOUT||LOW INTENSITY WORKOUT|
|75 minutes or less||Interval runs, tempo runs, interval rides: no calories besides what’s in your hydration||Recovery runs and rides: no calories besides what’s in your hydration|
|76 minutes or more||Race simulation workouts: practice your race nutrition with hydration guidelines and calories from the calculator above||Low intensity long runs and rides: protein and fat-based, small amount of carbohydrates to keep blood glucose low|
When Runners Need to Eat and Drink
Knowing when to eat and drink when running is much easier than knowing what to eat and drink, or how much to eat and drink. Having an eating plan before running long distances is critical.
First, athletes should aim to take a sip from their water bottle roughly every 5 minutes. Dial this interval up and down by a minute or two based on whether you feel burpy or thirsty.
Secondly, athletes should also aim to consume their calories in equal intervals roughly every 18-28 minutes. The more frequent, the better, but it depends on how many calories you need to consume based on the calculator above and the number of calories in the fuel source you use.
Just like with hydration, you never want to wait until you feel hungry to eat.
Training and racing nutrition can be one of the most challenging things for endurance athletes to nail down. It can seem like a very painful process with endless possibilities. However, after training with dozens of professional athletes and translating that knowledge to what works for thousands of age group athletes, we’ve learned the simplest approach is often the best.
That’s why we wrote the book Triathlon Nutrition Foundations, which expands upon this article and provides a detailed nutrition optimization system that can work for all endurance athletes.
Finally, it’s important to have a training plan and a nutrition strategy that work together to get the 1+1=3 effect that will allow you to perform better than you ever imagined in your goal races. Check out our training plan app that uses all these methods and is designed specifically for ordinary people who want to accomplish something extraordinary in endurance sports.
About The Author
Taren Gesell is the world’s leading authority on helping adults take up endurance sports successfully. Taren is an accomplished age group athlete and a respected amateur triathlon and running coach. Taren wants to help you become the best version of yourself.