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Nutrition advice for runners

March 29, 2022 | Healthy You | Eating Right

Woman fixing food at kitchen counter

What should you eat and when? Here are tips from a PeaceHealth dietitian on finetuning your plan.

Are you planning to run a marathon or other long-distance race? Here are some tips from Cecelia Jacobson, RD, a dietitian at PeaceHealth, for finetuning your nutrition to reap rewards on race day.

Your body will need the right fuel to get you to the finish line, and to prevent injury and promote recovery.  

Keep in mind these are general guidelines. You may have to tailor them to fit your unique needs. Please seek medical advice if you have specific concerns.

Training and performance food groups

  • Carbohydrates: Aim for 60 to 70 percent of your daily calories to come from carbohydrates. Choose complex carbohydrates, like fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and limit simple carbohydrates from refined sugar to 10 percent or less of your daily calories. Carbohydrates help your body absorb water, making it less likely that you will “hit the wall” while exercising. Pair every gram of carbohydrate with 3 grams, or about half of a teaspoon, of water.
  • Fat: Aim for about 20 percent of your daily calories to come from fat. Make sure to include good fats, like nuts, fish, seeds, and avocados, and limit the saturated fat found in animal products.
  • Protein: Aim for 10 to 15 percent of your daily calories to come from protein. Protein can help preserve lean muscle mass, resulting in higher quality training. Eating protein with carbohydrates following exercise (especially runs over 10 miles) will help minimize damage to muscles and speed recovery. Some examples of these pairings include a tuna sandwich on whole wheat bread, or beans/legumes with brown rice and piece of fruit.

What to eat and drink before your run and when:

  • Three to four hours before your run, eat a meal of carbohydrates, fat and protein.
  • Two hours before, have a snack of carbohydrates and protein.
  • One hour before, drink fluids that contain carbohydrates.
  • Five to 10 minutes before, drink fluids or energy gel that contain carbohydrates.

For runs longer than an hour:

  • Drink fluids within the first 10 to 20 minutes.
  • Drink 2 to 8 ounces of fluids every 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Consume 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates for each hour of exercise. If your run is longer than four hours, consume 60 grams. But try not to go over 60 grams, which could lead to gastric distress.
  • Aim to take in 200 to 300 calories for each hour of exercise. Examples include an 8-ounce sports drink every 20 minutes or gels every 30 to 45 minutes with plain water.

Within 15-20 minutes after your run:

  • For every pound of body weight lost, drink 2 1/2 cups of water.
  • Consume 50 to 100 grams of carbohydrates from a high glycemic food, such as banana, orange juice, corn flakes, oatmeal, baked potato, cooked carrots, bread or beans.

Two hours after your run:

Eat a meal high in carbohydrates with protein to promote muscle repair. Examples include oatmeal, or peanut butter on a bagel or bread, or cereal with chocolate milk.

Final tips for race day

Twenty-four hours before:

  • Do not try anything new. Stick with what has been working for you during your training.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Avoid foods that could potentially cause gastrointestinal distress. High-fat foods, for example, tend to take longer to digest and can feel like they are “sitting” in your stomach.
  • Avoid high fiber foods and sugar substitutes, like Xylitol and Sorbitol, which can have a laxative effect.
  • Limit alcohol intake. Alcohol can compromise your sleep, temporarily reduce your body’s ability to store glycogen -- a vital nutrient for endurance activities -- and potentially lead to dehydration.
  • Have a bedtime snack that includes some carbohydrates and a little protein, such as trail mix, apple or banana with nut butter, or Greek yogurt with fruit, to “top off the fuel tank.”

On race day:

  • Four hours before the race, eat a meal of carbohydrates, fat and protein. Include 200 grams of carbohydrates in that meal.
  • Continue to consume carbohydrates every hour before the race in decreasing amounts.
    • 3 hours before: 150 grams
    • 2 hours before: 100 grams
    • 1 hour before: 50 grams
  • Liquid meals high in carbohydrates may be best for early morning races.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking 2 to 8 ounces every 15 to 20 minutes. Dehydration results in your body being unable to dissipate heat, which raises your temperature. Dehydration also can lead to gastrointestinal problems and cause an imbalance in electrolytes, which can lead to muscle cramps and weakness.   

Find what works best for you and have your nutrition plan in place about a month before your race. That will give you time to perfect your routine so on race day you can focus on doing your best and having fun.

For more nutrition tips for runners, tune into Cecelia Jacobson’s discussion with Ian Dobson, Eugene Marathon race director, in the video series “Race Ready with PeaceHealth.”