Joanne's Nutrition Tips: Fuel for Running

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Running is a high energy activity that needs fuel. If you have a car then you need to put fuel in it. Your body is the same, it needs fuel to keep going and the best type of fuel so that it can work as well as possible. That’s so you can recover well for your next training session or race and so your body has enough fuel and nutrients for normal growth and repair.

This information provides general guidance about food nutrition for running. Remember that everyone is different, so you might need to make tweaks. If you already have your strategy worked out and it’s working for you, well done, there is no need to change! Always remember to test out changes on your training runs and not on race day.

There are four areas to consider when thinking about your running fuel.

  1. What to eat before you run
  2. What to eat during the run.
  3. What to eat after the run.
  4. Your normal every day diet (another topic, not covered here).

Carbohydrate, Protein & Fat

A balanced diet is composed of carbohydrates, protein and fat (normal every day diet).

Carbohydrates are the body's preferred source of fuel. Different carbohydrates release energy at different speeds. That's a useful fact to know, because as a runner you can choose what to eat at the right time. Examples of foods containing carbohydrate are potatoes, rice, bread, fruit, vegetables, juice and pasta. The GL or glycemic load of a food will tell you if that food releases energy faster or slower than another food. High GL means fast releasing, low GL means slow releasing. (Search for a GL table on the internet or in a book, or ask me for details).

Proteins are needed for many things such as repair, growth, the nervous system, hormones and muscles. Examples of foods containing protein are chicken, meat, fish, eggs, dairy, beans and soya.

Finally we have fats. Trans, saturated, unsaturated, essential fatty acids, omega 3 and omega 6. Fats are needed for healthy membranes and for manufacturing hormones. Fat also provide energy (like carbohydrates and protein), but not in a fast form for use in running. Omega 3 fats have anti-inflammatory properties, a good thing for runners so have some oily fish, walnuts and pumpkin seeds in your diet. (Trans are the ones to avoid, also known as hydrogenated and found in some processed foods).

When we run we make use of carbohydrate and protein at different times and the next section explains when you have which one.

1) Before the run

a) 3 to 2.5 hours before a run

Aim for a carbohydrate meal.
IN PRACTICE: Bowl of porridge with honey and some fruit.
The oats (low GL) provide slow releasing energy, the honey gives some sweetness and energy, the fruit provides additional energy and extra nutrients.
Some people can eat closer than 3 hours to a run. It depends upon your digestion.

b) Closer to the run (up to 30 minutes before)
A snack (1/2 banana) or something liquid like fruit juice and water (50% of each).
Choose something high in fast releasing energy (high GL) that suits your digestion.

2) During the Run

Runs of over an hour.

The body creates energy from glycogen (this is the stored form of glucose) in the liver and the muscles. After a run of an hour the glycogen gets used up. Refuel before you need it.
- Fruit juice and water (50% of each). The juice provides sugar for the body.
- Sports products (see the section at the end).

3) After the Run

There are two aims here; one is to replace the energy you have used (the glycogen store). The second is to have some protein to repair the body so you’re ready for your next event. Your muscles get micro tears as you run and the protein repairs them, so protein is building muscles. It might be an idea to take carbohydrate and protein together because some research has shown that they work synergistically and are therefore more effective together. Research says that there may be an optimum window of time (20 minutes) when the body will benefit the most, so aim to have your food ready for when you finish.

Smoothie made from banana, yoghurt and nut butter.
The banana provides fast releasing energy (high GL).
The yoghurt and the nut butter are good sources of protein

Or if you are finishing your run at home, have a meal that is ready and waiting for you:
-Baked beans and baked potato or toast
-Potatoes, chicken and vegetables.
-Sweet potato, fish and houmous

Sports Products

It makes sense to choose as natural a product that you can for all your running food choices. Natural food provides the energy, contains additional vitamins and won’t have artificial flavours and sweeteners. That said, there are times when you might consider sports products.

For runs greater than 1 hour there are lots of options for energy. There are many sports products on the market and it’s really about trying them yourself and testing them during training. A recent survey showed that our club runners are using a variety of gels, gel blocks and jelly babies and there are many opinions of taste, thickness, quality and how practical something is. For recovery some people use specific sports drinks which will be a combination of carbohydrate and protein (usually 4:1 or 3:1 ratio), or use fruit juice with whey powder. For natural recovery, peanut butter and jam sandwiches and a piece of fruit feature for one person.

The night before races a lot of runners will have their tried and tested meal (one person has chinese beef and ginger with rice, another has chicken, potatoes and veg). If you are new to running it might be worth using training runs to work out what meal suits you the night before and the morning before a race, then you have confidence on race day. Keeping a training diary is a great idea, you can record your running, how you feel and perform, and also the food and drink you have each day so you can see if anything is affecting you or working well.
Enjoy your food and run well!

Joanne is a Nutrition Educator (Training to be a Nutritional Therapist. Final year BSc Nutritional Therapy), Yoga Teacher and a Coach. Contact details at

(This is general guidance only. If you have a medical condition please consult your GP before changing your diet)