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What to eat if you run

what runners eat MAIN (1)

For week three of her Running for Beginners couch-to-5K diary Olivia Hartland-Robbins asked Healthista’s nutritional director, Rick Hay what she should be eating and drinking to help fuel her running

A few weeks ago I decided it was time I became a runner.

So often when I’m out walking my dogs, I see people running along effortlessly with their headphones and their lean physiques.

I’m so jealous of those people who say, ‘just popping out for a run’ or ‘I’m going for a run on my lunch-break’. How can they make it look so easy? How can they go for a run during their lunch-break and barely look like they’ve been for a walk, let alone a run?

‘Not a natural runner’ is how I myself and others would probably describe me. My family isn’t the sporty type, so unless I was forced to run at school, or if and when I attempt to mount the treadmill at the gym, running is not something I would choose to do – but it is something I SO wish I could do.

Whenever I do manage a slight run or jog, I feel great after, feeling like I’ve worked hard and done something to increase my dwindling fitness levels.


I needed a goal to strive towards. I sat down and Googled ‘charity races in London’ and came across ‘Run Regents Park’ for Macmillan Cancer Support, that was just over five weeks away.

Then it came to me, I’ll train for the next 5 weeks and run a 5K race – 5 weeks to 5K. From the start I wasn’t too bothered with timings or beating a ‘personal best’, I just wanted to be able to run a significant distance, not easily but not painfully either and preferably without stopping.

As I’m a writer for Healthista, I can regale you with the journey every week. Find out how I got on in week one, Running for beginners – 7 steps to getting started and in week two, Running for weight loss – 5 tips this Barry’s Bootcamp trainer wants you to know

So – I know how to train safely thanks to celebrity trainer Georgie O’kell and her injury prevention advice, and I have the swanky and professional running shoes thanks to Runner’s Need. I also got some great advice from a top trainer at Barry’s Bootcamp on how I can lose a bit of weight whilst running.

But then I started thinking – this brilliant advice is all well and good but what sort of things should I be eating and drinking to help me make the most of this running thing?

I asked Healthista’s nutritional director, Rick Hay to advise me on what exactly I should be consuming to help maximise my running ability

First you need to assess what your goals are. Do you want to run faster? For longer? Or just better? ‘Nutrition needs to be tailored to meet training goals, for running goals, you’ll need to work towards bettering your speed, strength and endurance,’ says Hay.

For us beginners, running can be exhausting right? I mean, I know it gets easier with practice but it can be hard to keep your energy levels up when you’re still so new to it all.

When embarking on previous fitness journeys I often find myself Googling, why am I so tired? How can I increase my energy levels? Why am I falling asleep when it’s only midday?

Googling this brings up an overwhelming amount of information on recovery supplements, sports drinks and weird food regimes that I haven’t even heard of before, and I’ve heard of quite a few. So what does nutritionist Rick Hay suggest I consume to improve my energy levels.

What to eat before running (clue: carbs)

‘Your carbohydrate intake needs to be sufficient, carbohydrates are an important energy source for exercise, especially running,’ states Hay.

Carbohydrates are sugar-based molecules that the body uses to produce glucose. Glucose is stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen. Your glycogen storage is tapped into when it is needed, such as for a longer run or a strenuous workout.

The more carbohydrates you eat, the more glycogen gets stored in the body, aka carbs are your best friend if you’re a runner. Now I understand why I once heard someone at the gym say ‘I’m running a marathon on Saturday so after today I’ll be in bed eating bowls of pasta’.


‘Starchy vegetables and whole grains such as brown rice or pasta, are slower releasing or ‘complex’ carbohydrates that will help to maintain balanced blood sugar levels,’ says Hay. These carbohydrates should be eaten between running sessions to top up your glycogen levels, but not just before exercise.

So if you’re planning a morning run, it’s probably a good idea to include lots of slower releasing carbs into your dinner the night before, so you can tap into your carbohydrate store the next morning. You can consume your complex carbs anytime up to two hours before the training.

‘The best carbs to eat right before lengthy exercise are fast releasing carbohydrates such as fruit juice, dried fruit and bananas,’ says Hay, this is why you see tennis players at Wimbledon quickly gobble down a banana during their match break – it’s energy food.  Eating fast releasing carbohydrates before exercise will provide you with a boost of glycogen (how muscle store your glucose as fuel), therefore energy and stamina, enabling you to work out or run for longer.

What to eat after running (Hmmm…carbs again)

Eating carbohydrates after running or training is also beneficial, as this will restore glycogen levels that have been depleted during the exercise – this will keep your energy levels topped up, preventing you from feeling fatigued or burnt out.

Eating fast releasing carbohydrates just before exercise will provide you with a boost of glycogen, therefore energy and stamina

A study published in the European Journal of Sport Science, sought to find out whether a carbohydrate mouth rinse before exercise would improve performance. The study saw eight males take either a placebo mouth rinse or a 10 per cent carbohydrate mouth rinse prior to exercise.

Results showed that carbohydrate mouth rinsing improved their exercise capacity, meaning the subjects who had the carbohydrate mouth rinse were able to put more effort into their exercise.

What I need to do:

If I’m planning a morning run, I have to eat brown rice or brown pasta the night before so that I can tap into my glucose stores during my run the next morning.

If I’m planning an evening run and I haven’t eaten enough carbohydrates during the day, I should have a banana 20-30 minutes before I go for my run.

The fat factor

Fats are also needed for fuel and energy. People freak out when they are told that they need dietary fat, as fats have been given a bad name in the past.

But stored fat called ‘adipose tissue’ is the largest reserve of stored energy available for when we exercise. There is a limited store of carbohydrate in the body but the same can’t be said for fat.

Fat provides us with the highest concentration of energy and is the second biggest fuel source. This is because fat is calorie dense, with nine calories to every one gram of fat. During high intensity exercise, carbohydrates are the main fuel source, but fat is needed in the first place in order to help access the stored carbohydrates (glyocogen).

In Dame Kelly Holmes’s new book Running Life, she explains that the body needs to break down fat and transport it to the working muscles before it can be used as energy.

Holmes also explains that by replacing refined carbohydrates in your everyday diet with ‘good fats’, you will improve your body’s ability to burn fat for energy rather than carbohydrate when exercising.

Holmes recommends we eat nuts and nut butters as they are a natural combination of protein and healthy fats. Nuts are also easy to digest and can help balance your blood sugar when paired with carbs.


Fat is stored when we consume more calories than we need. This is why when we eat too many calories we put on weight and too much fat is being stored. So don’t think this gives you the go-ahead to grab a plate of cheese on toast, yes you’ll need fat to tackle that long run, just don’t over do it.

Plus not all fats are created equal, with some fats being far better for us than others. Fats to avoid are ‘trans fats’, found in margarines, pastries, cookies, pies and takeaways. These are likely to increase harmful cholesterol levels linked to stroke, diabetes and heart disease.

Saturated fat is also not great to have day in day out. But some saturated fat is necessary, as it gives you access to your energy fat stores. Saturated fat can be found in red-meat, whole-milk dairy, cheese and coconut oil.

Unsaturated fats are the best types of fats, and can be found in oils and fish. There has been much evidence that replacing saturated fats with more unsaturated fats helps to lower cholesterol.

‘Focus on adding healthy fats to your meals, such as avacado, coconut oil, nuts and eggs,’ says Hay.

By adding healthy fats to your meals throughout the day your fat stores should be sufficient before you tackle a run. 20-35 per cent of your daily calories should come from fat, so about 50 to 80 grams of fat per day.

Don’t eat a heavy meal less than two hours before a run. If you feel like you need to top up on your healthy fats just before a run, have some nut butter with your banana.

What I need to do:

Make sure I am upping my healthy fats intake and reducing my saturated fat intake. So more peanut butter less normal butter on toast for breakfast. I’m aiming for 20-35 per cent of my daily calories from healthy fats.

Protein power

Protein can be found in animal products such as beef, pork, poultry, fish and eggs. But there is also plenty of protein in tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, beans and pulses.

‘Protein is different to carbohydrates and fats as our bodies don’t store excess protein like we do these other two macronutrients,’ explains Hay. When our bodies need protein we cannot tap into a store to obtain some, which is why it’s important to have enough quality protein in our diet.

It is recommended that we should consume about half a gram of protein per pound of body weight. Therefore, a 140 pound person would need 70 grams of protein per day.

Do you ever feel like you ‘crash’ between midday and 4pm? I definitely do. Protein is necessary for long-lasting energy, if you don’t have enough protein in your diet it will lead to reduced energy levels.

This is when we would reach for the caffeine or crave naughty simple carbs. Although this will give you a quick fix, short-term energy boost, you’ll still need protein to help you through the most active parts of your day, like going to the gym or running for that train.

Protein is necessary for long-lasting energy, if you don’t have enough protein in your diet it will lead to reduced energy levels.

Pre-workout meals that contain protein give your body the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) that it needs to prevent your muscles being broken down during exercise.  But again, make sure you’re eating you meals two hours or more before exercise.

Whey or vegan protein powder is an excellent way of upping your protein levels if you find you are struggling to eat the amount of protein necessary for exercise. They’re best consumed after exercise to help recover and to maintain lean muscle mass.

Protein powders are quickly digested and provide a rapid rise in amino acids that may help increase muscle mass and strength.

So if you are struggling to eat 70 grams of protein per day, have a protein shake before or after your breakfast, lunch or dinner to make sure your body is getting enough protein in order to help fuel you throughout the day and for that run.

What I need to do:

Learn that protein is important.  Don’t rely on quick fixes such as caffeine and carbs for my energy. I need to start eating more protein and especially after running, so that my energy levels are sufficient all the time and not just some of the time.

Two perfect meals that incorporate carbohydrates, dietary fats and protein. Here are two examples recipes of perfectly balanced dinner recipes.

carbs and fats for running

running for beginners what runners eat lean energy bowl

What to eat to recover after a run

Bananas are not only great before a run but after too. Bananas contain potassium, and this is crucial for heart function and muscle contraction. A lack of potassium can lead to muscle soreness and cramping so be sure to keep your potassium levels up if you want to recover fast after a run.

Protein is also key to have after exercise. There really is a reason people leaving the gym are erratically shaking their protein shakes like they’re whipping up a margarita. Dietary protein is required to promote growth and repair the damaged cells and tissues that are damaged after intense exercise.

Eating carbohydrates after a workout is also beneficial, as it has been shown to restore glycogen levels that were depleted during a workout and help muscles better recover.

Hydration too is hugely important when recovering from running training as it helps to rid the body of toxins and prevent dehydration. We lose water and body salt through urine but also through sweat, meaning we lose even more water and body salt when we exercise. Make sure you increase your water intake if you are sweating more than you usually would be (like going for a run).

Back to fats – healthy omegas found in fish and algal oil will help to reduce joint inflammation.

Anti-inflammatory foods such as ginger and turmeric will help to enhance tissue recovery. Turmeric is the spice of the moment and is an anti inflammatory agent rich in antioxidants known as curcumoids to help with recovery. Turmeric is also well known for its ability to assist with joint stiffness and reducing swelling.

To find out more about this spice’s benefits, read more: Is turmeric the new kale? 12 best products containing the golden spice

Where supplements are concerned these too can be great for helping to aid recovery.

L-glutamine is the most plentiful amino acid found in our blood and is also the best amino acid to aid recovery and reduce muscular aches and pains – bye bye DOMS (that’s Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). Try Biocare, EnteroGuard, £42.65

Along with recovery L-glutamine promotes muscle growth, can reduce muscle wastage and improves sports performance overall. So for gym goers, L-glutamine is an all round necessity, that’s why it’s another important ingredient found in both whey and vegan Healthista protein powders.

Back to fats – healthy omegas found in fish and algal oil will help to reduce joint inflammation. Hay claims that ‘not only will these omegas help with inflammation but will assist with joint lubrication too’. So if you are experiencing achy or stiff joints after exercise, fish and algal oil are important for providing you with pain relief. Try Pharma Nord’s Bio-fish oil, £7.95 or Biocare’s Vegan Omega 3 capsules, £13.95

What I need to do:

Make sure I have an adequate intake of essential fatty acids, especially omega-3’s as these are vital to aid cell repair and to keep inflammation in check – bring on the salmon.

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