Eat like a Champion: The Essential Guide to a Runner’s Diet for Peak Performance

runner eating

Welcome, fellow runners, to your ultimate guide to designing the perfect nutrition plan for your training. You’ve heard it before: you are what you eat. But as a runner, this couldn’t be more true. Your nutrition plan can make or break your performance, endurance, and overall health. It’s not just about the miles you run but also about what fuels you.

As someone who’s been running for years, I’ve learned firsthand the importance of a proper diet. I’ve tried various diets and experimented with different macro ratios to see what works best for my body. And today, I’m going to share some insights with you.

Whether you’re training for your first 5K or aiming for a marathon, this guide to macros for runners is for you. In this comprehensive post, I’ll cover everything you need to know about a runner’s diet – from the exact macros you need to the types of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats you should consume.

But that’s not all – I’ll also teach you how to design your own running nutrition plan, share a sample meal plan for beginner runners, and give you tips on how to stay motivated and consistent with your diet.

Macros Explained

Macros, short for macronutrients, are the building blocks that make up our diets. These are the essential nutrients that our bodies require in large amounts to function optimally.

Macros be broken down into three classes: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Each plays a crucial role in fueling your body and keeping it going, so it’s essential to understand the importance of each.

Carbohydrates are your body’s main source of fuel. They are broken down into glucose, which is used by your muscles for energy during running. Aim for complex carbs, like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and avoid simple sugars.

Proteins are the building blocks of our muscles, and they’re essential for repair and recovery. As a runner, you need to consume enough protein to support your training and aid in muscle recovery. Lean protein sources like chicken, fish, and tofu are great choices.

Finally, we have fats. Fats are essential for a healthy diet and are needed for hormone production, brain function, and energy. Aim for healthy fats, like those found in nuts, seeds, and avocados, and avoid trans and saturated fats.

The exact breakdown of macros for runners can vary based on a variety of factors.

But, overall, shoot for something like this:

55-65% carbs,

20-25% fats, and

15-20% proteins.

In other words, a diet that’s high in carbs, moderate in protein, and low in fats.

However, it’s essential to listen to your body and adjust your macros based on your individual needs. With the right balance of macros, you’ll be able to fuel your body for peak performance and crush your running goals.

The Runners Diet – Carbohydrates For Runners Explained

Carbohydrates are like your body’s own premium-grade fuel. Just like your car needs petrol to run, your body needs carbohydrates to function optimally. But not all carbohydrates are created equal.

While some are complex and beneficial for your body, others are simple and can cause harm if consumed in excess.

Complex carbohydrates, or polysaccharides, are mostly found in grains and are made up of many sugar molecules. They take longer to digest, providing a steady and sustained release of energy, which is perfect for runners who need a constant source of fuel. Simple carbohydrates, on the other hand, are mostly found in sugary drinks and sweets and are made up of one or two sugar molecules. They provide a quick burst of energy, but it’s short-lived and often followed by a crash, which is not ideal for runners.

It’s important to strike a balance between the two and make sure you’re consuming enough complex carbs to fuel your runs, but not so many that they get stored as fat.

Most experts recommend getting 55-65% of their daily calorie intake from carbohydrates. However, this may vary depending on factors such as fitness level, body weight, and training intensity.

The Runners Diet – Dietary Proteins For Runners

As a runner, you put your body through intense physical demands, which means that your diet should reflect that. One of the most important macronutrients that you need to fuel your body and maintain peak performance is protein.

Protein is like the construction worker of your body. It provides the necessary building blocks to repair, grow and maintain your muscles, tissues, and organs. And when it comes to running, your muscles can take a beating from the repetitive impact and workload. That’s where protein comes in, as it’s essential for muscle recovery and growth.

But protein isn’t just important for muscles. It’s also vital for metabolism, digestion, immune system function, and hormonal messaging. According to research, consuming an adequate amount of protein can enhance endurance performance, reduce muscle damage, and speed up recovery time after exercise.

Protein is literally the building block of life.

As such, these compounds are needed to produce energy, maintain primary biological processes, and sustain life.

More specifically, proteins are primarily essential for building, repairing, and maintaining cells, tissues, and organs throughout your body, but also important for other vital bodily functions, including:

  • Metabolism,
  • Digestion,
  • The production of antibodies that fight infections,
  • Immune system integrity,
  • Hormonal messaging,

Dietary proteins can also serve as a source of fuel when your glycogen stores wear out.

This is especially the case during long and hard training sessions. This makes them one of the most important macros for runners.

The Runners Diet – Healthy Fats For Runners Explained

Let me break it down for you in simpler terms. Think of dietary fats as the fuel that keeps your car running. It’s not just about indulging in your favorite fast-food burger or ice cream, though. Good quality dietary fats come from a variety of sources, including plant and animal tissue, and they play a vital role in supporting a healthy body and mind.

Triglycerides are pretty common and found in foods like butter, oils, and meat. Cholesterol, on the other hand, is a type of fat that is made by your body and is essential for hormone production and brain function. Phospholipids are another type of fat that are found in foods like eggs and soybeans and are essential for cell membrane structure and function.

Now, I know what you might be thinking – “Isn’t all fat bad for you?” The truth is not all fats are created equal. While it’s true that some fats should be limited, others, like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, are actually good for you and can help lower your risk of heart disease and other health problems.

Additional Resource – Here’s your guide to pre and post-run nutrition

 How To Design A Running Nutrition Plan

Now that you know all you need to know about macros for runners, let’s see how you can put them into practice

Determine your Calorie Maintenance Level

Calorie Maintenance Level is the magic number that tells you how many calories you should be consuming to maintain your current weight.

While there are many methods to estimate your calorie needs, one quick way is to multiply your current body weight in pounds by 14 and 18. This will give you an approximate range of your daily calorie maintenance level, which is typically somewhere in between these amounts.

If you’re an active runner, your daily energy needs will be higher, depending on the intensity, frequency, and duration of your workout sessions.

Your daily calorie requirements will also vary from day to day, so it’s essential to stay flexible and adapt your intake to match your energy needs. A good rule of thumb for estimating your weekly energy expenditure from running is to use the formula: Weekly Energy Expenditure = Weekly Mileage X Calorie Burn per Mile.

It’s important to keep in mind that this formula is not written in stone and many factors can affect calorie burn while running, such as your body weight, running pace, and terrain. However, it can provide a rough estimate of your energy needs while running, which is crucial for maintaining a balanced and healthy diet.

For example, if your main fitness goal is to lose weight, aim for a daily calorie deficit of around 20 percent below your Calorie Maintenance Level.

On the other hand, if you want to increase strength or improve endurance levels, shoot for a daily calorie surplus of roughly 250 to 350 calories above your maintenance level.

Here are some of the most common recommendations.

  • If your main fitness goal is to lose weight, then shoot for a daily calorie” deficit” of around 20 percent below your Calorie Maintenance Level.
  • If your main fitness goal is to increase strength or improve endurance level, shoot for a daily calorie “surplus” of roughly 250 to 350 calories above your maintenance level.

For more, check this online calorie burn calculator from Runners World.

Additional resource – Best supplements for runners

Get Professional Help

Need more help? Consult a trained sports nutritionist or dietitian.

They can help you better estimate your energy needs, then devise a nutrition plan and even design a weekly or monthly menu book to help you optimize your training and recovery times.

But this might be over the top—especially if you are just starting out and don’t need professional help.

Additional resource – Guide To BCAAs for Runners

Before A Run

Aim for at least 30 to 40 grams of carbohydrates one to two hours before running.

If you run first thing in the morning, have a small, carb-rich breakfast 20 to 30 minutes before you head out the door.

Running on an empty stomach may, but not always, burn up all of your stored fuel, which can compromise your performance.

If you don’t have the time (or the stomach) for a full breakfast, then experiment with eating a small piece of fruit, a smoothie, or a hypertonic sports drink, before heading out.

The Right Foods

To get the most out of your pre-run meal choices, focus on these four things:

  • Foods you’re familiar with, especially before a serious workout or race. It’s never nice to have a funny tummy during a workout.
  • Low-fat foods.
  • Low-fiber foods.
  • Carb-rich and protein moderate foods.
  • Make sure the food is moderate in both protein and carbs.

Eating During A Run

Now, let’s talk about fueling during a long run. If you’re planning to run for more than 90 minutes, it’s important to consume 30 to 40 grams of carbohydrates for every 45- to 60 minutes of exercise. A gel pack is usually a good choice, delivering about 25 to 30 grams of easily digestible carbs. For more tips on eating on the run, be sure to check out my post here.

For the full guide to eating on the run, check my post here.

Eat Post Run

Don’t forget about post-run fueling! The last thing you want to do is to resume your daily activities with an empty, growling stomach. You never know what kind of unhealthy or unbalanced food you might end up reaching for. So make sure to fuel up properly after your run with a healthy and nutritious meal.

The Tenets of Healthy Eating

Let’s talk about the tenets of healthy eating for runners. Balance, variety, and moderation are key.

Balance

Balance is the first step toward nice things in this world.

In order to stay healthy, you always have to tune in between good and bad, also for eating.

Balanced eating is not your typical trendy, yo-yo, or crash diet.

Instead, it’s the type of eating you should stick to for life.

Simply consume essentials and avoid overeating.

By following a balanced diet, you’ll ensure that you’re consuming all the essential nutrients that your body needs to function properly and optimally.

To find balance, get the bulk of your daily calories from these main food groups:

  • Fresh vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Fresh fruits
  • Lean proteins
  • Legumes
  • Nuts

Keep in mind that one food group does not have all the answers.

It cannot provide you with all the nutrients you need.

Additional resource – Guide to runner’s stomach

Variety

Your diet could have all the characteristics above, but it might still lack variety, which is the second pillar of healthy, optimal eating.

If that’s your case, then you’re missing out big time.

Before you start being creative, let’s get to know what variety I’m talking about.

Variety stands for opting for a wide range of foods from each main category every day to ensure a nutritious diet.

The more colors, the merrier.

Variety is the spice of life and is definitely a significant goal and milestone when it comes to eating well.

In fact, most nutrition experts would agree that variety is one of the cornerstones of good quality, well-rounded diet.

a study published in the “Journal of Nutrition” revealed that the more varied your food choices, the more likely you’re to get proper amounts of nutrients and fiber.

Also, be sure to opt for a variety of different foods from within the food categories themselves to keep your daily menu interesting and provide you with a wide range of macro-and micronutrients.

Additional resource – 30 Keto recipes  for low-carb eating

Moderation

Moderation is all about regulating or controlling your daily food intake. It involves making sure not to eat too much or too little of any food or nutrient.

In other words, moderation is really about consuming the right amounts of foods at the right times while meeting your nutritional requirements and maintaining a healthy weight.

Not only that, but moderation also means not going overboard with treats, alcohol, fast food, or restaurant meals.

Of course, feel free to enjoy your treats, but do it once in a blue moon since most reward foods tend to be high in calories but low in nutrients and fiber.

Take more, and don’t blame anyone if you gain significant weight, especially if you are into junk food.

Nutrition experts recommend getting at least the following:

  • Five servings of grains. Examples of one serving include one slice of bread, one small tortilla, ½ cup of whole-grain cereal or cooked oatmeal, one ounce of raw rice or pasta, one cup of ready-to-eat cereal flakes, and ½ cup of popped popcorn.
  • Six servings of vegetables (Fresh, frozen, canned, and dried). Examples of one serving include one cup of raw leafy greens, ½ cup of cooked peas or beans, and ½ cup of cut-up vegetables.
  • Five servings of fruits. Examples of one serving include one medium-sized fruit, ½ cup of cut-up fruit, or ¼ cup of dried fruit.

Runners Diet – The Conclusion

There you have it.

Today’s article is an in-depth dive into the main macros for runners and how to design the perfect running nutrition plan.

But it barely scratches the surfaces of performance nutrition.

That’s why I highly urge you to continue your education and learn more about the subject.

Your diet, after all, is as important as your training.

There’s no way around that.

Please feel free to leave your comments and questions in the section below.

In the meantime, thank you for dropping by.

Keep running strong

David D.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Awesome article! You wrote just the facts, very clearly and easy to follow. I’m going to share this with my high school athletes.

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