When it comes to eating for endurance, today's runners are confronted with two opposing views:
• Eat a traditional carbohydrate-based sports diet, or
• Eat a fat-based diet that severely limits carbohydrate intake.
What should an eager marathoner, Ironman triathlete, or ultra-runner eat to perform better? Here's what you want to know about eating for endurance, based on the Joint Position Statement on Nutrition for Athletic Performance from the American College of Sports Medicine, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and Dietitians of Canada.
1. Eat enough calories.
Most runners need ~21 calories per pound (45 cal/kg) of lean body mass (LBM). That means, if you weigh 150 pounds and have 10% body fat, your LBM is 135 pounds, your estimated energy needs are 2,800 calories a day. That said, energy needs vary from person to person, depending on how fidgety you are, how much you sit in front of a computer, how much muscle you have, etc.. Hence, your body is actually your best calorie counter—more accurate than any formula or app!
If you are eat intuitively—that is, you eat when you feel hunger and stop when feel content, you are likely eating enough. If you find yourself stopping eating just because you think you should, if you are feeling hungry all the time and are losing weight, you want to eat larger portions. Underfueling is a needless way to hurt your performance.
If you can't tell when enough food is enough, wait 10 to 20 minutes after eating and then, mindfully ask yourself "Does my body need more fuel?" Runners who routinely stop eating just because they have finished their packet of oatmeal (or other pre-portioned allotment) can easily be under-fueled. Even dieting runners want to surround their workouts with fuel. Their plan should be to eat enough during the daytime to fuel up and refuel from workouts, and then eat just a little bit less at the end of the day, to lose weight when they are sleeping.
2. Eat enough carbohydrates.
According to the Position Statement on Nutrition for Athletic Performance, the optimal amount of carbohydrate on a day with one hour of training is 5 to 7 grams carb/kg. On high volume days, you need about 6 to 12 g carb/kg body weight. For a 150-pound (68 kg) athlete, this comes to about 350 to 800 grams carb a day—the equivalent of about one to two (1-lb) boxes of uncooked pasta (1,400 to 3,200 calories). That's more than many of today's (carb-phobic) runners consume. You want to make grains the foundation of each meal: choose more oatmeal for breakfast; more sandwiches at lunch; and more rice at dinner to get three times more calories from carbs than from protein. Otherwise, you set the stage for needless fatigue.
3. Eat adequate—but not excess—protein.
Protein needs for runners range from 1.4 g/kg (for mature runners) to 2.0 g protein/kg (for novices building muscle or dieting to lose fat). For a 150-pound (68 kg) runner, protein needs come to about 95 to 135 grams protein per day, or 25 to 35 grams protein four times a day. That means 3 eggs at breakfast (with the bowl of oatmeal), a hearty sandwich at lunch, portion of lean meat/fish/chicken at dinner, and cottage cheese (with fruit) for an afternoon or bedtime snack.
For vegetarians, generous servings of beans, hummus, nuts and tofu at every meal can do the job; a light sprinkling of beans on a lunchtime salad will not. By consuming protein every 3 to 5 hours, you will optimize muscle building and deter muscle breakdown.
4. Fill in the calorie-gap with fat.
Include in each meal and snack some health-promoting, anti-inflammatory fat: nuts, salmon, peanut butter, avocado, olive oil, etc.. Fat adds flavor, offers satiety, and is a source of fuel for endurance exercise. Training your muscles to burn more fat for fuel happens when you do steady "fat burning" long runs. By burning more fat, you burn less of the limited carbohydrate (muscle glycogen, blood glucose) stores. You will have greater endurance and delay (or avoid) hitting the wall.
A (tougher) way to train your body to burn more fat is to severely limit your carbohydrate intake and push your fat intake to 70% of your calories. That could be 1,800 calories (185 g) of fat per day! This very high fat diet produces ketones and forces the body to burn ketones for fuel. Keto-athletes endure a tough, 3 to 4 week adaptation period as their bodies transition to burning fat, not glucose, for fuel. While some keto-runners rave about how great they feel when in ketosis, the sports nutrition literature, to date, reports little or no performance benefits from a ketogenic sports diet. It might nix sugar binges, but it's unlikely to make you a better runner.
5. Drink enough fluids.
A simple way to determine if you are drinking enough fluid is to monitor your urine. You should be voiding dilute, light colored urine every 2 to 4 hours. (Exception: runners who take vitamin supplements tend to have dark colored urine.) You want to learn your sweat rate, so you can strategize how to prevent dehydration. Weigh yourself nude before and after one hour of race-pace running, during which you drink nothing. A one-pound drop pre- to post-exercise equates to 16 ounces of sweat loss. Losing two pounds of sweat in an hour equates to 32 ounces (1 quart). To prevent that loss, you should target drinking 8 ounces of water or sports drink every 15 minutes. Runners who pre-plan their fluid intake tend to hydrate better than those who "wing it."
6. Consume enough calories during long runs.
If you will be running for longer than 60 to 90 minutes, you want to target 40 to 80 calories (10 to 20 g) of carbohydrate every 20 minutes (120 to 240 calories per hour), starting after the first hour (which gets fueled by your pre-run food). If you are an Ironman triathlete, marathoner, or ultra-runner who exercises for more than three consequtive hours, you want to target up to 360 calories per hour. The key is to practice event-day fueling during the months that lead up to the event. By training your gut to tolerate the fuel, you'll be able to enjoy the event without fretting about running out of energy or suffering intestinal distress.
The bottom line:
If you are going to run, you might as well get the most out of your workouts. Performance improves with a good fueling plan. Eat wisely, run smoothly, and enjoy your high energy!
Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her best selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for marathoners and new runners offer additional information. They are available at www.NancyClarkRD.com. For her popular online workshop, see www.NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com.
Thomas, T at el. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. J Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2016; 116 (3):501-28