Nutrition to improve your running performance

I recently finished reading a book entitled Runner’s World Performance Nutrition for Runners, written by Matt Fitzgerald. The book offers practical advice on how to eat better, optimize your body composition and improve performance, among other nutrition and endurance running related. Though the book is definitely tailored to a competitive athlete, I think there are relevant considerations for a more causal runner.

Though this post is by no means and exhaustive report on the entire book, I thought I would highlight a few topics I found particularly interesting. Hopefully, you can improve your performance with a few of these tidbits. Or perhaps buy the book yourself if you wish to read more (Matt has not approached me for a book review, by the way!). Ironically, I received an article on the same topic from Runner’s World today, if you are interested in reading more about avoiding the marathon wall.

Balancing macronutrients

I am a big believer in balancing the intake of macronutrients – carbs, protein and fat. Fitzgerald suggests that there’s not a one-size-fits-all balance for runners, but recommends these guidelines:

As a Percentage of Total Calories

Adjusted for Body Weight



3-5 g/lb



0.7-1.4 g/lb



0.6-0.9 g/lb

He also points out a few problem areas in training and how they might be influenced/caused by a person’s diet:


Possible Dietary Link

Low energy in workouts Not enough carbohydrate
Unexpected fitness plateau Not enough carbohydrate
Frequent illness Not enough carbohydrate
Trouble shedding excess fat Too much carbohydrate and/or too much fat
Lack of stride power Not enough protein
Lingering muscle soreness Not enough protein and/or fat
Frequent injuries Not enough protein

Hydration and Sport Drinks

It is fairly common knowledge that proper hydration is important for long runs. In addition, Fitzgerald advocates integrating sports drinks as part of your daily training, not just for hydration, but for energy. Here are the five main benefits of sports drinks he identifies:

1) Better hydration. Sports drinks hydrate better than water because they are absorbed by the bloodstream faster, they contain sodium and other minerals that help regulate fluid balance in the body, and the sodium stimulates thirst.

2) More energy. Sports drinks provide a supply of glucose to the blood that muscles can draw upon for energy.

3) Less muscle damage. The carbohydrate in sports drinks slows the rate of glucose and glycogen depletion, sparing the muscle protein breakdown and tissue damage,

4) Lower perceived exertion level. By keeping blood glucose levels higher during prolonged running, the brain perceives less fatigue.

5) Less immune system suppression. By providing glucose and limiting cortisol release, sports drink reduces immune system suppression that naturally occurs during intense exercise.

6) Faster recovery.

7) A better workout tomorrow.

Sports drinks contain carbohydrates and electrolytes, and sometimes amino acids and protein, too. Any other “added” ingredients (e.g., ribose, creatine, ginseng and CoQ10) don’t provide “added” benefits for improving performance, at least none that have been proven. Research has shown carbohydrate is absorbed fastest when its concentration in a fluid is in the range of 6 to 8 percent, so it’s helpful to look at the label of drinks to be sure there’s not more or less than you need or can use. (Runners typically burn 100-200 grams of carbohydrate per hour and absorb only 60-80 grams of ingested carbohydrate per hour). Only a few sports drinks contain amino acids and protein – such as Accelerade – and there is still much to be learned about the benefits to runners in consuming proteins before and during runs. Some studies, however, have shown that this formula increases endurance and reduces muscle damage.

Gels are essentially sports drink without the water. Some contain electrolytes and others do not. If they lack electrolytes, you need to consume them some other way during a long run. To be absorbed quickly, gels must be consumed with water. When should you drink sports drink and when should you drink water? It’s really about personal preference and what you like best. Sometimes gels are simply more convenient to carry. One strategy Fitzgerald recommends is to drink water for 20-30 minutes after consuming a gel, then switch to a sports drink after the gel has been digested.

The actual drinking guidelines he recommends are as follows:

  • Drink during any runs lasting longer than an hour and in all high-intensity workouts (e.g., track intervals).
  • Drink small amounts frequently. Try to drink every 10 minutes during workouts. In a run 2 hours+, try to drink as close as possible to your actual sweat rate.
  • Begin drinking before you start running. Start by drinking a small amount before you run, then gradually build this amount over time as your stomach adjusts to the fluids. (I learned this the hard way yesterday when I gulped a big glass of Gatorade before I ran, resulting in a bad stomach ache the entire time!).
  • Simulate race conditions. Try to train with whatever is served in your race to make sure it agrees with your tummy (you can generally check the race drink to see what they’ll offer to runners during the race). Drink similar quantities and actually try to drink at race pace (the faster you run, the harder it is to swallow the drink!).

Pre-race Nutrition

This book shattered my long-held belief that eating a big spaghetti dinner the night before a marathon was carbo-loading. The reality is that a single pasta dinner the night before a marathon will not have a significant carbo-loading effect or affect your performance the next day either. Wow! And after all this time!

So what is carbo-loading? In the late 60’s, a Swedish physiologist found that there was a positive relationship between the amount of the glycogen in the body and endurance performance. This is accomplished by consuming high levels of carbohydrates preceded by severe glycogen depletion. He then developed a sophisticated carbo-loading protocol that most average runners would completely avoid. It looked like this:

1)   Perform an exhaustive workout 1 week before a long race (90 minutes plus).

2)  Consume a very low-carb diet (10%) for the next 3 – 4 days while training lightly.

3)  Consume a very high-carb diet (90%) the next 3 – 5 days while continuing to train lightly.

Later, research showed that you can increase glycogen storage significantly without first depleting it. The method more commonly used by runners today goes something like this:

1)  Perform a long workout (but not an exhaustive one) 1 week before race day.

2) Eat normally (55-60% carbohydrate) until 3 days before a longer race.

3)  Eat a high-carb diet (70%) the final 3 days before racing while training very lightly.

This method is much easier to carry out and is still thought to improve performance. The book goes into exactly how many grams of carbohydrates are optimal per kilogram of lean body mass, but I think the highly level overview gets the point across.

In regards to the ideal pre-race meal, he advocates timing as the most important consideration. The ideal time for a pre-race meal is 4 hours beforehand, but since it’s not ideal to get up at 3 a.m. for a 7 a.m. start, eating 2 hours prior is a comfortable alternative. The size of the meal, he suggests, depends on the duration of the race, your size and timing of the meal. Some of the foods he suggests eating include bagels, bananas, energy bars, oatmeal and meal replacement shakes. For the latter, and especially if you’re travelling out of town to run a race, brands such as Boost an Ensure have a nice nutrition profile.

The finishing touch is to sip sports drink or electrolyte-fortified water at regular intervals up until an hour before the race. Then take a break until 10 minutes before the horn to drink a bit more (as much as your stomach will allow you to comfortably handle).

Post-race nutrition

Last but certainly not least, the author delves deeply into the importance of replenishing your body’s depleted energy supply after a long run or race. The five goals of recovery nutrition, as he defines it, are:

  • rehydration
  • replenishing muscle glycogen
  • reducing secondary muscle damage and preventing illness
  • rebuilding muscle proteins
  • replenishing muscle fat stores

Without going into grave detail on each of these, he advocates eating and drinking as soon as possible after your race (or long run). “The most important recovery nutrients are carbohydrate and protein, and it equally crucial that these nutrients be consumed as soon as possible after training.”The sooner you start to eat and drink, the sooner your body starts to recover.  Not to mention, proper nutrition recovery helps preserve or possibly increase lean muscle mass.

Recovery drinks are a nice alterative to natural foods if you’re not hungry immediately after a run (which frequently happens). Moreover, you can hydrate and nourish at the same time. Recovery drinks are absorbed faster than solid meals, too. Some examples of recovery drinks include Endurox R4, Ultragen and Countdown.

Melinda Hinson