Nutrition for Runners
Common Questions


Balance and the Basics

First, I would like to remind everyone of the basics. The foundation of sports nutrition begins with balance. If you are not eating a healthy well balanced diet, now is the time to start. By not having a balanced diet you are not only hindering your running to your potential but your overall health and quality of life.

What is a healthy well balanced diet? I am going to keep it simple, include all of the food groups: grains, fruit, vegetables, dairy and meat or meat alternatives. For the vegetarians and vegans out there, you can still get all your nutrients, but it will take a little more planning. 

For example, an individual that needs 2000k cal per day should be consuming
6 servings of grains
2.5 servings of vegetables
2 cups (=3-4 pieces) of fruit
3 cups of milk
6oz of meat-cooked (or alternative)

What does that mean? The grains include breads, cereals, pasta, rice etc. The serving sizes are small, for example ½ C pasta is a serving so if you ate 1C of pasta at dinner that is 2 out of your 6 servings for the day. One piece of bread is 1 serving so if you had a sandwich that is another 2 servings for the day. As you can see that adds up fast and how you can easily overdue it. Back in the 1980s-1990s Americans in general ate a lot of grains because the push was for a low fat diet. That movement was taken a little too far and has lead to the negative talk about carbohydrates today. With that being said carbohydrates are still important for us , just not in enormous quantities.

Vegetables: I rarely see anyone eat the recommended amount of vegetables per day so I usually tell people to eat as many vegetables as they want and I encourage everyone to try to eat at least one or two vegetables at lunch and dinner.

Fruit also provides us with nutrients. A typical serving size for an apple or an orange is the size of a tennis ball  or ½ C of fruit. A banana is larger and is typically considered two fruit servings.

Milk/Dairy: Almost everyone should be aiming for 3 servings of dairy per day, to reach the RDA of 1000mg or more depending on age. Milk, yogurt, or even cheese, are good sources of dairy, preferably limit the cheese since it is higher in saturated fat and cholesterol.

Meat: a typical serving per a meal is 3oz (cooked), which isn’t the same as if you went to a restaurant and read the menu. The amounts on the menu are usually listed as pre-cooked weights. I recommend runners eat a protein source at each meal. Protein is in meat, poultry, fish, beans, tofu, nuts, seeds and many other sources.

Everything else you eat that hasn’t fallen into one of these categories is considered discretionary calories. You should evaluate your nutrition. If you have an abundance of calories that don’t fit into these categories consider refining your diet to include more of these whole nutritious and nutrient dense foods and less processed foods that have calories without much nutritional value. Try to make your goal to eat food that is providing you with some benefit, whether it be calcium, iron, protein etc. It is a fun game to play and it will likely improve your eating habits along the way.

Why the emphasis on carbohydrates for training?

Carbohydrates are your main source of fuel, particularly during races or high intensity workouts such as intervals or tempo runs. Runners need carbohydrates to perform their best, particularly when the intensity is high.

You do not need to gorge yourself on pasta and bagels to meet your carbohydrate needs. Consuming well balanced meals with a variety of carbohydrate sources will give you the best results by providing you with the fuel you need, but also maintaining a steady blood glucose level so you do not have that mid-afternoon crash when blood glucose levels drop.

Carbohydrates can be found in:
Grains: bread, pasta, rice and cereal
Starchy vegetables: peas, corn, lima beans, potatoes
Dairy:  milk and yogurt

Before workouts: Workouts that are high intensity or last over an hour require you to consume carbohydrates 1-4 hours prior, depending on individual tolerance and amount needed.  If you are someone that doesn’t tolerate food prior to a workout I recommend consuming the carbohydrates in fluids because fluids digest more quickly. You can also try to eat two or three hours prior to the workout.

Phytochemicals. Why are they important to you?

The American Cancer Society refers to phytochemicals as a wide variety of compounds made by plants, mainly used to describe compounds that may affect human health. Phytochemicals are present in all fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains.  If eating a well balanced diet and meeting calorie need, it should be easy for most people to include a variety of phytochemicals. For instance, a carrot contains more than a hundred phytochemicals. While there are over 25,000 thousand phytochemicals, only a few have been studied in depth. Some of the better-known phytochemicals include beta-carotene and other carotenoids, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), folic acid, and vitamin E.

Carotenoids are important for runners and overall health because they act as antioxidants in the body. This means they attack harmful free radicals that damage tissues throughout your body.  Carotenoids can be found in yellow, orange or red fruits and vegetables, including carrots, squash and tomatoes to name a few.

Some common phytochemicals can be purchased as supplements, but at this time supplements have not been proven to be as effective as getting the phytochemicals from food. Part of the problem with supplements is that they have different labeling guidelines. In addition, the FDA does not monitor supplements. Many supplements have been found to not even include the active ingredient they are promoting or may have varying amounts per bottle, even with the same manufacturer; all the more reason to get your nutrients from food sources.

How should I hydrate during competition? (also consider for practice)

When to Drink

Amount of Fluid

2 hours before activity

2 to 3C   (1C = 8oz, 2C =16oz, 3C = 24oz)

15 min before activity

1 to 2 C

Every 15 min during activity

½ to 2 C (Drink enough to minimize loss of body weight, but don’t over drink)

After activity

2 C for each pound of body weight lost

American College of Sports Medicine Recommendations

  • Before Competition
    • Drink adequate fluids during the 24 hours before an event, especially during the meal before exercise, to promote proper hydration before exercise or competition.
    • Drink about 500 mL (16 oz) of fluid about 2 hours before exercise to promote adequate hydration and allow time for excretion of ingested water.
  • During Competition
    • Start drinking early and at regular intervals to minimize losses.
    • Fluids should be slightly cooler than ambient temperature and flavored to enhance palatability and promote fluid replacement
  • The marathon and competitions 90 minutes or longer
    • To maintain blood glucose concentration and delay the onset of fatigue, the fluid replacement should contain 4-8% carbohydrate. Electrolytes (primarily salt) are added to make the solution taste better and reduce the risk of low blood levels of sodium. About 0.5-0.7 g of sodium/L of water replaces sodium lost by sweating. For those who cannot tolerate sports drinks, gels can be taken with water every 45 minutes and additional fluids every two miles.
  • After Competition
    • Complete restoration cannot be sustained without replacement of lost sodium.
    • For each pound of body weight lost, consume at least 2 cups of fluid.
    • Thirst sensation is not an adequate gauge of dehydration and post exercise consumption stimulates obligatory urine losses. Research shows that drinking an amount of liquid that is 125 to 150% of fluid loss is usually enough to promote complete rehydration.

Should I consume gels or sports drinks during training?

Yes, particularly for long runs if you plan to use them on race day.  I would recommend carbohydrates for everyone running the marathon and a small amount, for those running the half marathon. For training, I would focus more on the hydration aspect if the intensity isn’t as high as it is going to be on race day, more water and less carbohydrates will be fine, but don’t cut it down to more than half of what you will do on race day, because you want your stomach to be able to tolerate the fluids or gels during the race.

By definition sports drinks have 3 key roles:

  • Sports drinks (fluid replacers)- beverages specifically developed for athletes to replace fluids and electrolytes and to provide glucose before, during and after physical activity.
  • Sports drinks offer fluids to help offset the loss of fluids during physical activity
  • Sport drinks are a source of carbohydrate: glucose, maltodextrin, sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and is useful during endurance activity, or during prolonged competitions and events.
    • It is beneficial to chose drinks with more than one kind of sugar for quick and prolonged energy and typically enhances flavor.
    • Beverages with HFCS cause GI upset in some individuals
    • 4-8% carbohydrate (enhance taste, quick empty, absorb in muscle faster)
    • Most sports drinks contain an appropriate amount of glucose to ensure water absorption (water has no carbs and juice is too high, typically 10%)
    • To calculate % of CHO from a label take total grams carbohydrate/ml per serving
      • Ex. 14g Carbohydrate/ 40 ml = 5.8% CHO  
    • The goal during exercise is to consume 30-60 g/hour of carbohydrate as the general recommendation, consider revising if GI issues result.

What should I do during taper time?

  • Hydrate throughout the day, remember fruits, vegetables, juices, soups all count toward hydration.
  • Eat well balanced meals
  • Starting 3 days before the race gradually increase your carbohydrate intake.
    • Add an extra serving of fruit per day
    • Add an extra snack, such as pita chips and hummus, peanut butter crackers, fruit, peanut butter sandwich etc.


For a personalized plan, contact Melissa Rittenhouse PhD, RD, CSSD. www.sportsandwellnessnutrition.com


Melissa Rittenhouse, PhD, RD, CSSD is a Registered Dietitian, and Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics. She competed in three Olympic Marathon Trials: 2004, 2008 and 2012 and is here to give you nutrition tips to help ensure you stay health and fuel properly throughout your training and perform your best on race day.