Eating, Food and Running

The following short article provides some handy hints and thoughts for different groups of people at various levels of training.

Key topics covered include protein needs and how to achieve them, children in training and women’s nutritional needs throughout the menstrual cycle.

1. You are what you eat

Are you one of the two million people in the UK that goes out for a run at least once a week? Do you think about what you eat before you force yourself out of the door? Or what you drink when you get back in with that post-run glow?

Whether you enjoy a short jog around the park on a Saturday morning or are training for an event such as a 10k or marathon, could what you eat make a difference to your performance?

2. Can food make you run faster?

Could what you eat help you to win the race? Click on the labels below to find out what foods could make a difference.

3. Going the distance

What do long distance runners like Mo Farah need to eat to keep their energy up?
Our bodies can only store enough glycogen (carbohydrate) to provide energy for 60-90 minutes of running (depending on pace and ability). It’s when these stores run out that athletes can ‘hit the wall’, finding their energy is suddenly depleted.

Should you carb-load before a race?

You do need to make sure your body is stocked up on good carbohydrates, but this doesn’t mean carb-loading. Instead make sure you eat good carbohydrates in the days leading up to a race. Swap toast for a bagel with honey and banana, or have a jacket potato with beans instead of tuna, that way you fill your stores without overloading your stomach, which can be uncomfortable.

What should you eat for breakfast?

Try eating different types of breakfasts before you go out on a long training run to see how your body reacts to it. Porridge, overnight oats, a bagel with peanut butter and jam or scrambled eggs on toast are good options. Breakfast should be eaten between two to four hours before your race.

How much energy do you need to top up?

Depending on the distance your body will need 30-60g of carbs per hour to keep topped up during a long race. Jelly sweets contain 5g each, a banana contains 25g or a homemade energy drink made with 300ml fruit juice, 200ml water and ¼ tsp of salt contains 30g.

4. Does age, sex and weight matter?

Are there different dietary considerations depending on your age, sex and weight? Yes.


Young athletes may need to supplement meals to have enough energy for both exercise and growth. Choosing the right snacks is key – milkshakes, smoothies and sandwiches are good options. Try to avoid giving in to fatty options such as crisps and chocolate.

Calcium is also important, and athletes aged 9-18 have a recommended daily intake (RDI) of 1300mg calcium to help them to amass bone density. Calcium remains a priority for older athletes too, as we start losing bone density as early as 25. The official RDI for adults is 700mg but nutritionists often recommend that active adults also aim for 1300mg.

As you reach the age of 50 your protein requirements increase to maintain muscle mass. Older athletes could consider protein-rich snacks in addition to including protein in every meal.


Girls and women need to be particularly careful that they eat enough of the right foods to sustain their training. If the body feels that it isn’t getting enough energy, it will look to areas to conserve some, such as reproduction, which is why some women stop having periods. Missing three periods in a row can cause a loss of bone density, among other problems.

The female menstrual cycle can also impact performance. During days 1-13 of the cycle, when oestrogen levels are rising, women use a higher percentage of fat as energy. As oestrogen levels drop after ovulation and progesterone levels rise through days 16-28, bodies become more dependent on carbohydrate (sugars) for energy, which explains the sugar cravings and low blood sugar levels that some women experience before their period. Progesterone also causes body temperature to rise, which is why women often feel hungrier during this phase. Small frequent snacks that are high in complex carbs and protein may help during these days.


Generally speaking, the more you weigh the more food you need to consume to maintain your weight and performance. However, this may not be true if your body is well trained. This is because our bodies can become more efficient as we train, meaning we can do more using less energy. This is why the weight often drops off people when they start running, but plateaus over time.

5. Should you go large on protein?

Olympic sprinter Christian Malcolm explains why he followed a high protein diet and the fatty foods he used to avoid.
Protein has long been touted as the key to recovery after exercise, but does that mean we should all be reaching for the protein shakes after a run?
While protein does play a role in muscle building, repair and recovery, whether you need to up your daily intake will depend on how much you are training.

Gentle jogger

If you enjoy a couple of moderate jogs a week you probably don’t need any more protein than you already get from a healthy diet. For moderate exercise the suggested amount is around 0.8-1g per kg of your body weight a day (0.8g for women, 1g for men). This means that a woman that weighs 57kg would need around 46g per day. This could be achieved by eating two large eggs, 75g chicken and 400ml milk in her daily diet, which means there is no need to add more.

Event training

If you are an athlete or training hard for an event such as a marathon it is a slightly different story. All exercise does lead to a break down in the proteins in your muscles, so if you are training regularly, ensuring good protein choices can counteract this through muscle growth and repair. Frequency not quantity seems to be the key for athletes when it comes to protein. Current recommendations are that an athlete should consume 0.25g of protein per kg of their body weight three to six times a day. For an athlete that weighs 80kg that means 20g three to six times a day, which is equivalent to 240g (drained weight) of chickpeas, 100g of chicken or three large eggs.

Vegetarians and vegans

Proteins are made from amino acids, eight of which are essential and must come from your diet. They are found in a complete source in animal products, but if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet you will need to combine different sources of protein to ensure you get all eight – dal and rice for example, or beans on toast. Soya protein is also a good alternative.

Article first appeared on BBC Website


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