What every runner should be eating

Written by jeorge zarazua
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How to eat for peak performance

What every runner should be eating
(Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)

All carbohydrates are important because that’s what you use to fuel the muscles. There’s really no such thing as a bad carbohydrate.

— Jason Karp, running coach, exercise physiologist and author

Atall, cold glass of chocolate milk, the drink many associate with fond childhood memories, is perhaps one of the healthiest to have after a vigorous run. For runners -- or anyone who engages in regular workouts -- knowing what to consume and when to consume it is essential to get the most out of any physical activity.

The carbohydrate-protein mix found in chocolate milk is the ideal combination that nutritionists tout for runners to enjoy after running. The chocolate provides the carbs; the milk provides the protein. And, yes, the sugar in chocolate is good for a runner's body, notes Jason Karp, a running coach, exercise physiologist and author. Despite a recent backlash against carbohydrates, mostly due to fad diets, they remain a vital nutrient in a healthy diet, especially for those hitting the pavement on a regular basis.

"All carbohydrates are important because that's what you use to fuel the muscles," Karp said. "There's really no such thing as a bad carbohydrate." Carbohydrates, which are mostly sugars and starches, rank up there with other essential nutrients for a runner. The others are fats and protein.

However, selecting the right carbohydrates can make a difference. Generally, carbohydrates are separated into two groups: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are your basic sugars, including fructose, which is found in fruit, and sucrose, which is simple table sugar. Complex carbohydrates are breads, rice and cereals. Both are helpful, Karp says. In a runner's case, fuel is needed soon after a strenuous run.

"Chocolate milk can quickly restock a person's fuel, while also providing the protein needed to replenish muscles," said Mike Fantigrassi, an instructor at the National Academy of Sports Medicine in Mesa, Arizona. "If you do that within 45 minutes of finishing an exercise, you have the best chance of reloading carbohydrates back into the muscle tissue."

This strategy is part of the peri-workout window. "Peri" means around or about. Knowing what to eat before, during and after running will not only help runners maintain their energy, but also help them recuperate quicker. "You'll be able to do more workouts and increase the frequency of those workouts," Fantigrassi said.

While chocolate milk may be readily available in anyone's refrigerator, Fantigrassi notes that a number of carbohydrate-protein drinks on the market are even better tailored to replenish the body after an exercise. While runners could eat something -- like chicken and rice -- after a workout, he recommends they consume their carbohydrate-protein mix in liquid form so that it's absorbed quicker into the blood system. He also notes that a lot of people don't have a great appetite really soon after exercising.

However, Karp stresses that consuming carbohydrates and proteins after running is crucial. "If it's a hard workout and you want to recover as fast as possible and feel good for the next day, then eating right afterward is important," he said. Consuming adequate protein will help rebuild and accelerate muscle growth. Lean proteins such as chicken, turkey and fish are among his recommendations.

What to eat before running really depends on the length of the run. For most casual runners -- those running for an hour or less -- Fantigrassi says it's OK to have some simple carbohydrates close to the workout time.

Nancy Clark, a sports nutritionist and fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine, suggests a banana, a slice of wheat bread or a handful of dry cereal. "Something that's a little more wholesome than just sugar water," she said.

For marathon runners, Fantigrassi suggests they eat some complex carbohydrates, such as pasta, at least a couple of hours before the event and then drink a sports drink with carbohydrates during the event. Complex carbohydrates are good because they provide a runner with fuel that's distributed over a period of time.

Pamela Nisevich Bede, a registered dietitian and a nutrition consultant with Swim, Bike, Run, Eat!, an online sports nutrition consulting practice, says water or a sports drink is enough to get you through your run if you're running for an hour or so. She adds that marathon runners or those running for longer periods of time shouldn't eat within an hour of running; they should fuel themselves with an energy gel 30 minutes into the run. Bede offers the guideline of consuming 1 gram of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight one hour before the run.

For runners watching their waistlines, Clark recommends they get their complex carbohydrates from whole grains such as wheat bread, brown rice and whole-wheat pasta.

Fantigrassi says that runners wanting to lose weight shouldn't skimp on the peri-workout nutrition. If you don't eat around the workout window, then your body is very likely to metabolise your muscle tissue and use that as a fuel source for your exercise. That leads to catabolism -- when the muscles eat themselves instead of a person's fat. Those who want to lose weight should reduce calories at other mealtimes. Runners who want to maintain their weights should increase their caloric intake depending on the amount of running they're doing.

Clark says that just like carbohydrates, knowing what type of fat to eat is also important. Fats can be separated into three major groups: saturated, unsaturated and trans fats. She recommends runners eat twice as much unsaturated fats as other fats as part of their normal diets. This includes fish and plant foods such as avocados, peanut butter, nuts and olives. Saturated fats are found in meat and animal products such as cheese, milk and butter. Trans fats are found in margarine, most snacks and fried food from fast-food restaurants.

Fats aren't as critical in the peri-workout diet as carbohydrates and protein, Bede notes. She says that if runners do eat fats during the peri-workout diet, then it should be after a run, but not before.

"Fats take so long to digest that you don't want to be weighed down by this when you're going on a run," she said.

She also cautions against eating too much fat, especially for those on a diet. Bede says that anyone who follows a healthy diet will get the necessary fat.

Clark says unsaturated fats help keep the body healthy and are anti-inflammatory, which can be especially beneficial to runners. "There should be a little bit of helpful fat in each meal," she said, such as almond slices on oatmeal or olive oil on whole-wheat pasta. "Eating a little bit of fat doesn't mean that you're going to get fat. It's the excess calories that are fattening."

Also important in a runner's daily diet is calcium and Vitamin D, which help fortify a person's bones and help reduce the risk of possible injury. Clark recommends three servings of dairy products daily, such as milk, yogurt or cheese.

"If you're concerned about the quality of your diet, your best bet is to make an appointment with a registered dietitian," Clark said.

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