You are here

Fuel Your Run: Nutrition for Training and Racing


The Basics

All runners, report to the starting line.

Whether you're taking part in a major marathon or the local 5-kilometer turkey trot, those words can give any runner the jitters on the morning of the big race. You have logged many miles, on trail and treadmill, to get ready. But have you prepared nutritionally?

"[Good] nutrition should be part of your ongoing training, not something you start to do only in the weeks leading up to the race," says Kathleen Porter, MS, a registered dietitian and longtime runner from New York City. She offers some guidelines for runners to follow.


The number of calories you need to consume daily depends on the duration and intensity of your workouts. Keep in mind that you'll burn roughly 100 calories for every mile you run, depending on your size. If you run four miles, you'll burn about 400 calories more than you would have if you hadn't exercised.

You'll want to eat enough so you don't feel faint or weak toward the end of your workout, but don't use running as an excuse to eat everything in sight. Unless you're a high-mileage runner, your daily calorie needs aren't going to be dramatically higher than a non-runner's. You might want to consult with a sports nutritionist who can help you tailor an eating plan that's right for you.

Porter suggests aiming for the following breakdown for your daily meals:

  • 60-70 percent of calories from carbohydrates (grains, pasta, bread, etc.)
  • 20-30 percent of calories from fat sources (oils, avocados, nuts, etc.)
  • 10-15 percent of calories from protein (fish, meat, chicken, beans, etc.)

To optimize your training, when you eat as almost as important as what you eat, says triathlete Cindy Sherwin, a registered dietitian and personal trainer. Within an hour of finishing your run (and ideally within 30 minutes), you should refuel with a snack.

Sherwin recommends that your post-run snack contain carbs and protein at a ratio of roughly 4-to-1. Her suggestions: a slice of whole-grain toast with peanut butter and jelly, or some fruit with half a cup of yogurt.

"What you're looking to do is replenish your glycogen stores so you can be ready for your next workout," says Sherwin. "The maximal uptake of glucose is in those first 30 minutes after your run."

In addition to getting you fit for race day, training provides you with the opportunity to practice your fluid-replacement strategies. You're going to need to drink regularly during long races (half-marathons and marathons) and, in hot weather, shorter races. Experiment with hydration during your training runs. Do you like drinking on the go, or do you prefer to stop running, take a few gulps, and then get moving again? Can you stomach Gatorade and similar sports drinks, or do you prefer to stick to water? Use your training runs as dress rehearsals for race day.

Two Weeks Out

Some nutritional principles to keep in mind as race day approaches:

  • Start adding more complex carbohydrates to your diet. Complex carbohydrates, found in all plant-based foods, take longer for the body to digest than simple ones and are available as stored energy for use when needed. Whole-grain bread, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, and vegetables are good sources of complex carbohydrates.
  • Drink lots of water. Being even slightly dehydrated can leave you feeling sluggish, so make sure you're getting plenty of fluids. There's no need to worry about exact measurements, but it's a good idea to keep a water bottle with you during the day so you can drink frequently. During long training runs, you should drink water every 20-30 minutes or more often as needed.
  • Be an iron-woman. A woman who doesn't get enough iron may become anemic and feel tired and weak; she also could be more susceptible to infection. To avoid getting depleted, increase your iron intake: lean red meats and leafy greens are good sources. Lisa C. Cohn, president of Park Avenue Nutrition in New York City, says you can also find iron in blackstrap molasses, gingersnaps, and chia seeds, available at most health food stores.

Three to Four Days Before the Race

  • Emphasize carbs for energy. Your diet should consist of about 70 percent carbohydrates, 20 percent fats, and 10 percent protein.
  • Increase consumption of complex carbohydrates. Carbs will give your muscles and brain the fuel they need to get through the race. Most women tend to load up on familiar sources like pasta and rice, but Cohn suggests considering complex carb sources like tabouleh, oatmeal, and other whole grains.

The Night Before

  • Don't experiment. While we all love to try new foods and taste new flavors, it's best to stick with what's familiar and what works for you the night before the race. If you had marinara sauce the night before your last successful long training run, don't try something heavy and different on this night. A new food or spice could upset your stomach or leave you feeling "off."
  • Eat a nutritious meal composed of whole grains (whole wheat pasta or brown rice); grilled or steamed vegetables or a salad (lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, and light dressing); and a small amount of protein such as grilled chicken, fish, or lean red meat. Again, stick with what's familiar: If you've found that too much fiber was problematic for you on your training days, then you may want to eat a white-flour (not whole-grain) carb source.
  • Continue drinking water.

Race Day

Morning of Race (Three Hours Out)

  • Eat a healthy breakfast of 400-600 calories. The trick is to top off your energy stores without eating something that will feel heavy in your stomach. Some good options: Oatmeal or cold cereal with low-fat milk, or half a bagel and some low-fat yogurt. Stick with what's familiar and has worked well for you in training.
  • Drink water to stay hydrated.
  • Avoid fatty foods that could make you feel nauseated, full, or lethargic. You don't want your body wasting energy on digesting something heavy.
  • If you're used to doing so, have a cup of coffee. Caffeine can make your run seem easier, but beware: it can also stimulate your digestive tract.

For more on the effects of caffeine on athletic performance, click here

During the Race

  • Keep hydrated. It's a good idea to take a drink at every drink station, even if you don't feel thirsty — especially on a hot day. However, it's important not to overhydrate. Hyponatremia is a rare but serious condition in which the body's natural balance of electrolytes is disturbed by too much fluid. Consider taking Gatorade or another electrolyte-replacement drink along with water to make sure you don't experience "water intoxication." If you feel nauseated, dizzy, or overtired, stop running and seek medical attention.
  • Maintain your blood-sugar levels. If you're running a long race (a half-marathon or longer), it's likely that some fueling stations along the route will offer energy gels containing carbohydrates and caffeine. This may be a good energy-replacement option for you if you've tolerated energy gels well in your training runs.

After the Race

  • Drink Gatorade or another sports drink to replace electrolytes, the sodium, and the potassium that you burned off during the race.
  • Eat a piece of fruit, some pretzels, or something with sugar to start stabilizing your blood sugar levels and aid recovery. You may not feel hungry after the race, but it is important to consume something — even if it's just a sports drink — to avoid fainting and aid recovery.
  • Avoid eating a huge meal immediately after the race. Your body has been taxed and overeating may nauseate you. So even if your family and friends want to treat you to a celebratory all-you-can-eat brunch, don't overindulge until you're sure you can stomach a large amount of food.
  • Go easy on the alcohol. You may be tempted to toast your new personal best with a couple of drinks, but be aware that alcohol causes dehydration and you may get drunk faster if you drink after a race. Keep drinking plenty of water.
  • Let your body recuperate. Stretch gently after the race, and consider booking a massage to help your taxed muscles recover. Consider your time on the table a reward for your effort!