Running On Optimal Fuel: Effective Fueling Strategies For Runners

Photo: Scott Draper/Competitor

Performance Inhibitor #3: Fatigue

Leaden legs, diminished energy, crushed spirit—we’ve all experienced the bonk, when the body rebels against what the brain insists upon, and running slows or stops altogether. This is short-term fatigue, according to Davis, versus long-term fatigue, which is the consistent feeling of exhaustion despite cutting back on training. “The two main things in terms of nutrition we look at first: Is there an adequate intake of food and fluid, and is the timing and balance right? You have to remain hydrated throughout the day and it’s not just about eating carbs—you do need fat and protein,” Davis says.

Coping Mechanisms:

Enhance recovery with nutrient timing. “There’s two hugely important times for recovery and prevention of fatigue when it comes to running: The first 30 minutes after a run is finished, and an hour before you go to bed.” After a workout, Davis recommends that runners drink 24 ounces of fluid per pound of body weight lost, and eat a sufficient amount of carbs—1 to 1.2 grams of carbs and six to 20 grams of protein. For example, post-run, a 70kg (154 pound) runner could eat one regular-sized whole-wheat bagel with two tablespoons of nut butter to fulfill these requirements. Not eating for two hours or more after a workout can contribute to long-term fatigue.

Runners who train first thing in the morning should eat a snack an hour before bed that’s heavy in carbs with some protein and a small amount of fat to fuel the morning run. “Some people eat dinner at 6 p.m., but don’t go to bed until midnight,” she says. “That’s six hours that they’re leaving between bed and dinner, so they [should] eat something small before they go to bed.”

Establish healthy sleep patterns. “People underestimate how important sleep is in recovery and preparing for the workout the next day,” says Davis. “The guideline is seven to nine hours of [uninterrupted] sleep per night.” Write down the quality and number of hours you sleep each night for a week to track any patterns. “Try to follow the same sleep times each night,” Davis advises. “It’s hard for your body to adjust to going to bed at 10 one night and midnight the next.”

Eat before long runs. Starting a long run without anything in the stomach is like attempting to drive with an empty gas tank. Davis recommends drinking two cups of a sports drink or water as soon as you wake up, so by the time you’re ready to run, the fluid has made it to your muscles. Also, eat easy-to-digest carbs either before or every 20 minutes during the run.

Don’t neglect sodium. “The most important electrolyte during running is sodium because that’s what you’re losing most quickly,” Davis says. Sports drinks provide a balance of electrolytes, or you can make your own emulsion by mixing equal parts juice and water with a pinch of salt.

Prevent, or cope with, iron deficiency. “Runners are more susceptible to iron deficiency because the impact of heel striking breaks down red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body.” Davis says. More so, iron deficiency occurs more frequently in female runners as well as vegans or vegetarians because many sources of iron come from animal foods. Before testing a runner for iron deficiency, Davis evaluates the areas mentioned above. The severity of the anemia will determine the course of treatment—someone with a serious deficiency will require the doctor-monitored use of an iron supplement. If iron levels are a little low, Davis recommends eating foods high in iron such as lean beef and dark, leafy green vegetables with foods high in vitamin C, as they promote the absorption of iron.

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