Energy and the Distance Runner

By Emily Davies Foote

Distance runners need sustained energy to get them through their enduring workouts. To improve performance and properly fuel the distance runner, an appropriate diet must be analyzed and followed. This article uses Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook to illustrate the importance for hydration, carbohydrates, and protein in the athletes’ diet before, during, and after exercise. Here are some guidelines to maximize energy and performance when training or competing for a distance event.

How important is hydration for performance when running long distances?

Water is an important part of exercise. A lack of water can result in decreased energy and poor performance. Sweat losses during exercise must be replaced to avoid dehydration. It is recommended to take a large swig or two of water or sports drink every 15 to 20 minutes during exercise. Sports drinks can be particularly effective because “carbohydrate helps maintain normal blood glucose levels so you are able to enjoy sustained energy.” Distance runners who run or workout for an hour or more should “try to balance their water and energy output with enough fluid to match (their) sweat losses and enough carbohydrate to provide energy and maintain normal blood sugar level.”

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are broken down into simple and complex carbs. Simple carbohydrates are composed of monosaccharides (single sugar units) or disaccharides (double sugar units). Complex carbohydrates, however, are chains of simple carbohydrates, or single sugar units. An athlete’s “body eventually converts all monosaccharides and disaccharides to glucose, which travels in the blood (blood glucose) to fuel your muscles and brain.” Athletes need carbohydrates to fuel their muscles, especially since carbohydrates are burned during vigorous exercise.

What is protein?

Proteins are composed of amino acids, which “your body needs to build tissue, hence their nickname ‘building blocks’. There are 21 of these amino acids, and every protein in your body is made up of some combination of them”. These building blocks are important for athletes because they aid in muscle repair. Our body produces some amino acids naturally, called non-essential amino acids. However, the remaining amino acids, called essential amino acids, come from our diet.

Complete proteins are made up of all the essential amino acids. However, an incomplete protein is missing one or more essential amino acids. Therefore, incomplete proteins can be paired together to form complete proteins. Such pairings are complementary. An example of complementary proteins is rice and beans. Separately, the two foods are incomplete, but when eaten together, the food items contain all essential amino acids to form an adequate protein.

I enjoy running long distances, but some days I find myself fatiguing earlier. How can my diet give me more energy?

Fueling up before a long run will keep your blood sugar normal, thus eliminating dizziness or exhaustion. It will also keep you from getting hungry mid-workout. A pre-workout snack can give you a mental boost. The carbs you eat far in advance will be stored as glycogen, which gives your muscles energy. However, the carbs you consume an hour before you workout goes through your bloodstream, giving you proper blood sugar for mental energy.

Runners “significantly increase (their) stamina by consuming about 100-250 calories of carbohydrate per hour while performing endurance exercise, after the first hour. The carbohydrate in the muscle is used during exercise. The carbohydrate in the liver gets released into the bloodstream to maintain a normal blood glucose level and feed the brain (as well as the muscles). These limited carbohydrate stores influence how long you can enjoy exercising. When your glycogen stores get too low, you hit the wall- that is, you feel overwhelmingly fatigued and yearn to quit.” A carbohydrate is a carbohydrate, so you will still get energy no matter what form it is in! Bring energy bars or gels, sports drinks, juice, or hard candy with you for an extra boost.

What and when should I eat before a long distance run?

Eating before exercise can be challenging for long distance runners, who often face “digestive problems” and “abdominal distress.” This can be eliminated by experimenting with the proper foods, number of calories consumed, and the amount of time before exercise. Every runner is different, so it is best to figure out what works best for your body. The goal is to eat a snack an hour or two before or a meal three to four hours before your run. Make sure the snack or meal contains plenty of carbohydrate for energy. Some protein should also be included in the meal before your run, since protein is essential for muscle repair. The American Dietetic Association suggests that your pre-run meal should be low in fat and fiber to avoid an upset stomach.

Clark suggests either consuming a 100-200 calorie snack as tolerated 20 to 60 minutes before exercise or waking up early to eat a larger meal, even if that means going back to sleep for a few hours. This way your blood sugar levels will be normal because you will have re-fueled your liver glycogen, which depletes overnight.

Is it recommended to eat a meal after exhausting exercise?

During a hard workout, your muscles are constantly breaking down. To stop this breakdown and repair the muscles, the distance runner should plan to eat a meal with carbohydrate, protein, and plenty of fluids as soon after the workout and as comfortable for the athlete’s stomach as possible. It is important to replace sweat losses with enough fluid and electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium. “Carbohydrates combined with a little protein create an even better muscle refueling and building response, and it reduces cortisol, a hormone that breaks down muscle.” Further, “including generous amounts of carbohydrate in the recovery diet enhances glycogen replacement. Having amino acids (from protein) readily available enhances the process of building and repairing muscles and reduces muscle soreness.”


The basic guidelines for fueling before exercise:
-Do not eat anything rich. Toast, crackers, and bananas are good examples of foods that will settle well.
-Carbohydrate-based meals and snacks will ensure proper blood sugar maintenance and will help fuel your muscles during your run.
-Minimal fat and fiber meals/snacks to avoid upset stomach.
-Small amount of protein for muscle repair.
-Enough time for digestion: the more calories consumed, the more time you need to digest. The more intense your exercise, the more time you need to digest because your muscles require more blood during intense exercise, which means your stomach will not have enough blood flow for proper digestion.
-Drink enough water.
-Eat familiar foods before a race/competition.

The basic guidelines for fueling during and after exercise:
-Stay hydrated during exercise.
-Replace fluids and electrolytes lost during exercise.
-Consume carbohydrates and protein as soon as possible after exercise to stop muscle breakdown, to repair muscles that were broken down, and to limit muscle soreness.