An effective training schedule isn’t made up of runs alone. If you want to improve both your fitness and your race times, it’s essential to think about what you’re putting into your stomach.
By eating the right foods at the right times, “your body will recover and be able to perform the way you want it to,” says Lauren Antonucci, R.D., a board-certified specialist in sports nutrition and director of Nutrition Energy. “Plus, you’ll reduce your chance of injury and illness."
Here’s how to fuel up before and after your training runs to maximize results.
Before: For a morning jog of no longer than 30 or 45 minutes at a relaxed pace—that is, one you could talk through—a glass of water might be all you need ahead of time, provided you had a decent dinner the night before. But if last night’s meal wasn’t filling, or if you ate it early, downing a banana will replace glycogen stores in your muscles to stave off sluggishness. If you’re heading out in the afternoon, have a snack with about 50 grams of carbs in it—like a granola bar—an hour or two beforehand, suggests Monique Ryan, R.D., author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes.
After: There’s no need to take in calories immediately, but try to eat a snack or your next meal within an hour or two. Skipping a solid post-run meal could lead to lethargy or sugar cravings later in the day—or down the road, even sickness or injury. It's also a good idea to get some fiber and some protein to continue helping your muscles rebuild from prior hard training days.
Before: It doesn’t matter whether you’re tackling hill repeats or a fartlek—any kind of speed work will zap your energy stores, so some pre-run chow is a must. “This is not the time to skimp on calories,” says Antonucci, who advises taking in 200 to 400 calories (depending on your size and how long before the run you’re snacking) of easily digestible carbs, such as toast with jelly. And Ryan suggests replenishing your fast-twitch muscles with a sports drink or gels between intervals. It’s been shown to improve performance up through the last rep.
After: Unlike with those easy runs, you’ve got no time to waste after speed work. “It’s absolutely crucial to eat something within 30 minutes,” says Antonucci, to supply your muscles with fluid, carbs and some protein. Aim for a 4-to-1 ratio of carbs to protein (ultra-easy source: chocolate milk) to best aid recovery.
Long Training Runs
Before: It’s most beneficial to eat a full meal three or four hours before you head out to slog through many miles. But “there’s ideal, and then there’s practical,” Antonucci says. If the idea of setting your alarm for 3 AM sounds, well, insane, just have that meal an hour or two ahead of the run. But adjust the menu if breakfast gets close to the outing: Go for something easily digestible, like a banana with peanut butter and a high-calorie sports drink. “Even more important,” says Ryan, “is to have a good hydration and fueling plan for the run.” Try to take in between 150 and 300 calories per hour during extra-long bouts—with gels, sports drinks, or whatever snack that you can carry and your body can handle.
After: As with speed work, make sure to eat within half an hour of your finish. Go for 200 to 300 calories and try to include an avocado or walnuts, which have been shown to reduce inflammation caused by all that pounding the pavement. Then sit down to a bigger meal a few hours later and continue snacking every two hours or so for the rest of the day, suggests Ryan: “Your muscles can’t bounce back from one feeding; eating more often jump-starts recovery.”