Nutrition for Runners & Walkers

Nutrition for runners and walkers

Contributed by Jeff Henderson - MIT Head Coach

We all made the decision to join MIT for a wide variety of reasons. Some of you joined to check the “marathon” off your bucket list, some to improve on your past performances, some to meet new people, lose weight or just to enjoy a healthier lifestyle. No matter your reason proper nutrition is critical to your enjoyment and success with the MIT program. Showing up and following a program won’t necessarily be the difference in getting you to a Boston qualifying time. Walking and running alone isn't necessarily a catalyst for weight loss. MIT is a lifestyle that reaches beyond the trails. We want to help you change your life and that includes following a diet that will help you achieve you goals.

Maintaining a proper diet can be a challenge in our busy lives, let alone a diet that is geared towards distance runners and walkers. But, as you have started to make time for your workouts, you should also make time to follow a proper diet. Planning ahead goes a long way when following a training schedule or a new diet. Pack up a lunch and snacks each night while you’re making dinner so that you can avoid the inevitable trip to the hot dog shop next door! Taking the extra time to plan ahead will greatly assist your ability to maintain a diet promoting good health while also provide the necessary tools for peak performance on race day.

What should comprise your diet?

It is essential that your diet consist of a proper balance of carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals. More specifically your diet should consist of approximately 65% carbohydrates, 15-20% protein and no more than 20% fat.

Carbohydrates are without doubt the most effective source of fuel for distance runners and walkers. As such it should be the bulk of your caloric intake. If you are attempting to follow a low-carb, or no-carb diet you will not be happy with your results, and quite honestly you should reconsider you goals. Diets low in carbohydrates will leave you without energy and will put you at risk especially when we hit the higher mileage workouts.

What Carbohydrates Do for You

Your body converts carbohydrates in glucose which is then immediately stored in your muscles as glycogen for later use. The infamous “wall” that many runners hit in training or a race, is a direct effect of using up all of your glycogen stores. Once your body has utilized all of the stored glycogen your body has no choice but to slow down or stop all together. Therefore, it is critical that you eat carbohydrates on a regular basis.

Simple v. Complex Carbs

When planning your diet, keep in mind that there are simple and complex carbohydrates and making correct choices of carbohydrates is critical.

  • Simple carbohydrates are essentially just sugar, and are most often found in candy, fruit, and soda. Simple carbohydrates do provide energy, but only for very short durations.
  • Complex carbohydrates will provide you with a more consistent, long-lasting form of energy. Complex carbohydrates can be found in whole grain pasta, steamed or boiled rice, potatoes, vegetables, and whole grain breads and bagels (not to be confused with donuts).

Post Work-Out Nutrition

Immediately (within 15-20 minutes) after a long or hard workout it is recommended that you eat or drink something that contains a carb to protein ratio of 3:1. For example a typical 8oz. serving of chocolate milk contains 26.1g of carbohydrates and 8.1g of protein. Eating or drinking something with the proper carb to protein ratio will greatly aid in your recovery as well as help boost your glycogen receptors, which will help your body replenish your glycogen stores (aiding your recovery time). Later in the day, fire up the grill for a nice protein-rich meal of lean meats and vegetables to help repair any damaged tissue.

Protein

Runners and walkers benefit greatly from protein as well. Protein helps to repair damaged tissue that results from our training. Protein also serves as a source of energy, but in minimal amounts. If you are trying to lose weight, proteins that are low in fat such as lean meats, beans, and poultry will help you feel full while also helping to build and repair muscles and tendons.

I often hear folks talk about loading up on protein after a workout. This is often misunderstood. We do need protein after a workout, but the amount of protein versus the amount of carbohydrate intake is crucial.

Fats

Fats play a major role in distance running and walking. We certainly do not want to over indulge, but including fats in the proper proportions will be very beneficial to your diet. There are three types of fats: saturated, poly-unsaturated and mono-unsaturated.

  • Saturated fats include dairy products and red meat and should make up about 10% of your caloric intake. 
  • Poly-saturated fats include margarine and vegetable oil and should be kept to a minimum.
  • Mono-saturdated fats such as olive oil and other nature oils, should comprise the majority of your fat intake. Nuts, oils and cold-water fish provide omega-3s, which can help prevent various diseases and are essential to our health.

Vitamins

As your mother may have told you for years, "Don't forget to take you vitamins!" While we do not get energy from vitamins, they are still essential to our diet. Runners and walkers should supplement their diets with vitamins C, E and beta-carotene. It is ideal to get these from whole foods (carrots, cucumbers, celery, etc.), rather than supplements, but vitamin E can be particularly hard to come by in appropriate amounts. Vitamins such as C, E and A are antioxidants, which help to neutralize free radicals produced through exercise.

Minerals

We next need to look at our intake of minerals such as calcium, iron, sodium and other electrolytes. Calcium helps reduce the risk of stress fractures and can help prevent osteoporosis. Diets should consist of approximately 1,000 to 1,300 mg of calcium. If you need an alternative to dairy products leafy vegetable, beans and eggs serve as good sources of calcium. Diets low in iron often lead to distance runners and walkers feeling fatigued and weak. Good sources of iron are leafy vegetables, shrimp, nuts, scallops and lean meats. Women need 16 mg per day while men need 8 mg per day.

As you sweat, you lose sodium and electrolytes. Your body fights incredibly hard to keep your sodium in a very delicate balance. Sodium also helps your body absorb hydration. Your daily needs are typically met through a balanced diet, but drinking an electrolyte replenishment drink such as Powerade or take an electrolyte gel such as GU or Clif Shots along with water will help keep these in balance during any workouts lasting over an hour.