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Nutrition for the Endurance Runner
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Presented by Coach Bill Strachan




With the influx of new enthusiasts and the amount of contradictory information available on the internet, we are often asked questions on specifically what foods should be consumed before, during and after exercise.  This is a nutrition guide for runners using the latest research from the ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine), Sports Nutritionist Nancy Clark (MS, RD), and our own collective experiences as competitive athletes, coaches and educators.


Athletes at every level and in every sport want to know what they should eat prior to their activity in order to maximize performance.  Foods must satisfy both physiological & psychological needs of the athlete and must be simple and practical enough if one travels to competition or must be engaged in long periods of exercise.  Unfortunately, there are no simple answers.  Just as every athlete possesses a variety of skills and abilities; so too they possess different tastes, attitudes and habits.


One veteran of more than 130 marathons in our running community has a penchant for pepperoni and pineapple pizza the night before a big race.  Another national-class marathon runner we know likes to ingest two beers and a package of Ding Dongs. Yet another vegetarian marathoner will savor a gigantic salad, while still another runner insists upon “fasting” prior to a big race.  While we are not in agreement with the nutritional logic of any of these meals, each athlete performs at a consistently high-level.  There is no single perfect food for everyone. This article will serve to provide you with some general guidelines in designing a dietary program that will serve your needs.  



This includes the foods you eat.  There are a multitude of fad diets, supplements and nutritional products on the market that will guarantee performance improvement.  The sport has seen too many “get rich quick” products gobbled (literally) by consumers looking for shortcuts.   The single constant for proper health and sports improvement is a balanced diet containing the five basic food groups.


According to nationally recognized Sports Nutritionist (and marathon runner) Nancy Clark; there are 4 Functions of Pre-Exercise Nourishment:

1)  To help prevent hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) with it’s symptoms of light-headedness, needless fatigue, blurred vision and indecisiveness, all of which can interfere with top performance.

2)  To help settle your stomach, absorb some of the gastric juices, and abate hunger feelings.

3)  To fuel your muscles, particularly with food eaten far in advance to be digested and stored as glycogen.

4)  To pacify your mind with the knowledge that your body is well-fueled.” (1)


Scandinavian researchers in the ‘60’s found that consuming high-carbohydrate foods two and three days prior to an endurance event (while the athlete is reducing their workout intensity & duration) increases muscle-glycogen storage.  This has come to be known as carb-loading.  High-starch, low-fat foods (breads, muffins. bagels, crackers, pasta, etc.) will digest easily and settle comfortably while maintaining stable blood sugar levels.  High-fat proteins (french-fries, cheeseburgers, steak and so on) will take longer to empty from the stomach (fat delays gastric emptying).  Feeling sluggish is symptomatic of this delayed response.  Small servings of low-fat protein however, can settle well (ie skim milk, poached eggs, thin-sliced turkey) if you feel the need.


Avoid sugary foods, soft drinks, maple sugar and excessive fruit juices within one hour of intense activity.  These will provide a “sugar high” followed by a “sugar low”.  If you have a need for something sweet prior to exercise, eat it within 5-10 minutes of the activity (the body stops secreting insulin when you begin intense activity).  Better yet, experiment with any of the energy bars available on the market to satisfy this craving.


Allow adequate time for food to digest:  3-4 hours for a large meal, 2-3 hours for a small meal, 1-2 hours for a blended or liquid meal and less than an hour for a small snack.


If you know you will be nervous before an activity (an important race for example) and your experimentation hasn’t found anything that will agree with your stomach eaten the morning of the event, make a conscious effort to eat a bedtime snack the night prior.


Always eat familiar foods before a big event.  In the weeks prior to the race, experiment with different combinations of foods the night before and the morning of, your long walks or runs.  Try to find your magic food. This “magic food” is the one that you have the confidence in to perform at your highest level, because it has proven itself.  This food should be easily obtained or taken with you when you travel.


Drink lots of fluids!  “You’re unlikely to starve to death during an event, but you might dehydrate.”


1)  “Drink an extra 4-8 glasses of fluid the day before, so that you over-hydrate.  You should have to urinate frequently.”

2)  “Drink at least 2 or 3 large glasses of water up to 2-hours before the event.”

3)  “Drink another 1 or 2 glasses of water 5-10 minutes before the start.” (1)


In your experimentation with foods and your training program during the weeks before the “big event”, you will discover many things about your physical capabilities. An experienced Ultra-Marathoner we know wisely avoids cheese, meat, spicy dishes, chocolate and excessive amounts of caffeine.  This is excellent advice!  Some people cannot handle dairy products due to bouts of nausea and diarrhea indicating lactose intolerances.  At the same time, alcohol has shown to upset the body’s ability to regulate body temperature. This is particularly critical during the warm summer months.  Caffeine and products with caffeine (chocolate, tea, coffee, some sports bars and gels) will promote fluid loss through the passage of urine and the loss of important electrolytes.


One of the most interesting findings in the last few years is that to optimize performance in endurance events , you must:

1) ingest carbohydrates during the race as well as  

2) maximize your carbohydrate stores before the race and  

3) this will increase your ability to burn fat at race pace!   (2)


Research has repeatedly shown that drinking 4-8 oz of carbohydrate replacement drinks every 10 – 20 minutes helps maintain blood glucose levels and significantly improves performance.   The added carbohydrate provides energy for the brain to keep you alert and mentally “into” the race and provides a supplemental source for working muscles. (3)



Studies indicate that an athlete has a “window of opportunity” of between 1 and 3 hours to replenish the body for optimum recovery!  One should make every effort to consume carbohydrate rich foods and beverages – bagels, bananas, yogurt, along with fruit juices & “watery-foods” like watermelon, grapes, cantaloupe and the like.  Additionally, sport drinks are very much in order in putting you back “on the roads!”



(1)  Clark, Nancy MS, RD, “Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook”, Leisure Press, Champaign, Ill., 2002





Copyright -R. William Strachan – 2003 -Duplication of all or any portion of this article without written permission of the author is strictly prohibited.