What should distance runners eat every day?

Image Gallery: The Food Pyramid The right nutritional mix is the single biggest influence on your training outcome. See pictures of the food pyramid.
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Like to eat? Then you may want to become a distance runner. That's because pounding a few miles of pavement every day is a real calorie burner. A male distance runner who logs about 25 miles a week, for example, needs to ingest 2,500 calories a day -- at minimum. In contrast, a man of average weight and height needs about 500 fewer calories each day [source: USDA].

Unfortunately, when you're a distance runner, upping your daily caloric intake isn't about sheer numbers. You can't just eat anything you want and expect to get good results from your workouts, especially because you intentionally fatigue your muscles on a regular basis. It's critical to eat a specialized diet for the duration of your training -- not just in the day or two before a big race. Why be so choosy with your foodstuffs? It all comes down to fueling your performance.

Distance runners primarily burn a mixture of carbohydrates and fat as they run. Carbohydrates, which are stored as glycogen in the muscles, are the more efficient of the two fuels. This is because the body uses glycogen in a well-organized way; carbohydrates-turned-glycogen help the body go faster, longer. When compared to carbohydrates, fat is still important to a runner, but presents a 15 percent drop in efficiency. Translation: When you burn an average of 120 calories a mile, you need carbohydrates to keep you going. Fat and protein can fuel you, but they will slow you down because your body has to work harder to turn them into energy [source: Pfitzinger].

And that's not all. You need more than carbohydrates and fats. You need fuel additives to keep your muscles moving, and that's where electrolyte-rich drinks and colorful nutrient-dense foods come into play. The right nutritional mix is crucial; in fact, it is the single biggest influence on your training outcome. The months you spend eating well every day are what will push you to the finish line, should you decide a marathon's in your future.

Why should distance runners watch for rainbows? We'll clue you in on the next page.

You are What (and When) You Eat

Eat a rainbow. Many runners' diets take on a brown hue because of the idea that carbo-loading on pastas fuels performance. And, while whole grains are admittedly good for distance runners, getting colorful is, too. During training, a distance runner's diet should have a brown foundation (all those healthful whole grains), topped with generous portions of dark greens, such as leafy spinach -- a source of iron, calcium, potassium, beta carotene, folate and vitamins C, D and K [source: USDA]. It's also important to include brightly colored fresh produce, such as sweet red peppers or mangoes, both of which are rich in minerals and vitamins C and A [source: WebMD]. Selecting colors rather than beige-tones usually means foods have more nutrients per calorie [source: Morris].

Following this "color prescription" also helps distribute calories between whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and fats and protein. It's an easy way to see how a distance runner's daily food plan is distributing the big three: carbohydrates, fats and proteins. A runner should get the lion's share of his or her calories (about 60 percent) from carbohydrates [source: Pfitzinger]. The next largest chunk of calories, about 25 percent, should come from fats, followed by protein at about 15 percent [source: Higdon].

It's also a good idea to follow this rule of thumb: Don't eat foods that can be handed through your car window. Although highly processed foods offer the calories your body needs, they lack the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients you'll find in ingredients closer to their original state. High-nutrient whole foods will fuel your body for the long haul [source: Morris].

Of course, when it is time for the big race, don't stuff yourself with a pre-run meal -- even if it is the night before. It will take an entire day for this food to be processed by your body and turned into fuel, so your carb-rich pasta dinner or your midnight snack will still be bouncing around in your belly when the starting gun fires the next morning. Instead, consider eating a number of small meals the day before the race, then weaning yourself from food by early evening. It may keep you from tossing your cookies at mile-marker three [source: Galloway].

All this talk of eat-this-then-not-now may have you turning to supplements for comfort. While the idea of getting your protein from a bar or your iron from a pill is tempting, it's not a good substitute for a runner's well-balanced diet. Your body doesn't absorb supplements in powder or pill form with the same efficiency as it does real foods [source: MayoClinic]. You can make water "wetter," though. We'll fill you in on the next page.

A Good Diet, in Liquid Form

If you plan to run longer than an hour, substitute a sports drink for the water
If you plan to run longer than an hour, substitute a sports drink for the water
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As a runner, you need to be hydrated long before you lace up your shoes. Sip water while going about the business of your day. And, we'll let you in on a little tip: If you add a bit of salt to your glass, you can make your water "wetter" -- or at least help your tissues absorb the liquid and retain more of it, longer [source: Pfitzinger].

Before you take a training run, however, ramp your intake up a notch. Sixty to 90 minutes before your run, drink 16 ounces of water. If you're going the distance, drink about 12 ounces of water for every 20 minutes of your run. If you plan to run longer than an hour, substitute a sports drink for the water [source: Brant]. Why a sports drink? It contains the sodium and potassium your body needs to prevent cramps and vomiting, which can begin when your body's stores get depleted. Plus, these electrolytes help regulate nerve and muscle function.

Most sports drinks contain about 7 percent carbohydrates, an optimum level that your body can absorb quickly; it's just enough to give your body a boost of energy [source: Brant]. Better still is a sports drink that lists protein in its ingredients. According to a 2006 study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, sports drinks that contain protein, in addition to carbohydrates and electrolytes, have a more than 10 percent higher absorption rate when compared to conventional sports drinks [source: Seifert].

During training runs, don't forget to practice one other thing: downing liquid on the go. If you've ever swallowed a gulp of water that went down the wrong pipe and left you sputtering and winded, then you'll know why it's important to include "drinking while running" in your regimen. First, learn how to grasp a cup -- while still running -- without spilling most of what's inside. (It can be done, it just takes practice.) Then, ingest the liquid in slow, metered swallows [source: Higdon]. Tempted to gulp? Refer to previous comment about sputtering.

The evening before the big race, keep the electrolyte drinks coming. By morning, however, you'll want to change your strategy, taking your last big gulp about two hours before the race (this helps eliminate ill-timed bathroom breaks) [source: Galloway].

Measured, well-timed food and drink, when part of an overall training regimen, help lay the groundwork for success. Nutritional strategy and a tough mental attitude is a powerful training ally than can help you go the distance.

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Sources

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  • Fernstrom, Madelyn. "Runner's Diet: Food as Fuel." MSNBC.com. Oct. 26, 2006. (Aug. 23, 2010)http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/15106911
  • Galloway, Jeff. "Marathon Training: Tips." ThatsFit.com. Dec. 11, 2009. (Aug. 23, 2010)http://www.thatsfit.com/2009/12/11/marathon-training-tips/
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  • MayoClinic. "Dietary Supplements: Nutrition in a Pill?" (Aug. 23, 2010)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/supplements/NU00198
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  • Pfitzinger, Pete. "Eat, Drink and Finish Strong." Pfitzinger.com. (Aug. 23, 2010)http://pfitzinger.com/labreports/eatdrink.shtml
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