The Best Natural Fuel for Runners

27 05 2011

By Matthew Kadey, R.D.


Before sports drinks, bars and neon GU became race day staples, athletes tapped the produce, bread and dairy aisles for a competitive edge. Sure, sports supplements are convenient, but real food can be just as beneficial–pre-, mid- and post-workout–to power your stride and speed recovery. In fact, eating the right edibles is like flipping a switch that tells your body to run harder, faster and longer. If you find yourself unsure about what the best options are, here’s an arsenal of natural fuel choices distilled from top sports dietitians.

Time Zone: 3 to 4 hours pre-run

Need to know: A study in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism suggests that consuming a low glycemic meal three hours prior to a run will give you better endurance than those who consumed a high glycemic meal. The Glycemic Index refers to the rate at which foods cause blood sugar to rise after you eat them. Those that cause a slow rise increase fat burning during exercise, preventing performance-sapping drops in blood glucose and muscle carbohydrate stores.

Eat this: Oatmeal topped with walnuts and hard-boiled egg.

How come: The slow-releasing carbs in whole-grain oatmeal will provide an energy source during exercise, says Leslie Bonci, RD, a runner and director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Whole grains such as brown rice and old-fashioned oats have a lower glycemic index than processed carbohydrates like white rice and refined pasta. “The protein from the egg and the fat in walnuts slows digestion, which lowers the glycemic index of the meal further,” Bonci says.

Brownie points: A 2009 Journal of Nutrition study reported that women with higher intakes of nutrient-packed whole grains have lower amounts of total body and abdominal fat.

Other eats: Whole-grain waffle spread with peanut butter, whole wheat bagel with cream cheese, brown rice and beans, whole-grain pasta with chicken.

Time Zone: 15 to 60 minutes pre-run

Need to know: Researchers from Greece discovered that runners who consumed simple carbohydrates 15 minutes before using a treadmill were able to run 13 percent longer than subjects who took in nothing. “Fast digesting carbohydrates that are low in fiber provide working muscles with a quick influx of carbohydrate energy so you can run farther,” says Bonci, adding, “A small snack before a run also helps stave off hunger during exercise.”

Eat this: Low-fat yogurt with a handful of raisins.

How come: San Diego State University researchers found those who consumed the same amount of quick-digesting carbohydrates from raisins or a sports gel 45 minutes prior to endurance exercise experienced a similar benefit to performance. Soft yogurt is a smart choice if you suffer race day butterflies. Plus, a little bit of protein before activity speeds post-exercise muscle recovery, according to several studies.


Brownie points: According to a 2008 British Journal of Sports Medicine report, distance runners who ingested daily doses of probiotic bacteria, similar to that found in yogurt, fell sick half as often as a group taking a placebo.

Other eats: Apple or other fruit, rice cake with apple butter, crackers with almond butter, dried apricots, pretzels, small wrap with cream cheese.

Time Zone: During a run

Need to know: A study by the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise suggests that consuming carbohydrates during a workout will give you greater pleasure with exercise and lower perceived exertion. Consuming carbs during a run keeps blood glucose and muscle glycogen levels up, making exercise seem easier and delaying fatigue, says Kathleen Farrell, a sports dietitian at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. “Typically, benefits occur only when exercising for longer than an hour and at least 30 grams of carbohydrates are consumed each hour,” Farrell explains.

Eat this: Honey.

How come: Honey has been found to be just as effective at improving performance during prolonged exercise as gels and other sugar sources. “The simple carbohydrates in honey get into your system quickly to fuel muscles,” Farrell says. Try pouring honey in a gel flask and diluting it with a bit of water for easy access during runs. Farrell stresses the importance of testing foods during training to gauge how your stomach will handle it on race day. “And drink 4 to 8 ounces of water every 15 minutes along with the food,” she recommends.

Brownie points: According to a 2009 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, honey has more antioxidant activity than refined sugar. Antioxidants may help speed muscle recovery and fight certain cancers.

Other eats: Molasses, dried fruits, candy (Twizzlers, gummy bears), Fig Newtons, pretzels.

Time Zone: 15 to 60 minutes post-run

Need to know: As soon as possible following a run, consume carbohydrates to replace muscle glycogen stores and protein to attenuate muscle damage, says Jackie Dikos, RD, a dietitian who competed in the Beijing Olympic marathon trials. Consuming the right foods shortly after exercise also prevents a drop in the immune system. “Ideally, aim for a 4-to-1 carbohydrate-protein ratio to maximize recovery,” Dikos says.

Eat this: Cereal with milk and sliced banana.

How come: A 2009 University of Texas study discovered that eating cereal and nonfat milk immediately following 2 hours of aerobic exercise was just as effective at stimulating muscle glycogen and protein synthesis as a carbohydrate-electrolyte sports drink. “This makes perfect sense because cereal provides lots of carbs and low-fat milk is a source of quality muscle repairing protein,” says Dikos. “Appetite can wane after a hard run, so familiar foods like cereal and milk are useful,” she adds. Bananas are high in potassium, which is lost in sweat during running.

Brownie points: Milk has calcium and vitamin D to protect against stress fractures. Vegetarians can use fortified soy or hemp milk.

Other eats: Cottage cheese with pineapple and honey, ricotta cheese spread on English muffins, pancakes topped with yogurt and maple syrup, cold chicken pasta salad.

Matthew Kadey is a Canada-based nutritionist and writer. Visit him online at



One response

28 05 2011

Love it

btw, bird nest ( is made up of about 58% soluable proteins…the highest amoung all food and even synetic protein powders

it greatly increase tissue regeneration

nice idea, will try it…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: