Eat Like a Champ: The Best Foods for Runners
What Should I Eat?
Fueling your body before and after a strenuous workout is crucial for minimizing soreness and re-energizing your muscles. After a long training run or a high-intensity cardio day at the gym, your body is depleted of its stored energy, and your muscles need to replenish this glycogen as soon as possible in order to recover in time for your next workout. Eating snacks that combine protein and carbohydrates are best for nourishing your muscles the right way.
Just ask our TIME colleagues — including TIME International Senior Editor Bryan Walsh and LIFE.com Photo Editor Liz Ronk — who are both training for half-marathons this fall. Walsh’s snacks of choice include pretzels and crackers and cheese, while Ronk noshes on granola bars or apples with peanut butter for a quick refuel.
We also asked fitness gurus Barbara Lewin, a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist who works with professional endurance athletes, and Jenny Hadfield, running and fitness expert and author of Running For Mortals, for their advice on the best pre-and post-workout snacks.
Pre-Workout: Nuts and Seeds
You should fuel your body with a snack or a meal one or two hours before working out. “Eating before a run is as important as it is to have fuel in your gas tank before a long drive,” says Lewin, recommending a snack that’s high in complex carbohydrates like bread, rice, pasta, quinoa, beans, peas or potatoes. “Complex carbs are better before a run because they break down more slowly and provide a more constant source of energy.
Nuts and seeds are also a great source of energy — and heart-healthy fats. “Unsalted roasted almonds are my go-to snack,” says another TIME colleague Liz Grover of TIME’s imaging desk, who is currently training for a half-marathon in October. “If I know I’m running the next morning, I try to stay away from heavily fried foods and too much alcohol.”
Here are some highly nutritious and crunchy favorites to consider:
- Walnuts are high in omega 3s, which are good for the brain and heart
- Cashews are packed with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats as well as minerals like magnesium, calcium and potassium
- Pumpkin seeds, also known as pepitas, are good for prostate health and preventing inflammation
- Sunflower seeds are high in thiamin and help keep your muscles and cardiovascular and nervous systems healthy
Pre-Workout: Banana and Peanut Butter
Another perfect pre-run snack: a piece of fruit, such as a banana. “For pre-run, you’re topping off energy stores for the workout ahead and keeping blood sugar levels stable beforehand,” says Hadfield.
Bananas are high in fiber, so they’ll keep you feeling less hungry during a distance run. They’re also rich in potassium, which can help keep blood pressure in check, protect your muscle and digestive systems and potentially help ward off muscle cramps.
Add some peanut butter to your banana and you’ll also be getting a healthy dose of niacin, which helps your body harvest energy from carbohydrates, and is good for your digestive system, cholesterol level and heart health to boot. Just make sure you practice portion control. Nut butters sure are scrumptious, but high in calories, so limit your serving to 1 or 2 tablespoons.
Pre-Workout: Energy Bar
There’s no shortage of pre-packaged energy bars on the market — the tricky part is finding one with the right amount of protein, carbs, sugars and healthy fats.
Hadfield’s favorites are Picky Bars, which are made with whole and local ingredients, including dates, nuts, seeds, apricots and natural sweeteners like honey and cinnamon. The natural ingredients are chosen based on their ability to control hunger and aid digestion.
The bars maintain a balance of macro-nutrients — 25% fat, 60% carbohydrate and 15% protein — and they have a carb-to-protein ration that’s optimal for nutrient absorption, says Hadfield. At 200 calories a bar, they make a good post-run snack too.
Post-Workout: Veggies and Hummus
Proper recovery is one of the single most important components of a good training regimen, and adequate nutrition gets you ready for your next run or race.
A snack with a carb-to-protein ratio or about 4-to-1 or 5-to-1 is ideal after a workout. Your muscles need the protein to build themselves back up after a grueling workout. And the extra carbohydrates are critical for giving your depleted body a much-needed glucose boost. A good combo snack to get enough of both nutrients? Veggies with hummus — the chickpeas in hummus are a high source of natural protein and healthy carbs and one of Hadfield’s favorites.
If you don’t provide the right nutrition for your muscles post-workout, tomorrow’s run could feel 10 times harder and your muscles can take longer — up to 72 hours — to recover. “Your perception of fatigue will be higher and that workout you normally breeze through will feel very difficult the next day,” says Lewin.
Post-Workout: Chocolate Milk
Aim to refuel with a snack or meal made up of simple carbs — milk, energy bars, fruits and sugars — within 20 to 30 minutes after your run. That’s the ideal window for recovery because your muscles are most receptive to absorbing energy and restoring glycogen. “During recovery we want our carbs to break down quickly so the glucose can get to the muscles during that time frame,” says Lewin.
You can also indulge your inner kid while refueling, by drinking chocolate milk. It’s got the optimal 4-to-1 carb-to-protein ratio and some nutritionists say it’s a better way to replenish energy than other sports drinks.
Post-Workout: Greek Yogurt Smoothie
Greek yogurt is high in protein and calcium. Add your favorite fruit to it in a blender (using frozen fruits makes it easier and faster to prepare) and you’ve got yourself a creamy shake. It’s great after a workout or as breakfast or an anytime snack. Here’s Lewin’s recipe for a post-run recovery smoothie:
Fruity Maple Refueler Shake
- 1/2 cup fat-free Greek yogurt
- 1 cup strawberries (or any berry or cut-up fruit
- frozen banana, cut into chunks
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
- 4 oz cold water
Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until completely smooth. Pour into glasses and sprinkle with nutmeg, if desired.