Sports Nutrition in Runners

You are what you eat

Never has this been more true as when you’re a Jogonner (or are in fact doing any exercise). Sofie Cole, professional nutritionist and runner will be speaking about this more (and also cooking our lunch) at our Running Retreat on September 14th, but here she gives just a ‘taster’ of what we should be popping in our mouths before we pull on our trainers and hit the road – whether it’s for 5k or a marathon. Food for thought…

Ten years ago, I read an article in one of the runners’ magazines ‘How to run faster?’ and the article started by saying ‘just run faster’ which was probably the funniest intro I’ve ever read! This article started telling the reader all about interval, hill and tempo training etc but not a word about nutrition, performance and recovery.  This is where I COME IN! As a qualified Nutritionist I can explain how what you put into your body will effect what you get out of it – oh and help prevent injury too. 

General nutrition

In general, we need 5 groups of nutrients to achieve optimum nutrition for sport:

  1. Carbs, fats and proteins
  2. Fibre
  3. Vitamins and Minerals
  4. Phytonutrients
  5. Water

1. Carbs, fats and proteins

When doing sport, we need a lot of energy and stamina.  The body’s energy store is ATP.  Glucose in the blood gets taken up into the cells and gets converted to ATP with the help of several vitamins, mainly B-vitamins.  We can’t produce B-vitamins so they need to be taken up through eating the right foods.  B-vitamins are mainly found in wholegrains, lean meat, dairy products, nuts & seeds, green vegetables and citrus fruit.

To improve our stamina, we need to fill our glycogen reserves in liver and muscles. To do this we should include wholegrains like rye bread, brown rice, wholemeal pasta and legumes in our diet. The amount we need depends on the duration and/or intensity of a run.

Fats can be put in 4 groups:

  • Transfats: biscuits, chocolate, crisps, processed food.  These should be avoided wherever possible.
  • Saturated fats: dairy and meat.  A small amount is acceptable.
  • Mono-unsaturated fats: olive oil, nuts and seeds and avocado.  Eaten daily
  • Poly-unsaturated fats: fatty fish, walnuts, hemp seeds, chai seeds, flaxseeds Eaten daily 

The last two groups are really important because of their anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting properties.  They will also improve the flexibility and fluidity of the cell membranes.  Improved fluidity of the cell membrane improves uptake of nutrients into the cell as well as oxygen which improves enhanced aerobic delivery.  So it is easier for your body to produce lots of energy which is very much needed during your run!
Proteins are the building blocks of the body.  Proteins are needed to repair the muscles which we ‘damage’ through doing sport.  This damage is a natural process and the repair of the muscles will make them bigger and stronger.  Eat proteins within an hour after sport to enhance this repair phase of our training.  Make sure to add protein to every meal in the form of eggs, fatty fish, lean chicken or beef and legumes like chickpeas, lentils, black beans, red kidney beans etc.

2. Fibre

Fibre in the food will slow down the release of glucose levels into the bloodstream. It is very important that our blood glucose levels always stay in a healthy range before, during or after sport. Eating wholefoods is important as they contain fibre in contrast to processed foods from which most the fibre has been taken out.

There are 2 types of fibre:

  • Soluble: oatbran, barley, peas and many fruits.  This helps with lowering cholesterol and liver detoxification
  • Insoluble fibre: many vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds.  This helps the large intestine which improves detoxification.

Some grains and vegetables contain both soluble and insoluble fibre.  Add some of these foods to every meal.  Snack on fruit or nuts and seeds.

3. Vitamins and minerals

Vitamins and minerals are essential micronutrients and play a major role in optimum performance and healthy repair of our body after sport. Lack of these vitamins and minerals can result in a higher chance of injury.

Vitamins and minerals are found in all whole foods (not processed). Eat an orange instead of an orange juice you buy from the supermarket or have a few dates instead of a flapjack.

4. Phytonutrients – nutrients found in plants and fruits that are not vitamins or minerals

Phytonutrients have anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-ageing, anti-toxic, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-allergic, anti-cancer and cholesterol lowering properties.  They are mainly found in fruit & vegetables, legumes and nuts & seeds.

Add these foods to every meal and use a large variety of different fruit and vegetables. Think the rainbow of fruit and veg!

5. Water

Water is essential for life.  It accounts for 60% of our body weight.  It carries nutrients and waste products between our major organs, regulates our body temperature, lubricates our joints and acts as a shock absorber so vital for runners.  The general recommend consumption of water is 2L per day.  This should increase while doing sport depending on the duration and intensity of the run as well as the temperature and humidity.  Do not over hydrate, check the colour of your urine as an indicator.  It should be straw coloured and will become darker the more dehydrated we become. 

What to eat and drink before, during and after a 5K, 10K and Half marathon?


Before: small snack or eat nothing as this can suit some runners and perform better on race day.  This has to be a personal decision and be tried out a few times before your race.

During: nothing

After: eat a healthy snack like nuts & seeds (a handful), a banana or hard-boiled egg within 45 minutes.


Before: have a meal 2 hrs before the event – breakfast: 1 wholemeal toast with poached egg or porridge.

During: energy drink if needed, maybe a sports gel at 30 to 40 minutes.

After: eat a whole food like a banana, an apple within 20 minutes. Eat a meal within 1 hour of finishing your race which includes carbohydrates and proteins if possible, not later than 2 hours after. For example a tuna/ham salad sandwich or baked potato.

Half Marathon

Fuel, food, hydration and electrolytes are very important. Make sure you have a healthy, balanced diet several weeks, if not longer, before the half marathon providing complex carbs, essential fats and proteins at every meal.

Before: have a wholesome carbohydrate meal 2 hours before the event so again wholemeal toast or porridge.  Have a banana or something similar 1/2 hr before the event (if practised in training).  Make sure you are well hydrated and have regular sips of water before the start.  Do not over hydrate.

During: start eating gels, a bite of a banana, a date, jelly babies and/or an energy drink after 30-40 minutes running and keep on fuelling/drinking at regular intervals.  Add an electrolyte tablet to a small bottle of water you carry.  Make use of the water stations, they sometimes provide isotonic drinks as well. Do practice this during your training sessions so you won’t surprise yourself and end up with indigestion, cramps or similar reactions.

After: you will have made considerate damage to your muscles and will have produced free radicals which is a natural process. Proteins are very important for recovery as well as getting fitter and stronger.  Eat something within 20 minutes to start refuelling. Eat a meal of carbohydrates and proteins within 1 hour if possible, not later than 2 hours for example chicken with rice and vegetables.

Other facts to take into account:

When running long distances without good initial nutrition, low levels of glycogen reserves and/or lack of refuelling during the race, it will be likely that you will run out of glycogen reserves which will induce the release of cortisol.  This cortisol breaks down muscle (amino acids) to produce glucose as a source of energy. This is why we ‘hit the wall’.

It is really important straight after an endurance event to replace this lack of glycogen with a carbohydrate-protein meal to fill up those glycogen reserves and bring cortisol levels down.

Having taken part in an endurance event like a half marathon, it is important to have a meal made out of carbohydrates and proteins after the event than just a protein meal as you will have a better insulin release which will stimulate a better muscle glycogen replacement.

Free radicals are being produced during any type of exercise.  This a normal, natural process. Try eating berries or plums to introduce antioxidants. Montmorency cherry juice like Cherry Active from Active Edge contains a very high concentration of anti-oxidants.  Drink a glass of this juice or any other cherry juice to add some extra anti-oxidants.