Going Strong: Essential Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, Explained

Calories are energy.

Everything we do exerts energy. Sleeping, eating, watching TV. Walking, running, talking. Just existing exerts energy. It burns calories. Obviously, some activities burn more calories than others. 

Now, I’ll be honest here: I’m no nutrition expert. But I do know what it means to burn a lot of calories running and to desperately need a good, nutritious snack to replenish lost calories in a way that’s going to be good to my body and beneficial for my health.

Runners (particularly endurance runners) have a special relationship with our fuel—ahem, our food. It can be a balancing act of portions and timing, not to mention actual substance. You eat the wrong thing at the wrong time, or have too much of it—even something as innocent as water—and you could be paying for it dearly on your run.

The before, the during, the after...snacks matter.

Instead of recommending specific snacks, I’ve got a few general pieces of advice regarding snacks and nutrition for runnings. Most of it has been gleaned from experience and research. 

Healthy Meal & Snack Tips for Endurance Runners

Give Yourself Time to Digest

The sweet spot for snacking before any run or exercise tends to be between one and three hours before. One is a little close, so you might want to snack a little lighter if you’re under a time crunch. At the end of the day, your body needs time to digest nutrients before you can work out. Think about combining small meals—toast with a yogurt for instance—a few hours before a run. 

For short (under two hours) or high-intensity workouts, you can rely on liquid nutrition, like a sports drink, so that you teach your body to rely on burning fat stored for energy. 

Regardless, giving yourself room to eat and digest before intensive physical activity not only makes your workout more effective, it means you can avoid stomach cramping and other discomfort that can hurt your performance. 

You should feel energetic and light, not sluggish or heavy when you workout. 

Start with a Solid Diet

Whether you’re snacking or eating the full meal deal, it all starts with a healthy, solid foundation. What are you putting on your plate? Is the fuel you’re giving your body quality? Are you eating a lot of fruits and vegetables and lean meats? Healthy fats? Complex carbohydrates?

If you’re relying on processed foods to get you through, even if they’re packaged as “healthy” energy bars...you might be hurting yourself in the long run. Focus on kicking out fatty foods, processed meals, junk foods, and limit your intake of alcohol and caffeine. 

Get Enough to Eat

Athletes struggle with this one. Athleticism is often associated with weight loss, unless you’re specifically trying to build muscle. When that’s in the culture and in our minds, losing weight is unconsciously linked to eating less, and that’s not good. 

As athletes, we’re burning calories. Usually a lot of them. And we’ve got to stay fueled! If you feel tired during your workouts, feel sluggish during the day, or get major hunger spikes in the evening, guess what? You’re probably not eating enough.

You know you’re getting enough calories if you have energy throughout the day, if you feel like your workouts are quality, if you can recover quickly, and if you see your cravings for sweets decrease.

Stay Hydrated

Water, like food, is also a balancing act. Did you know that not everyone actually needs 8 glasses of water a day? Some people need more, or less. It depends on things like activity, climate, and body type. If you’ve been running for any amount of time, you know the slosh of drinking too much before or during a run. It’s not enjoyable.

There’s a balance to strike here, too. Too much or too little water can cause nausea, fatigue, headache, inability to concentrate, and trouble finishing your workouts. Finding the right balance for you can be a challenge, but don’t feel like you have to stick to the arbitrary 8 glasses rule.

It’s different for everyone.

What are your favorite pre and post-run snacks? Share them with me in the comments!