Q. & A.: How to Fuel Your Runs

In high school, a teammate of mine would win every 400-meter race she entered with Dorito dust still on her fingertips. A college teammate traveled to races with a jar of peanut butter and a spoon. At the New York City Marathon a few years back, I watched a group of friends shotgun beers at the starting line.

It turns out a lot of foods, or beverages, can fuel athletes during a run. But after running for a certain number of weeks, or years, every runner gets to a point where they may want to re-evaluate some of their pre- and post-run eating habits.

Maybe it’s because you want to get faster, or because you want to optimize your recovery time, or because you frequently find yourself sick to your stomach during a workout.

Finding and timing the right meals and snacks to fuel your run takes time and planning, said Amy Stephens, the team dietitian for Empire Elite Track Club.

So this month, as part of our series of interviews with experts, we asked Stephens to answer some of our readers’ questions about post-run digestion issues, refueling and specific nutrients for runners.

Here’s some of her advice.

This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

On refueling

What’s the real benefit in fueling within 30 minutes of a run?

Think of refueling as part of your training plan. After a run, your muscles are primed to absorb all of the nutrition from food. If you wait one-to-two hours, you will still absorb nutrients but to a lesser extent.

Eating 30 minutes after a run will help your body recover faster and get stronger for the next run.

I encourage my athletes to pack food or have it prepped before heading out. Think of easy-to-prepare food such as oatmeal, a peanut butter sandwich, a nutrition bar or yogurt with fruit.

I generally recommend a food-first approach, but a smoothie or liquid supplement might be more convenient for some.

On eating mid-run

Does fueling mid-run help recovery? And what foods do you recommend?

Mid-run fueling is helpful in delaying muscle fatigue and can prevent hitting the wall, but doesn’t help with recovery. During a run or a race, I use gels and salt tablets.

After a race, the post-run meal can help with recovery by reducing inflammation. My favorite recommendations are tart cherry juice, beet juice, fresh strawberries, green tea and turmeric. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids — think fatty fish, chia or flax seeds — are also helpful in reducing inflammation and getting you ready for your next run.

In terms of recovery, the best thing we can do is eat carbs and protein every few hours. To maximize recovery, aim for a four-to-one ratio of carbohydrates to protein. Some of my favorite recovery foods are ones that are easy to prepare ahead of time, such as peanut butter and jelly, sliced bananas in yogurt, a yogurt smoothie, or a nutrition bar.

The biggest mistakes I’ve seen are eating high-fat fried foods without adequate carbohydrates. Fats take longer to be absorbed and don’t provide enough carbohydrates to replace glycogen.

On specific nutrients

I usually pay a lot of attention to protein and carbs after workouts. But are there any specific vitamins or supplements runners should focus on?

Some of the most overlooked supplements are from electrolytes, which are critical for energy production and muscle contraction. We lose electrolytes through sweat or in very warm or cold climates. I recommend testing out different electrolyte products to determine which is best for you.

Magnesium can help with exercise performance, too. Deficiencies are rare, but if you’re concerned, speak with your doctor about testing your magnesium level. My favorite foods with magnesium are spinach, almonds, cashews, black beans and avocado.

Also, B vitamins (B6, B12, B3) are beneficial for athletic performance. The B vitamins help with red blood cell production, energy production and muscle repair. Common food sources are dairy, meats, eggs, seeds, fish, chickpeas and bananas. If you don’t eat these foods, it might be worth it to take a B supplement.

On stomach issues

Is there a reason some runners throw up right after a race, and is there a way to prevent it?

Not only is vomiting normal but it happens at every level from beginners to advanced athletes.

Many of my professional athletes report vomiting at the end of a race regardless of pre-event fueling. Vomiting while running or at the end of hard effort is due to the body working hard to supply the muscles with oxygen-rich blood and nutrients. During a hard effort, our working bodies prioritize blood supply to muscles and divert it from the gut. During this period of exertion, it’s hard for the body to digest anything at all.

If you’re still uncomfortable about throwing up at the end of a race, here are some possible solutions that may help you.

  • Keep the fluids coming: Make sure you’re hydrated so your blood volume is maximized.

  • Be cognizant of when you are eating: Time nutrition so fuel is digested before your last push. Experiment with pre-run fueling by eating at least 90 minutes before you run. This gives your body plenty of time to digest food. Everyone needs a different amount of carbs; start with 45 grams of carbs one hour before your run and see how your body feels.

  • Find ways to reduce nausea: Try ginger- or lemon-flavored hard candies.

  • Talk to your doctor: If you tried these nutrition strategies and still have the urge to vomit, talk with your doctor about using antacids, Pepcid or antiemetics.

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