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Fuelling the Long Run - Nutritional Tips for Runners

By Vitality Performance Champion and Nutritionist James Hudson
The memory is probably a bit hazy, and the story changes each time you tell it, but somewhere in the midst of Christmas parties and get-togethers over the festive period you said ‘yes’. That passing comment of, “Next year we really should do that…”. Be it a first 10km or even the epic challenge of a marathon, it is firmly established on the calendar with an ever-growing number of exclamation marks surrounding it, but it is happening.

Well done! Taking on a challenge is a brilliant way of committing and tackling it with friends helps get through those early ambles in the rain. The race season of April and May approaches, distances are growing and the weekly ‘long’ runs are looming. The Vitality Big Half happening in March is the London’s community annual half marathon and the perfect prep for the London Marathon while the Vitality London 10,000 in May is the perfect starter runner’s event.

I love getting to visit many everyday athletes in my role as a Vitality Performance Champion, and so many have committed to big challenges this year. To help you not just survive these but thrive, and feel confident for race day here are some key tips from a nutritionist’s point of view.

What fuel do I need?

The main question I always get asked is “Do I need carbs?” The key to this is really what fuel are we going to be using? As your running intensity slides up from ‘able to have a chat’ to ‘breathing hard can’t talk’, more of your energy is going to be coming from carbohydrates. So planning days when you are going to be clocking up the miles to include bigger portions of carbohydrate rich foods is a good move. Rest days and ‘recovery runs’ at lower intensity won’t be as dependent so you need to fuel appropriately. This should all come together to fit your goals for running whether it is weight management or making the most of each and every session. 

What should my pre-race meal be?

Sources such as oats in porridge or muesli are great, topped off with fresh or dried fruit. Toasted bagels with sliced banana and a teaspoon of nut butter can be another morning staple prerace. Later in the day rice, pasta, sweet potato can all be perfect options. The key here is prioritising a carbohydrate source you are comfortable eating. The inclusion of protein is up to you, a small portion is absolutely fine but most importantly keep the fat content low here. The biggest tip I can give is practise, practise, practise. If you do your longer runs on the same day each week, make sure the day before starts to resemble pre-race day and most importantly that the pre-race meal is familiar and you have confidence running on it. 

What should I eat after a run?

Really simply this could be a whole food meal or a liquid meal depending upon your appetite, but you want to get something into you quite promptly to start the recovery processes. Priorities here are a source of protein to repair muscles and facilitate them to adapt to the training. A source of carbohydrate should be included to re-fuel those muscle stores, but also the latest research indicates this is crucial for bone health too. Liquid meals can be quick and easy including combinations of milk, fruit juice, frozen fruit, banana, low fat Greek yogurt or Skyr (a naturally high in protein cultured Icelandic diary product) ticks all of the boxes. If appetite and opportunity allows a whole food meal then a Nicoise salad with tuna and new potatoes is a great portable option and eats well cold.

Fuelling on the move

For runs that last less than an hour, keeping hydrated is the main ‘on-the-run’ focus and eating appropriately in the meals pre run should provide the fuel you need. However, as soon as you go beyond 90 minutes and the intensity is challenging then topping up that supply of fuel in the form of easily digestible carbohydrate is crucial to keep the pace up. We need to aim for 30-60g per hour of carbohydrate and this may increase to 60-90g per hour if you are going beyond the 3 hour mark. Most people find choices such as sports drinks, gels, jelly, and sweets provide the bulk of this. Some find ripe bananas and rice bars are manageable but again practice is key. As soon as the long runs are out past 75-90 minutes start trying different sources and getting into the habit of starting to fuel 30 minutes into the session. Just like you train your muscles, you need to train your gut and being in good habits by race day will mean both will thank you for it later!

Good luck with all of your endeavours this year! Whichever distance you have agreed to take on, it will all be worth it. Use the tips to understand your preferences so you have confidence from the start to the finish line allowing you to do your best.