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5 Common Fueling Questions Runners Ask Dietitians

In order to combat the misinformation out there, five registered dietitians got together to answer the most common questions from runners.

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Sports Dietitians spend their days answering questions about fueling. Because there’s always misinformation floating around, there are certain questions that many of us hear over and over. I asked a few Registered Dietitians about the most frequently asked questions they receive and how they answer them.

Here’s what they had to say.

The Dietitian: Me—Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD of Nutrition à la Natalie

The question: What should I eat before a race?

The answer: There’s one simple fueling rule for race day: Never try anything new on the day of a race. If you normally eat oatmeal before running, don’t try change it up and eat cereal on race day. Instead, practice your race day fueling strategy on your long run days. For races of long distances, runners need easily digestible carbs with some protein. As a native New Yorker and runner, I’m a bagel lover. I usually recommend any variety of Dave’s Killer Bread bagels because each one has upwards of 11 grams of protein and a mixture of whole grains. Not only will the whole grains provide long-lasting fuel, but the protein will keep you from eating up that fuel quickly and feeling hungry during the race. Make sure you try this fuel a few weeks before the race to make sure it sits well in your stomach. Whatever you choose to eat before a race, pair it with a big glass of water. Being properly hydrated ensures that you are starting off the race on the right foot.

The Dietitian: Christy Brissette, MSc, RD of 80 Twenty Nutrition

The question: Should I have caffeine before a run?

The answer: If you normally rely on a cup of joe first thing in the morning, research suggests that it might improve your endurance. Studies have shown that caffeine may cause small but significant improvements in 5K running times, perceived exertion and improved mood during exercise. The mentioned studies used about two 8-ounce cups of coffee, or four 8-oz cups of black tea, which is quite a lot to drink before a run! It turns out that consuming half that amount of caffeine (3mg/kg) had the same effect on performance, meaning that drinking just one cup of coffee could certainly give you a boost! Keep in mind that everyone’s body reacts differently to caffeine, and you may feel jittery or be running to the bathroom if you’re not a regular coffee drinker.

The Dietitian: Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition

The question: What should I eat after a run if I don’t have time to sit down for a meal?

The answer: Within half an hour to two hours after your run, you’ll want to have a refueling snack. But you don’t have to sit down for a full meal to accomplish this! Aim for a combo that provides carbs and protein. Your muscles need protein to repair and rebuild damaged muscle, and you need carbohydrates to resupply used up glycogen. I love snacks that you can take with you on the go, like Sabra’s Single-Serve Hummus, which are 2-ounce packs that provide protein and carbs, and are perfect for tossing into a cooler. I suggest also bringing along a whole-wheat pita and a hardboiled egg. When it’s time to eat, top the pita with the hummus and then slice the egg, placing it on top.

The Dietitian: Angie Asche MS, RD, LMNT of Eleat Sports Nutrition

The question: What foods will help me recover faster?

The answer: The best foods for recovery are those that help fight inflammation and promote recovery. They can be either rich in antioxidants or anti-inflammatory fatty acids. Some examples of these types of foods are:

  • Dark vegetables like beets, broccoli, sweet potatoes, kale, spinach or collard greens
  • Fruits such as berries, tart cherry juice, citrus fruits, and avocados
  • Foods rich in omega-3s, such as salmon, walnuts, chia and flax seeds
  • Some spices, like ginger and turmeric

Avoid foods that could actually hinder recovery or lead to inflammation like refined starches, saturated and trans fats from processed meats and packaged foods (i.e. snack cakes, cookies, candy), and alcohol.

The Dietitian: Kelli Shallal, MPH, RD of Hungry Hobby

The question: Will fasting before exercise help burn more fat?

The answer: Yes and no. Yes, fasting prior to exercise has been shown to increase percentage of fat utilization by up to 20 percent. However, if glycogen (stored carb) stores are depleted, the body must obtain energy from elsewhere. This lack of stored carbs may force the body to breakdown skeletal muscle for energy, especially during an intense workout. If performance enhancement is your goal, research shows no benefit of fat adaptation for endurance athletes. If weight loss is the goal, potentially eating away muscle mass will make it harder to lose weight and maintain weight overall.