A Runners Diet Plan: Breaking Down Labels


After a long break from marathon training, this summer I found myself prepping for the Chicago marathon. Building miles and getting refocused on a runners diet plan.

Which is to say, reminding myself that I needed a few key things:

  • Eating enough calories to maintain energy as the miles increase
  • Not relying on sugars and quick carbs
  • Focusing on eating enough protein to maintain muscle mass
  • Including a wide range of nutrients to prevent runger

Who hasn’t spent the last mile of a long run fantasizing about a huge slice of cake, a burger or maybe for you it’s the sound of an ice cold coke fizzing in the can. There’s not a darn thing wrong with enjoying these foods because our body is reminding us that it needs fuel.

But obviously an entire day or week or month of eating these foods isn’t ideal for boosting our endurance training.

Marathon Runners Diet

We have a tendency to focus on those treats and the idea of a high carb lifestyle as the way that marathon runners should eat, but nearly everyone will tell you that’s lead them to gain weight.

It seems impossible to be running more miles and gaining weight, but the wrong foods, the wrong fueling and the stress of the  miles makes it all too common.

In fact, if we looked at a pyramid of what matters most when it comes to our performance a lot of people would be disappointed to realize that all the running supplements and recovery tools are near the top (meaning least important, but still useful once you nail down your nutrition).Endurance athlete success

Thanks to my friend Lindsay Cotter, a blogger and Nutrition Specialist over at Cotter Crunch for contributing a lot of great information to this article, she has worked with many amazing Sports Nutritionists, and endurance athletes, including her own husband who raced professionally for years!

What we’ve all come to learn is that every body works differently in regards to fueling and race day nutrition, but the one thing that all endurance athletes NEED is GOOD QUALITY food the 75% of time they’re not training.

What should long distance runners eat?

The number of calories runners need depends a great deal on body size, speed and percentage of calories burned from carbs or fat. I fully recommend working with someone to make those determinations, but you can use online calculators to get you starts.

However, as I’ve stated previously with those calculators I’d be eating enough to gain weight, not maintain and definitely not lose body fat.

  • You don’t want to have massive calorie deficits, which can lead to energy swings that make training harder
  • You don’t want a high volume of calories from sugary processed foods which cause inflammation
  • You do need to plan ahead for meals to eat enough quality foods

I do NOT like to share what I eat because there’s no guarantee it will work for you, but in Macros for Runners there is a sample day of eating from one runner and I will give you and idea of mine now.

In the following sections we’ll breakdown each component of during a workout, carbs and protein.

Marathon Runners Diet Plan Example

Following is a sample day from while I was running 50 miles per week, strength training 3 days and worked with someone to figure out how to keep my energy steady.

  • Pre-run: 1/2 scoop protein powder with 12 oz water (usually some green juice), + 1 tbsp nut butter + 1/2 cup cheerios (I’m usually only awake for 30 minutes or so before I run, so I keep is small and fast)
  • Breakfast: 1 slice Ezekiel bread, 2 oz avocado, 1 turkey hot dog, clementine and 1/2 scoop protein powder
  • Snack: 1 slice Ezekiel cinnamon raisin bread, 2 tbsp nut butter, 1/2 apple
  • Lunch: 4-5 oz chicken breast, 2 cups greens, 4 oz baked potato (usually a piece of dark chocolate too)
  • Snack: 1 cup cheerios (I love cereal), 2 tbsp nut butter and often some jerky
  • Dinner: 5 oz ground turkey, 4 oz sweet potato, asparagus
  • Snack: 1/2 Perfect Bar

runners diet plan

Not so much in to meat? Checkout this post on transitioning to be a plant based marathon runner.

You can definitely be a vegan runner, but you need to do the proper planning to not only hit your calorie goals, but the amount of protein needed to ensure you maintain muscle. Especially for females who may have issues with low iron, which can cause a host of issues.

What is the best diet for marathon training?

As you can see above I tend to run something close to the Zone Diet and that works for my body and the way I train with Low Heart Rate burning more fat than carbs. Some runners really like the high fat diet for endurance athletes, but I’ve found they have issues sticking to it long term and what’s the point?

Long standing rules have said runners need 60% of their diet from carbs, but we’re seeing more and more that’s not true. One of the main issues is at that rate, few runners are getting it entirely from whole foods and instead are eating a lot more processed sugary treats.

The best diet is one that leaves you feeling good, helps your body to repair quickly and prevents bonking from sugar crashes.running bars

Food During Workouts

Clean eating isn’t as important here as sometimes just getting calories in, and without stomach distress. BUT…the cleaner the better, right?

Some days a gel is exactly what gets the job done, other long runs could include some great whole food refuel ideas.

The meals that matter most are the ones that follow the 24 hours post workout/race/etc. This is where the body recovers, heals, and absorbs nutrients.

Timing is everything!

(source below: Coach Matt Dixon)Best time for fueling endurance activitiesNotice the last section, 45-90 minutes POST TRAINING.

This is where it counts, REAL FOOD that is.

Not only are replenishing your calories, you are now replenishing your NUTRIENTS!

What about carbohydrates in a runners diet plan?

Over 100 years of research back the idea that we need carbs to perform and studies are showing that those on keto are not performing as well come race day.

Our bodies need proper nutrients to fully recover from each workout and to work hard when we ask it to! Even if you’re doing LHR training and burning mostly fat, there’s a saying that “fat burns in a carbohydrate flame.”

YOU MUST EAT CARBS. They give you energy and are important for well rounded diet.

A good 4:1 ratio of Carbs and Protein after your workout is key to recovery. Examples:

– Brown rice and eggs
– Turkey wrap
Oatmeal and cottage cheese
– Cheese on GF toast
Quinoa and chicken or pork bowl
Quinoa and Cherry Glazed Pork Chops - perfect recovery mealThe meals consumed after that post race/workout meal should now be protein/fat/vegetable based.

These are the “building blocks” of good nutrition, and your body will naturally crave them if you fueled properly before. And remember this isn’t about perfection or being a zealot about your food!

Stop focusing on eliminating foods and get focused on how you can include enough protein, anti-inflammatory foods and more veggies.

Protein for Distance Runners Matters

Eating higher protein helps maintain muscle mass when you’re in a calorie deficit, really important for endurance athletes who are almost always going to be low on calories after massive workouts.

Protein expert Stuart Phillips, PhD from McMaster Univeristy says minimum is 1.6 grams per kg of body weight per day (2.3-3.1 for muscle building)

More ideas for when you’re ready for a bigger meal:

– Salmon, steamed veggies, and avocado salad
– Steak kabobs
– Bell peppers stuffed with Tempeh or Tofu, Vegan cheese on top, and then roasted or broiled
Shrimp and veggies (make a one sheet pan meal!)
– Grilled chicken on a bed of steamed spinach with crumbled feta, cucumber, tomatoes, and olives
Warm breakfast salad (and more on a clean eating breakfast)
Paleo Breakfast Idea - A salad to recover after a hard workout, loaded with veggies and proteinThese are just a few examples of healthy protein/fat/veggie based meals.

It’s also important to remember that you need to get in ENOUGH calories to prevent muscle wasting. A consistent period of being in calorie deficit means your body will begin to use muscles, not fat, to provide the energy you need for those long workouts.
Read more on maintaining muscle mass with endurance training >>

Tips for a Health Runners Diet

There will be times when life happens, we’re stuck without proper food because we’re traveling or at the mercy of a work conference filled with pastries and a lunch wrap of iceberg lettuce.

Try to be prepared for that “I’m too tired to cook” post workout moment or the days on the road, but when you’re not, just don’t stress about it.

  • Pack snacks to take with you that don’t need to be in the fridge like an apple, jerky, nut butter packets, roasted chickpeas, protein powder
  • Think about meals being a BALANCE of both protein and carbs, this will keep you from getting that raving hunger just a short bit after eating
  • Actually eat enough at your meals so that you don’t need to just rely on snacks, which often aren’t as high quality food
  • Decide you’re going to commit to meal prep because your goal matters
  • Change your thoughts around food from restriction to eating for performance
  • Focus on NUTRIENTS and you’ll find your food falls in to place more easily
  • Hydrate like it’s your job…cause it kinda is.
  • Don’t worry a great deal about variety, if you’ve found a way of eating that’s allowing you to eat enough and high quality, stick with it. This also helps reduce hunger interestingly.

If you can nail your nutrition 80-90% of time, then that’s great!

The other 10% of the time, do whatcha can don’t freak out about it. Sometimes that stress just causes more damage.

We know it increases cortisol which is already high from our workouts and that just means delayed recovery.Imperfect eating is okSee even the elites aren’t perfect…though this was probably Lindsey’s gluten free, dairy free amazing Vegan Maple Cashew Cream Cheese frosting.

In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff!

Hope you found these tips somewhat useful in creating your own optimized marathon runners diet plan!

Still looking for more information?

Checkout these additional articles on sports nutrition:

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