When it comes to running long distances, properly fueling your body can make all the difference — not just in your performance but ALSO in your ability to recover quickly afterward.
Keri Claiborne Boyle, a former nationally ranked triathlete and certified coach of USA Triathlon and the Road Runners Club of America, says, “No matter how much you train, you have to get the nutrition right.”
No More Mounds of Spaghetti
“People used to believe in carb loading before an event, but it causes bloating, which slows you down,” says Boyle. Now she coaches runners to increase their daily complex carbohydrate intake five days before a long race, without overdoing it.
Carbohydrates build up glycogen stores in your muscles that fuel you when you’re running. “You can’t just cram them in the night before,” she says.
Eating a combination of low-fiber simple carbs and low-fat proteins the morning before the race is optimal since runners need a fuel source that’s easy to digest, but also has staying power. Supplements can further enhance performance.
Boost Performance with Beets
Various beetroot products, both juices and powders, are currently on the market and targeted to athletes, especially endurance athletes. Liz Keller, a health coach certified by the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, says, “Beet extract has a high concentration of sucrose—a simple sugar source that’s a natural endurance booster.”
Research shows that the body converts the beetroot’s active ingredient—inorganic nitrate—into nitric oxide in the saliva. Clinical studies indicate that increased nitric oxide levels help fight muscle fatigue and may help improve times in endurance tests.
“You have to take beet extract about 90 minutes before you need it,” says Rob Liao, MD, cardiologist and avid runner. “But don’t use mouthwash beforehand or it disrupts the oral flora needed to make it work.”
When you exercise for long periods of time, or in hot weather, water alone won’t keep you hydrated. That’s because you lose electrolytes—such as sodium, magnesium, calcium, and potassium—through your sweat that are critical for moving fluid where it’s needed. “Marathon runners often ‘hit the wall’ around mile 16 or 17,” says Boyle. “It’s not usually because they didn’t train right—it’s almost always a nutrition problem.”
There are many electrolyte-rich sports drinks available, but they contain sugar or sugar substitutes. Keller says, “They give you a quick burst of energy, but your blood sugar levels drop so low afterwards that you ‘crash.’” Instead, Keller suggests replenishing your electrolytes by dissolving a few grains of Himalayan salt in your water. “Amino acids also help induce quicker muscle recovery.”
Minimizing Muscle Soreness
Long-distance running takes a toll on your body; even if you’re in top shape and eat well, recovery can be difficult. “People used to think muscle soreness was due to lactic acid, but research has shown that microtears in your muscles—DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness)—is actually to blame,” explains Boyle. “When your cells rush in to repair your muscles, it causes a buildup of cellular debris that must be cleared from your bloodstream.”
For those looking to lower inflammation and recover muscle strength more quickly after exercise, science shows that tart cherry juice can make a real difference. The juice contains antioxidants that speed up muscle recovery and remove free radicals that cause inflammation and soreness.
Another supplement to consider is fish oil, which facilitates antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity in the body. It’s full of omega-3 fatty acids, which can help repair oxidative damage.
Nutrients with a 4-to-1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio, like chocolate milk, can also help offset DOMS and minimize discomfort, but only when consumed within 30 minutes of finishing a race.
Protein also helps rebuild muscle. “A protein shake helps speed recovery, but it’s not a meal substitute,” says Keller. “We’re a culture that’s into the quick fix, but we’re supposed to chew our food, not drink it, to properly cue digestion. There are so many products on the market now in shiny packages, but I’m a believer that if you eat good, whole, nutrient-dense foods, and drink water with a little bit of salt, that’s really all you need.”