Running and the Science of Nutrient Timing: WHEN to eat to best fuel your performance

Running and fueling the machine. In my recent article for Competitor: Nutrient Timing is Everything for Runners I really like the bottom line to everything my go-to sports nutritionist Krista Austin Ph.D. professes, “Food is a performance tool.” She teaches her runners to “eat to perform.”
runner eating
Runners are human, of course, but at the same time it would be naive to ignore the fact that what goes into your body has a direct correlation to what it is able to give you right back. Thankfully, I also like that quick on the heels of that Austin also says, “However, my policy is that at least once a week every athlete should have a ‘fun meal’ where they don’t think too much about what they are eating and just enjoy fun food-the key is to watch the portion sizes.”

It’s all a matter of balance. Just as runners and training, balance, consistency, and the law of averages often wins out with their nutrition. That isn’t to say there aren’t times when the PERFORMANCE style of eating trumps the LIFE side of eating.

Case in point, the night before a race or the actual day of your race. Here is where, if you’re a runner, ignoring your taste buds and eating with your HEAD is the wiser choice. Austin has explained to me that Dathan Ritzenhein’s top pre-race meal of choice is plain, white rice. Is it his favorite tasting meal? Probably not, but you know what? He knows it sits well in his stomach, it will give him the non-complex carbs he’ll want in his system right before the gun goes off, and he knows it works. His race, his PERFORMANCE, is the priority. Taste buds can wait until after the finish line.

I’ve done numerous articles on runners and nutrition, a few you can revisit:

How Runners Can Stuff Their Faces at Restaurants But Still Perform at Their Best

Runners Going Gluten-Free: Could making the switch work for you?

The Post-Run Refuel: Why 30 minutes is your winning window of opportunity

run for cake

Dreaming of cake works as motivation…just wait until after the finish line! ;)


My latest one is on nutrient TIMING and just how crucial WHEN you eat is when tied to your running performance. Read the original article, but here are some more tips I’ve got from talking to Austin:

* Think long term goals AND short term nutrition goals: With nutrient timing there are macro and micro cycles; the macro would be your BIG training goal, think an entire season or build-up for a marathon. Tailor your food choices and nutrition goals for that, but within each multi-week/month macro cycle fit in 3-10 day micro cycles. An example- A macro cycle would be if you’re training for a marathon, a micro cycle IN that would be a week where you’re focusing on building your speed with shorter intervals. For the micro cycle your eating would be different than in your longer/base phase.

* A second recovery window: We’ve all heard that within 30 minutes of finishing your workout you NEED to get protein and carbs back into your system. What I didn’t know was that there is ANOTHER window of time that is particularly important to refuel your stores: just before bed. Aim to get 20-25 grams of protein, preferably in the form of dairy (cottage cheese, milk), with some carbs. It’s been found the muscles will respond to this, and it also aids with sleeping.

* Marathoners and carbs: Yes, we need carbs as runners, but a mistake many marathoners in training can make is just over-doing the carbs. Meb Keflezighi has become more strict with his carb intake as he’s gotten older; he’s moved up in distance but switched some of those carb calories over to fats and protein and they help keep him fuller. He’s a lot more picky about the KINDS of carbs he eats, WHEN he eats them, and WHICH training phase he’s in.

For more information on how to time your eating so that it’s best fueling your running performance check out the article.

Food is fun, one of the BEST perks of being a runner is we have way more entitlement to stuff our faces. BUT there are times when we must stuff our faces with our brains…because in fueling our bodies right we can fuel them to perform at their optimum level. Read as: Run PR’s! :)

1) What is something you learned from either this post or from the article? If nothing care to share a tidbit of your own?

2) What is your go-to pre-race meal?

3) What is your go-to post-race meal or ‘fun meal’?
best running shirts

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23 Comments

Filed under food, goals, nutrition, running

23 Responses to Running and the Science of Nutrient Timing: WHEN to eat to best fuel your performance

  1. I LOVE that pic! I definitely do dream of color and ESPECIALLY cake! :)

  2. Sun

    Lots of great information in this post! I had not heard about eating protein before going to bed and also find the macro/micro nutrition cycles interesting. I’m going to have to read more about these topics!

    • thanks! yea, i actually REALLY like the protein before bed part because i always get peeved when people tout, “i DON’T eat before bed, it’ll make me fat!” lol

  3. I will definitely check out your shirts!!! :) Looks very artsy! :)

  4. I am always curious to what others eat before races. I always think of pasta but I know others eat a variety of other stuff. Interesting that Meb adds more proteins!

    • i used to get made fun of because i actually an not a huge pasta person…i will however steal everyone’s bread and pizza crust if they take me to an italian place ;)

  5. Before a race, I usually have a banana and a granola bar. This weekend, I was still hungry, so I ate a second granola bar. Seemed to work out great because I PR’ed my race!

    I never heard about having proteins before bed to help you sleep. Very interesting.

  6. I like to eat a Picky Bar and a banana before a race. The bars are super good and just the right size. I love cake…and I definitely think about food 90% of the time I’m running :-) .

  7. Some serious, er, food for thought here. Nutritions definitely on my list of priorities at the moment. I’ve now decided that every single post your write is just for me. Or any runner. But mostly me.

  8. Before a race or a long run I have a piece of toast with peanut butter. It has worked out to be the perfect combo to make me feel fueled for a good portion of my run. It also sits well in my tummy.

  9. I love all your pictures! Thanks for this post- it was really informative and got me thinking about what I eat and my approach to eating for training.

    I usually eat most of my lunch (I pack everyday for work) between 11 am and 12, and my evening run usually isn’t until sometime after 5. I used to just run and often felt sluggish and low on energy. I discovered if I eat a small snack about 20 minutes beforehand (such as a granoal bar) I feel 100x better… imagine that, right??

    Go-to pre-race meal is either a Power Bar or a Luna Bar, because they sit well in my stomach.

    • thanks so much! :)
      oh gosh, and YES, a snack before that run will make a world of difference, as u noted! but don’t feel too bad, most of us runners learn things along the way then think back to some pretty funny, “well, duh” moments. ;)

  10. Ok, you already know that picture with the rainbow cake is now my favorite, right? lol. Love love love your pictures…as for my nutrition strategies, I MUST eat before I run. I always run in the morning and I never ever skip breakfast. I wake up starving every single day. I normally eat some form of oatmeal, fruit, peanut butter combo as breakfast. After a long run, I always refuel with more oatmeal mixed with greek yogurt, berries (and whatever fruit I have on hand) and more peanut butter. It works for me and I love it! Usually before a race I make sure to include banana as part of my breakfast.

  11. Ana

    I really really need some advice…my coach says I’m not eating enough and that’s why I can’t run faster, I’m afraid to eat more because I don’t want to gain any weight and I don’t know what I should be eating more of is it carbs, protein, fat? I’m in the dark… I want to run faster but I don’t know how much more food I should eat and I don’t want to go overboard and gain weight

  12. Pingback: How dehydration can be causing your GI problems while running |

  13. Pingback: The runger is back and my favorite place to run | Haute Chocolate Runner

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