Runner Essentials: Protein and Carbs

Every runner knows that what you eat affects your performance. If you’re planning a marathon or a long-distance race, you will need more energy to burn than ever. It’s vital that you get a balanced diet with a high concentration of BOTH protein and carbohydrates. Knowing how to make these work for you will make you a better runner. Protein gives your muscles strength and helps people run faster, but without carbs to burn for energy, your body can only burn fat and protein which won’t be enough to fuel you for that marathon. It’s important to know the right types of protein and carbs, and when and how to eat them, so here are some basic guidelines. 


You need to get a certain amount of protein in your diet and there are many ways in which you can do this. It’s necessary to know about the different types of food which contain protein, the type protein they contain and how much per day you need to eat. 

Protein is a mixture of hormones, antibodies and enzymes and makes up for 16% of your body. It contains four calories per gram. Protein acts as a buffer to maintain acid-base balance. It also improves muscle protein synthesis and bone remodeling. These things are all essential to a runner. 

The recommended amount if you’re training for a run is to consume 0.6-8 grams per pound of your body weight which is more than the normally daily recommendation. You will need extra protein in order to power that run. It’s advisable to spread this out over the course of the day. Don’t eat all your protein in one go. Try to ration it out evenly over all your meals and to vary the types of protein that you eat. You will need protein both before and after running in order to improve your performance. There are many easy ways to get protein into your meal plan so first think about the different types you want to include.

There are two main types of protein; complete and incomplete. Complete means that they include all nine of the essential amino acids that your body needs. Incomplete proteins are not necessarily a bad choice, this just means that you need to combine a couple of different types of them to make sure you get enough amino acids. Animal products including meat, red and white, and dairy products such as eggs, milk and yoghurt all are complete proteins. There are vegetarian options as well such as soy and edamame beans. Incomplete proteins include your rice and grains, beans and pulses. Make sure you get a combination. If you’re worried about your protein intake many supplements have been proven to work well as a complete protein. Try muscle rage for example. 


Your body needs carbohydrates for energy. Carbs are broken down into sugars which are converted into glycogen which fuels your muscles. This is why many athletes choose to do what is called a “carbo-load” before any major event. This usually entails gorging on carbs the night before you run a marathon for example. It’s important to do this in the correct way however and again like proteins to know when is the best to eat them, to understand the different types, and how much you need. Carbs can be and should be eaten before, after and even during doing exercise. There are two main types of carbohydrates, simple and complex.

Simple carbs are broken down into sugars more quickly and are then rapidly digested. This gives you an immediate but short-lived energy boost. The sugar will give you a hit of energy but soon afterwards you will feel hungry as your body needs another snack. Foods that contain simple carbohydrates are better for a quick snack before training as they give an energy boost without weighing you down. Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest and are not ideal to eat just before a run as you could suffer from indigestion or stomach upset. 

Foods that contain simple carbs are bananas, white bread, pasta, dried fruit and chocomilk. It’s a great idea to munch on a banana or two at least an hour before your training. Another good, light breakfast idea is white toast with jam or honey for example. These are ideal if you wake up early to train before work and need a light energy boost not long before your run. Pasta on the other hand is a better option for dinner as it can take longer to digest. Be sure to combine with protein and vegetables to make a balanced meal. For some delicious yet healthy pasta recipe ideas click here. During your exercise you can still snack on a few things like dried fruit. You can also wash it down with chocolate milk, but be careful that this doesn’t contain too much sugar and artificial ingredients. These won’t give you a stitch while running and will keep the energy flowing. 

Complex carbohydrates are slowly released into your system and take longer to be processed. Some examples include grains such as rice and quinoa which are yummy lunch options. You can add them to salads and remember to mix them with at least one type of protein. Some surprising ones are sweet potatoes, beetroot and yoghurt. Sweet potatoes are full of nutrients and a tasty addition to any meal. Yoghurts are a great post-run snack. Beetroot contains a lot of vitamin C and magnesium as well as being complex carbohydrates so it has other health benefits as well. 

Learning how to carbo-load before a big run is vital to improving your performance. Eat complex carbohydrates no later than dinner the night before. This is a great time to indulge a little as you will burn it off the next day. It is advisable however, to stagger your carbo-load over the two or three days before your event. This will add a more steady build-up of energy. 

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