The best foods for runners include those high in carbohydrate to sustain endurance training, protein to help recover muscles, and fats to provide a significant energy source and protect the body from damage.
To complicate matters, a runner's diet should also focus on vitamins and minerals that are in high demand for endurance athletes, including sodium, potassium, magnesium, iron, calcium, and vitamin D.
Finding the “perfect foods” may be challenging, so to capture all of these essential categories for a runner's diet and performance, I've listed the six best foods for runners below:
1. Milk: The Best Re-hydration Beverage
Cow's milk specifically is known for being a great source of calcium to strengthen bones. Here in the US, it is also fortified with Vitamin D which contributes to optimal bone building and can reduce risk of stress fractures in runners.
Beyond its bone benefits, milk is also considered one of the best foods for runners because of its carbohydrate to protein ratio. Packing 12g of natural carbohydrate and 8g of protein per glass, milk averages out to a 1.5:1 ratio. For recovery, runners will should aim for a 3:1 ratio but this is easily accomplished by pairing that milk with a banana, a PB&J sandwich, granola bar, or switching it up with chocolate milk, the glorified sports recovery beverage!
Think that's all milk has to offer?
. . . Think again!
Milk has sodium and potassium to support the electrolyte need of runners. With 115mg sodium per glass, this is similar to a cup of your favorite sports drink. And the potassium content, which helps many runners prevent muscle cramping, is far greater than traditional sports drink, making it a better recovery beverage than Gatorade!
2. Trail Mix: A Healthy Snack for Runners
Dried fruit is a great source of quickly-digested carbohydrate for energy, while nuts and seeds are a great source of protein and healthy fats. But it’s the little details that I'm going to pay attention to here:
To fuel for the win, make your trail mix with some combination of: almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, raisins, dried apricots, dried goji berries, or dried pitted prunes. These nutrients specifically boost iron, omega-3, and antioxidant intake.
Iron is essential to transport oxygen through the body during endurance exercise. Working muscles need more oxygen to keep moving, and thus, adequate iron to deliver it.
Specifically, almonds, cashews, and sunflower seeds have between 10-20% of a woman's daily need for iron (25-50% of the RDA for men) which is relatively unheard for non-meat foods to be this high in iron. The dried apricots, raisins, prunes, and goji berries are close behind at 5-14% of the recommended amount.
Omega-3 fats are found in many nuts, including walnuts and pecans. Runners need more omega-3's to fight inflammation after hard training! Similarly, a runner's diet also needs more anti-oxidants to prevent free radical damage, which are concentrated in dried fruit.
3. Oatmeal: A Powerful Breakfast for Runners
"Carbs are fuel" & "breakfast is the most important meal of the day" are phrases often said by sports dietitians.
This holds even more true for endurance runners who often start their day with a 5-10 mile run. Oatmeal can be a great energy source to fuel up before a run, or to restore glycogen (energy in muscles) after a run.
Oatmeal is also considered one of the best foods for runners due to its fiber and prebiotic content. Maintaining gut health is important for everybody, however runners often experience more gastrointestinal upset including irritable bowel syndrome and leaky gut. This may be because of the physiological process of endurance exercise, which takes blood flow away from the intestines and causes inflammation in the cell lining and changes to the gut microbiome. Eating foods high in probiotics and prebiotics, including o