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 oatmeal, may help strengthen the gastrointestinal system and reduce these unpleasant symptoms.
4. Potatoes: Fuel to Perform
Continuing the theme of carbohydrates being the best fuel source for runners, potatoes stack pretty high on the list. As a starchy vegetable, potatoes (of all forms!) are a great carbohydrate loading food in addition to a healthy snack for runners. But there is more to potatoes than just carbs…
One russet potato has a whopping 600-800mg of potassium, compared to only 360-480mg in a banana, notoriously known for high potassium content.
Due to changes in our soil quality in the US, and low fruit and vegetable consumption, it is estimated that only 3% of the US population is getting adequate amounts of potassium. Runners may benefit from even more potassium than the average jo to help prevent muscle cramping and optimize running performance.
Potatoes also provide a good source of Vitamin B6 to help red blood cell production and Vitamin C to fight off sickness. And yes, even the "white potatoes" contain all this goodness.
5. Avocado: The Calories You Need
Avocado is an excellent addition to a runner's diet to boost anti-inflammatory omega-3 intake. But despite the high fat content, one avocado has a shocking 13g of fiber, which is over 50% of your daily need. This high fiber content makes avocados an excellent source of prebiotics to improve gut health of runners once again.
Another benefit of adding avocado to a runner's diet is boosting overall calorie intake. Many runners struggle to consume enough calories to support their training demand. This results in low energy availability, relative energy deficiency in sport, or the female and male athlete triad, which can jeopardize a runner's career and put a runners health at risk for long-term consequences.
Concerned about high calories? You shouldn't be, considering the nutrients including omega-3, fiber, and magnesium will immediately be put to good use for a runner.
6. Beans: The Best of the Best
The final food on my list combines many of the nutrients discussed so far, all in one amazing food for runners.
From black beans, to soybeans, to kidney beans, beans in general pack a combination of carbohydrates, protein, fiber, prebiotics, iron, B-vitamins, and potassium.
Beans are also high in magnesium, a nutrient that tends to deplete in heavy sweaters. During high training, and hot summers, it is important for runners to put an extra emphasis on replenishing magnesium. Failing to do so can result in achy and sore muscles. A 1-cup serving of black beans contains at least 1/3 of your recommended amount of magnesium.
Drizzle olive oil on top and sprinkle with sea salt to boost omega-3 and sodium, and you've got yourself the perfect fuel for runners.
The Ideal Runner's Diet
By combining the six best foods for runners into one day's worth of eating, a runner could make their ideal sports nutrition diet look like this:
Breakfast of oatmeal, made with milk, and topped with fresh fruit and pumpkin seeds.
Snack of trail mix (cashews, walnuts, goji berries, dried apricots).
Lunch of baked potato topped with shredded chicken, cheese, and a side salad with dressing.
Pre-run snack of toast with peanut butter, sliced banana, and raisins.
Post-run recovery snack of chocolate milk.
Dinner of salmon and asparagus served over black beans with olive oil and sea salt.