New runner's nutrition guide - Women's Running

New runner’s nutrition guide

Author: Chris Macdonald

Read Time:   |  November 13, 2014

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Carbohydrates are a vital energy source for runners. Glucose derived from carbohydrates is the main type of sugar in the blood and is the body’s preferred source of energy. However, we can only store relatively small amounts of glucose in our muscles and liver as glycogen. The more glycogen available, the longer you can keep going at a higher level of performance. “Hitting the wall” occurs as your carbohydrate reserves run low and your muscles start to use fat as an additional source of energy. As you train more and increase your distance running, your muscles become better at transforming carbs and fat into energy, which means you can run faster for longer.

The amount of carbohydrate-containing foods you eat can influence the amount of glycogen you store. Taking in sufficient carbohydrate before, during and after exercise provides glucose for energy and helps to speed up recovery and restore glycogen levels, so you’re ready for your next training session.

Carbohydrate sources

To keep your energy levels high and avoid energy dips, eat foods that are good sources of carbohydrates, such as wholegrains – from bread, rice, cereal and pasta – as well as fruits and vegetables and some low-fat dairy foods. For most of the time focus on foods with a low glycaemic index – these foods are broken down by the body into glucose at a slower rate, providing more sustained energy. Good examples include porridge oats, wholegrain rice, rye bread, oat cakes, sweet potato and starchy vegetables.

Just before and after training you may need a more rapid energy boost to fuel your training as well as speed up recovery. This is the time to eat quick-releasing, carbohydrate-rich foods such as bananas, cereal bars, dried fruit or fruit smoothies.

Get the right fats

As you increase your running distance, fats become particularly important in your diet as an additional fuel. Medium chain triglycerides, found in coconut oil, for example, can be useful, as they are preferentially burnt by the body and used for energy production. As you increase your mileage try adding a spoonful of coconut oil to your morning smoothie.

All runners need to get the essential fats omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids from their diet because they cannot be made in the body. Omega 3 fats, in particular, are often low in people’s diets yet are hugely important for runners. These fats support tissue growth and repair, promote the production of anti-inflammatory chemicals and reduce the risk of cell damage. They may also aid recovery.

To get enough essential fats, try to eat:

  • Two or three portions of oily fish (salmon, trout, herring, anchovy, mackerel, sardines) per week. Canned tuna is not a good source of omega 3 fats and fresh tuna can be contaminated by dioxins and mercury so limit consumption
  • 1-2tbsp of mixed seeds (eg sesame, pumpkin, sunflower, chia, flaxseed) daily. Eat these as a snack or add them to porridge, smoothies, muesli etc. Alternatively, use 1-2tbsp of hempseed, flaxseed, pumpkin or walnut oil daily
  • Monounsaturated fats, found in
    olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados also possess anti-inflammatory properties, so it’s a good idea to include some in your diet.
  • Use olive oil and coconut oil daily in cooking, dressings or add to dishes.
  • Snack on nuts rich in mono-unsaturated fats. Include avocado, olives, nut and seed butters regularly.


Don’t skimp on your protein. Pretty much everything in the body is made of proteins and it’s also essential for repair. Running – especially long-distance running – can cause damage to the muscles, joints and other tissues, so ensuring sufficient protein in your diet becomes a priority.

Guidelines for daily protein intake for runners will vary depending on the amount of training you’re doing. An easy way to manage your protein intake is to aim for 15-20g of protein at each meal and to include some protein foods with your snacks too. Good sources of protein include lean meat, fish, eggs, low-fat dairy, beans and pulses, soy, protein powders and, to a lesser extent, green vegetables such as broccoli and spinach.

Getting the balance right

As a guide you can base carbohydrate and protein intake on your body weight. The actual amount you need really depends on the amount of exercise you are doing.

Carbohydrate: 5-7 grams per kilogram of body weight per day

Protein: 1.1-1.8g per kg of body weight per day

Fat: 25 – 30% of total calories

So, for someone who weighs 60kg, this would be around 300-420g carbohydrates and 66-108g protein.




Chris Macdonald

Editor-at-Large, Women's Running

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