healthy food for runners

We can often associate running and nutrition to each other. We all know that a correct and balanced nutrition is not only beneficial for running performances, but also for wellness. What many don’t know is that eating well does not mean eating too little, or giving up to tasty stuff!

As usual knowledge is power, so I would like to give a short overview about basic properties of different type of food. I am not a nutritionist: consider these as general guidelines: if you want to know more, consult a specialist 🙂

As you probably already know, the nutrients are classified in three basic constituents: proteins, carbs and fats.


Proteins have a structural role: they are complex molecules, main constituents of muscles and tissues: they are very important to keep the body in shape, building or repairing tissues. They are often called the body’s building blocks.

A daily intake of 15-30% of proteins is – on average – considered right. They are not a direct source of energy, but in extreme cases, they can be converted into energy too. You don’t actually want that: having your body digesting your muscles to provide energy should not sound attractive!

Proteins are included in meat, eggs, beans, dairy products, fish.


Carbohydrates are the runners’ best friend as they are the body’s main source of energy. As an Italian, they are associated to many things we like: pasta, pizza, bread. Sweeteners (sugar, honey) as well as sweetened foods are other sources of carbohydrates: who can say no to ice creams, candies, soft drinks?

Being an important source of calories, we should monitor the consumption of carbs, especially for foods with high amounts of sugars (cakes, cookies, soft drinks). Drinking a full bottle (1.5 liters) of a soft drink as coke consists into 1/3 of your daily calories intake, almost the amount of a pizza margherita. Choose wisely! High consumption of sugars is also associated to insulin tolerance and risk of diabetes… double check, especially if you have diabetes cases in your family.

Long story short, better to assume carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables than added sugars.

Fibers also come with carbs, and they are a non-digested carbohydrate. This helps digestion processes as well.

An intake of 50-60% of calories from carbohydrates is advisable, on average, for a runner.


Fats give you energy: a lot! 4 grams of fat have the same calories intake than 9 grams of proteins or carbs. Fats are naturally found in dairy products, meats and seafood (some more than others), poultry and eggs. Also vegetables include sources of fats: especially nuts, some seeds and avocados. They are important as they are precursors of some vitamins and hormones, and important component of the cells membrane.

The most important thing I have learned about fats is that they are not all the same: there are good ones and bad ones.

  • Saturated fats. Mainly of animal origin (butter, dairy, beef fat) but also kernel palm oil, are unhealthy and increasing the risk of heart diseases. They should kept as low as possible. Yes, I know: they are in everything that is tasty (cakes, pizza, burgers, tacos, steaks…), so it is important to make balanced choices. In my non-medical opinion, almost everything is tolerable, if in a rotation and in the right amounts. But we need to know that some elements are to be present on our table less frequently than others.
  • Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats are in olive and olive oil, peanut, sunflower and its oil, avocados and nuts. Polyunsaturated ones are present in sunflower, corn, soybean, most seeds and fishes.

Fat should account for 20-30% on average for a runner daily energetic intake.

Running and nutrition synergies

Fats are a source of energy less available to the “action”: the body will use it for slow and long time efforts. If you run a 100 meters race, the explosive and “give it all now” effort requires carbs, many of them already available in the blood. During a marathon, the body learns on the way that the energy supply is required for a long time. In that case, it will choose to convert fats into energy.

If you are a slim, professional runner, without a big reserve of fat, the body will then opt for proteins, when carbs and fats are not available: to avoid that, nutrition during the race is extremely important.

Very important to keep in mind: there are not many foods having the perfect composition of the three main constituents. And if even, it would probably lack, or exceed, of many of the other unmentioned ones (vitamins, elements like iron, calcium, etc.). So a rotation is important.

There are apps like my fitness pal, which I use in connection with my Garmin, I find beneficial for this purpose. Anyway, I strongly recommend to respect your body knowing what you are eating, what is good and what is bad. It is a special way of training after all!

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