If your new year’s resolution is to take on the starting line in the best form, then you are at the right place! Whether you want to maintain your current active routine or achieve new goals as a long-distance runner or cyclist, the right nutrition can help you get through those miles. It should come as no surprise that as your training regimen and activity levels change, so does your body’s nutritional need. Missing the right diet and nutrition can lead to fatigue, frequent injuries, poor recovery, and other health problems.
Here, we will discuss what all you need to become a well-nourished marathon runner or cyclist!
Why Is Long-Distance Running or Cycling Good for You?
Endurance exercises can transform your health, and the benefits are both physical and mental. Be it fun runs, marathons, triathlons, or cycling—when done right—can help improve your heart function, muscle strength, mood, metabolism, and much more.The following are some proven benefits of long-distance running and/or cycling1,2,3,4,5,6,7.
- Improve heart function and fitness
- Enhance muscle strength and flexibility
- Improve joint health and mobility
- Reduce stress levels
- Improve balance, posture and coordination
- Improve body metabolism and also helps reduce body fat levels
- Help in the prevention and management of certain diseases
- Improve mood and reduces anxiety and depression
Wondering How Running and Cycling Changes Your Body?
Any form of exercise primarily involves your cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems. Let’s dive deeper and understand how endurance exercise or training impacts different body parts and systems.
Both cycling and running, which are effective aerobic activities, increase your heart rate. This means your heart pumps more blood and oxygen to the working muscles, improving heart efficiency. It ultimately results in reduced resting heart rate and blood pressure levels.
Your body primarily has two types of muscle fibres: slow-twitch and fast-twitch.
Slow-twitch fibres are fatigue-resistant and used for small movements. These are the fibres that help people cycle for hours, run marathons, and do power walks or long-distance runs. They are different from fast-twitch fibres that produce bursts of energy for powerlifting, sprinting, etc.8 In a person, the ratio of these fibres is probably 50:50 but in marathon runners, the ratio may be tweaked towards slow-twitch fibres.
During marathons or long runs, your body may also recruit fast-twitch muscle fibres to help slow-twitch fibres, providing you with more fibres to ace through marathons. Here, consistent endurance training and proper nutrition can improve your ability and muscle power.
Inactivity leads to bone loss. The way your muscles are impacted by physical activity or exercise, bones are too. Research has shown that weight-loading exercises help increase bone density9.
However, some studies have observed that bone density might be low in long-distance female runners.10 This may happen because the body isn’t taking enough nutrition, leading to bone loss and higher chances of stress fractures. Thus, it is important to focus on bone and joint health.
Why Long Distance Runners Need to Focus on Nutrition
Running a marathon is a feat of mental and physical strength. It does require training and dedication and taking the right nutrition is the first step towards your goal.
When running long distances, your body needs fuel to not only perform but also recover well. Running burns a lot of calories, so your nutrition plan should take into account your body weight, overall health, the distance you aim to run, as well as your training schedule.
Now, the next step is knowing how to fuel a runner’s body.
Nutrition for Runners: What to Eat and Why
Your running diet should include the following nutrients.
Carb or carbohydrate is the best source of energy for your working muscles. Long-distance runners need more carbs for endurance than people who aren’t training. Usually, athletes who are engaged in moderate to high-intensity exercises (.i.e. ≥ 8 hours per week) need 8—12g carbs/kg/day to fuel and replenish their glycogen reserves11,12 .
Why: Carbs when broken down, turn into glucose which flows into the bloodstream and is an instant source of energy. The rest is stored as glycogen in your muscles and liver. Usually, a runner uses both glucose and glycogen to fuel the run. However, in endurance exercises or long runs, glycogen is the primary source of energy. Eating enough carbohydrates ensures that your glycogen stores are ready when needed. When these reserves get too low, runners feel out of energy, burnout or what is popularly known as hitting the wall.
What to eat: You can include the following sources of carbohydrates in your running diet.
- Whole grains (lentils, oats, whole grain pasta or bread)
- Starchy vegetables (sweet potato, potatoes, etc,)
- Fruits (banana, mangoes, apples, etc.)
Your body uses protein for muscle and tissue repair during training and recovery. The protein needs vary based on your body weight and activity level. Research suggests consuming 1.4 to 2.0 g protein/kg of body weight per day12,13,14.
Why: When you run, your muscles break down and protein is essential for rebuilding and repairing those muscles. Low protein levels can make it difficult for muscles to rebuild effectively, resulting in poor performance, risk of injury, as well as muscle wasting.
What to eat: Try to incorporate protein that is low in cholesterol and fat.
- Eggs and poultry
- Lean meat
- Whole grains
- Low-fat dairy products
You can also consider whey protein supplement which is not only easy to absorb but also supports muscle building. If you are a vegan, then pea or soy protein supplementation can be a good alternative to meet your needs.
3. Healthy fats
Monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats are ideal for long-distance runners as a source of energy. A low-fat diet intake can lead to a deficiency of fat-soluble vitamins (Vit. A, D, E, and K) and essential omega-3 fatty acids. Ideally, you should not have less than 20% of your calorie intake from fat. Studies have observed that runners showed a reduced endurance performance when they were on a low-fat (16%) diet compared to runners on medium (31%)and high-fat (41%) diets15.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3s are essential fatty acids and must be obtained from diet or supplementation. In a healthy person, the National Institute of Health (NIH) recommends an intake of 1.1 to 1.6 grams per day16. Moreover, a study observed supplementation of 2234 mg of EPA + 916 mg of DHA daily for 12 weeks during endurance training resulted in performance improvement17.
Why: During prolonged endurance exercises, the body uses fat stores as a primary source of energy through a process called fat oxidation. In fact, low-fat diet has also been associated with the risk of stress fractures in female athletes. Research also suggests that omega-3 fatty acids especially EPA and DHA play a role in muscle recovery and reduce muscle soreness post-exercise18,19.
What to eat: Healthy fats can be obtained from olive oil, canola oil, avocado, nuts, etc. EPA and DHA, marine omega-3 fatty acids are obtained from fish and shellfish such as tuna, salmon, mackerel, etc.
You can also consider fish oil-based supplements to meet your needs. However, if you are allergic to fish, vegan or vegetarian, then an algal oil-based omega-3 DHA supplement can be a great alternative.
Electrolytes or minerals such as sodium, calcium, or magnesium, are essential for runners as running leads to metabolic changes in the body. It is important to maintain electrolyte levels to support performance.
The recommended intake of calcium for adults over 18 years is 1000 mg/day.
The recommended intake of magnesium for men is 440 mg/day and for women is 370 mg/day20.
- Calcium: Healthy calcium levels along with vitamin D are important for runners to prevent bone density loss and stress fractures21,22. Calcium also plays a role in muscle contraction.
What to eat:
- Leafy green vegetables
- Cheese, yoghurt or low-fat dairy
What to eat:
- Flax seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
Collagen is a critical component of bones, muscles, cartilage, etc. Various studies have used collagen supplement dosages ranging from 5 to 10 grams per day.
Why: Various studies have demonstrated its efficacy in improving muscle mass, joint health, and bone density25,26. It also plays a role in injury prevention and recovery27,28.
What to eat: Collagen production declines with age and must be obtained from food or dietary supplements. Collagen is primarily obtained from marine, porcine, bovine, and poultry sources and presently there is no vegan or vegetarian source.
- Bone broth
Based on your dietary and cultural concerns, you can choose what collagen source and supplement work for you. However, food sources may not prove effective as they contain very low amounts of collagen. You can discover more about collagen peptide supplements here.
Iron plays an important role in delivering oxygen to your muscles. In distance runners, this is particularly important as their working muscles need more oxygen to perform! The recommended intake of iron in healthy men is 19 mg per day and 29 mg per day in women.20
Why: If a marathon runner’s diet is low on iron, it can lead to fatigue. Iron deficiency, especially, in women runners can impact their performance.
What to eat: Good sources include
- Green leafy vegetables
- Dried fruits (raisins)
Tip: Iron-rich foods when taken with foods high in vitamin C can help increase iron absorption.
Finally, do not underestimate the power of hydration! Keep your body hydrated but make sure the fluid intake helps balance your electrolyte levels. Excessive water intake can sometimes lead to a decrease in sodium levels. It is better to avoid sports drinks if they are loaded with added sugars.
You will find a number of diet plans for runners but one-size-fits-all could be the wrong approach here. It is time to focus on your specific nutritional needs based on your activity level, training, and goals. Carbohydrates, proteins, electrolytes such as calcium and magnesium, collagen, omega-3 fatty acids, and iron are some of the key nutrients for supporting your performance and recovery.
Don’t forget to explore our wide range of FSSAI-approved, high-quality nutraceuticals including omega-3 fatty acids, collagen, and protein isolates that can help you meet your nutritional needs!
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- Nordengen S, Andersen LB, Solbraa AK, Riiser A. Cycling is associated with a lower incidence of cardiovascular diseases and death: Part 1–systematic review of cohort studies with meta-analysis. British journal of sports medicine. 2019 Jul 1;53(14):870-8.
- Kalak N, Gerber M, Kirov R, Mikoteit T, Yordanova J, Pühse U, Holsboer-Trachsler E, Brand S. Daily morning running for 3 weeks improved sleep and psychological functioning in healthy adolescents compared with controls. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2012 Dec 1;51(6):615-22.
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- Luo X. Intervention effect of long-distance running on depression of college students. Revista Argentina de Clínica Psicológica. 2020;29(2):90.
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- Lee JH. The effect of long-distance running on bone strength and bone biochemical markers. Journal of exercise rehabilitation. 2019 Feb;15(1):26.
- Burrows M, Nevill AM, Bird S, Simpson D. Physiological factors associated with low bone mineral density in female endurance runners. British journal of sports medicine. 2003 Feb 1;37(1):67-71.
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- Horvath PJ, Eagen CK, Fisher NM, Leddy JJ, Pendergast DR. The effects of varying dietary fat on performance and metabolism in trained male and female runners. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2000 Feb 1;19(1):52-60.
- Omega-3 fatty acids [Internet]. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; [cited 2023Jan7]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/
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- VanDusseldorp TA, Escobar KA, Johnson KE, Stratton MT, Moriarty T, Kerksick CM, Mangine GT, Holmes AJ, Lee M, Endito MR, Mermier CM. Impact of varying dosages of fish oil on recovery and soreness following eccentric exercise. Nutrients. 2020 Jul 27;12(8):2246.
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