"If I'm running to lose weight, isn't it counterproductive to eat before and after my workouts? I don't want to undo the work I just did."
A pattern of eating in which you eat balance meals or snacks every 4-5 hours naturally supports exercise performance, even endurance running, as well as weight loss. So, if you are already eating three meals and perhaps one or two snacks every day, it is counterproductive to add meals and snacks simply because you are exercising. However, if you tend to skips meals or go hours without eating, then you may need to consider eating more frequently. Depending on the length of your runs, eating more frequently may also be specifically recommended to improve running performance.
Running Performance and Nutrient Timing
Runs that are longer than 90 minutes are typically considered exhaustive, meaning that to provide energy for the run, you exhaust muscle carbohydrate stores. In these cases, carbohydrate consumption is often recommended prior to and immediately following exercise, so you are able to maintain a regular exercise schedule and to improve running performance. This is called nutrient timing; you are providing the appropriate nutrient at the ideal time to support muscle function and recovery.
Runs shorter than 90 minutes do not require precise nutrient timing, but you still have to consider eating regularly throughout the day, even when you are trying to lose weight, which means you will eat surrounding the workout in order to eat well throughout the day. The difference is that you don’t need to focus on a specific nutrient or time frame surrounding the workout.
Jessie the Jogger
For example, Jessie is running 30-45 minutes most days before heading to work. Jessie wakes at 5:45 am and hits the ground running. By the time Jessie finishes running and showering, it is 8 am. To get to the office by 8:30 am Jessie grabs a coffee and skips breakfast. Starving at 9:15 am Jessie can’t resist the bagels provided during morning meetings. Jessie is trying to lose weight, but it is hard to be consistent with exercise and eating habits.
My recommendations are to make time for breakfast and eat before getting into the shower. Not only will breakfast following morning runs support a consistent running schedule, but Jessie will also be more likely to resist processed foods available around the office.
Casey the Marathoner
Casey is training for a marathon and runs in the evenings. Monday and Wednesday are hard 60-minute runs and Thursday is a moderate 105-minute run. Casey can really push it during hard runs on Monday and Wednesday but by Thursday is struggling to finish the longer run. Casey is also trying to eat well throughout the day. Lunch is at 11 am and Casey brings a packet of nuts and an apple for an afternoon snack. Casey leaves work around 5:30 pm to run and then gets home to prepare dinner. Casey eats dinner at 7:30 or 8 pm, and is hungry, but knows to avoid eating too much before bed. Despite trying to limit portions, Casey is overfull at bedtime and doesn’t sleep well.
Hard runs and inappropriate nutrient timing may be depleting carbohydrate stores over the week so that by Thursday Casey’s physical and mental energy is drained. My recommendations are to pack a more substantial mini-meal to eat between lunch and running, and to eat within 1 hour after running. This would allow for more complete pre- and post-workout meals, and provide more time between dinner and bedtime. Casey’s meal times could be lunch at 11 am, mini-meal at 4 pm and dinner at 7 or 7:30 pm.
Running improves insulin function, stress management and immune function and reduces inflammation and food cravings. Running is not simply a mechanism to burn calories. It is for these reasons that food choices surrounding exercise should be very high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Eating high quality foods surrounding runs will work synergistically with the metabolic affects of running and is definitely not undoing the benefit of a run. Be practical and plan meals surrounding exercise to support consistent running and eating habits.
Please remember that the information contained in this article is provided for informational purposes only. It is general information that may not apply to you as an individual, and is not a substitute for personalized nutrition advice or healthcare. Never disregard medical or nutritional advice or delay seeking medical care because of something you have read or accessed through this article.
Hana A. Feeney, MS, RD is an open-minded, progressive dietitian that blends evidence based nutritional science with the principals of intuitive eating and cutting-edge functional medicine. Hana specializes in sport nutrition, digestive health, fertility, hormonal health and eating disorders. Visit www.NourishingRestuls.com to explore, read, cook and reach out!