Run to eat and eat to run; how much do you need to eat to fuel your running?
Posted Friday, 12 January, 2001
Many of us run so that we can reward ourselves by eating whatever we want. Or, perhaps, vice versa: we eat so that we can run wherever we want.
Either way, it's true that you burn a slew of calories when you run. Even if you are running specifically to lose weight, you should adjust your diet so that you give your body the extra fuel it needs. And you should not feel guilty in the least to give yourself the occasional culinary treat; you work hard on the road, and one of the payoffs is that you should be able to reward yourself to otherwise sinful foods when the mood strikes you to indulge.
All good things in moderation, of course, which begs the question: just how much should you be eating and how often? At the risk of over-quantifying what is really best left to your intuition (or, perhaps better put, your "gut instinct"), here is how you can get a sense of your proper diet proportions based on your weight and how far/fast you run.
The US recommended daily allowance (RDA) for the average person is 2000 calories. In the United States, "average" means relatively sedentary, so as a runner you will need more fuel. Just how much more depends on how many calories you burn on your daily run. The following chart should give you an idea of how many calories you kill per hour of running, based on your pace and body weight.
||Pace (Minutes per mile)
|Source: "Exercise & Physiology" (Lea & Febiger, 1986).
Add these calories to the recommended 2000 calories, and you should have a rough idea of what your daily calorie intake should be to maintain a healthy body weight. Following the recommended runner's diet of 60 percent carbohydrates, 25 percent fat and 15 percent protein, your diet should be roughly the following (note that there are four calories per gram of carbohydrates and protein, versus nine calories per gram of fat):
||Daily Calorie Level
It bears repeating that you should not be a slave to these numbers. While it is true that discipline is an important contributor to a healthy lifestyle, spontaneity and basic joie de vivre are equally important. Eating good food is one of life's pleasures, so why sully it with too much calorie-counting?
When and how often to eat
Most of us were taught that three square meals were the building blocks of any good diet. Turns out that this is only part of the equation. Although mom may have slapped your hand as you reached for a between-meal snack, grazing throughout the day is actually a good idea when combined with reduced portions at mealtime. In fact, many nutritionists recommend eating smaller meals every four hours.
The most important of these is breakfast. Too many of us give breakfast short shrift, but in fact this is the meal that sets the stage for a productive, high-energy day. Studies have demonstrated that breakfast eaters tend to be more alert and efficient and physically trim than those who skip out. It's true: eating breakfast can help you lose weight, since those calories are more likely to be burned than those eaten later in the day. You should look to eat between a quarter and a third of your daily calories at the breakfast table.
Recharge at lunch with a moderate, healthy meal. Too many people either eat too much at lunch or skip it altogether. This feast-or-famine approach puts your blood sugar levels on a rollercoaster ride. You might consider running right before lunch, since exercise tends to suppress appetite. Go out for a quick spin on your lunchhour and return to your desk for a light lunch of yogurt and fruit, for example.
When the snack gremlins start growling in the mid-afternoon or late evening, feel free to indulge in a light snack. It will keep your blood sugar level, keeping you alert and energized, while also keeping you from getting so hungry that you overeat later. Try to limit the snacks to low-fat, low-sugar foods so that you do not add too many calories to your day. Leave the chips on the shelf and instead have a bagel, fruit, pretzels, a sports bar, raisins, carrots, or a bowl of cereal.
Come dinner time, your snack will help keep you from overdoing it -- a good idea, since too much eating late in the day tends to add pounds to your middle. An evening walk after dinner is a pleasant way to burn off some of those calories and, of course, to relax.