We Talked to a Philly Sports Dietitian to Find Out How Runners Should Eat
Drexel University's Kellsey Frank gives us the rundown on carb loading, healthy fats, and why your pee should not, in fact, be clear.
This post is part of our Running Week series. Stay tuned for more stories related to pounding the pavement.
During my junior year of college, I decided to give myself a birthday present. My heavy course load, internship, and job had made it difficult to find time to work out, but I was determined to motivate myself to stay in shape. So I signed up for the Nike Women’s Half-Marathon in Washington, D.C. (scheduled two days before my birthday) as well as an online training plan and a pass-fail swimming class to automatically block out my cross-training.
These were all good choices. What wasn’t was deciding, at the same time, to become a vegetarian. (Looong story.) Running and swimming as much as I suddenly was meant I needed more food to replenish my energy reserves than I was used to, but changing my diet equated to fewer options, and I therefore ate less purely out of convenience. I was tired, lethargic, and hungry all the time. Although I did successfully cross that half-marathon’s finish line, being smarter about my dietary choices while I was training probably would have turned the race into a much better experience.
To find out how we *should* be eating if we’re running a lot of miles, we chatted with Kellsey Frank, a sports dietitian at and the assistant director of the Center for Nutrition & Performance at Drexel University about carb loading, healthy fats, and why your pee should not, in fact, be clear.
BWP: What’s the most important thing for runners to consider when it comes to diet?
Frank: In order to maintain your muscle mass and your bone density, you want to make sure you’re providing your body with enough calories. That’s, first and foremost, the most important thing with any sport but running especially because it’s so demanding. Most athletes are under-fueling to some extent, depending on what their needs are. Beyond that, we look at macronutrient distribution — carbs versus protein versus fat. Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy, so that’s what we often focus on. The amount that runners eat is going to be increased more than the average individual. Just with everything out there in the media and diet culture these days, there’s such a push for low calories and low carbohydrates. So it’s about shifting that mindset.
What do you say differently to someone training for a 5K versus a marathon?
At the end of the day, the nutrition principles are going to be the same. You focus on making sure you’re getting adequate calories, but the number is going to be vastly different for someone doing Couch to 5K versus someone running 50 miles a week. It’s important to think about time spent on your feet, too. Even if it takes you an hour to run a 5K, your body likely has enough energy stored in it already to sustain up to one hour. Anything beyond 60 minutes is when your tank’s starting to run low.
That’s where those goos and gels come into play. It can be any form of simple carbohydrate to add more energy into your system. The recommendation is 30 to 60 grams of carbs for every additional hour you’re running. At Drexel, we developed our own recipe for in-sport fuel that serves exactly that purpose; it’s very high density carbohydrate food that has the right ratio of glucose to fructose. We call them Dragon Gels. We use them with our Drexel athletes, the Philadelphia Union, the Flyers, and US Squash.
For those of us who don’t have access to Dragon Gels, what foods should we be eating?
If we’re talking about carbohydrates, there’s two types — simple and complex. Complex carbs are going to be your whole grains, sweet potatoes, things that are higher in fiber and in other nutrients. That’s where we’re talking about bang for your buck, where you’re getting other things besides carbohydrates like vitamins and minerals.
But a big, big piece of sports nutrition is timing. There is definitely a time and a place for the simple carbohydrates. Immediately prior to a training run or a race, even the night before, you want to focus on those. The less other stuff that’s in them, the quicker they’re going to be digested and used or stored as energy. So that can be honey, jams, jellies, white bread, pastas, rice. Raisins are a good one that a lot of people use during the race. Or Swedish Fish, gummy bears, stuff like that that’s condensed sugar is honestly what you’re looking for in terms of quick energy.
If you’re the person having trouble meeting sheer caloric needs, I recommend items that are higher in healthier fats — avocados, nuts, nut butters, trail mix, eggs. A big problem that athletes have is they feel like they have to eat every hour to meet their calorie needs. It sounds like a good problem to have, but people struggle with it. If you strategically do it, you don’t need to have as much volume.
I always have trouble with cramping if I eat before I run. What do you recommend?
The cramping piece is going to be more of a hydration issue most often (and when I say hydration, I mean hydration and also electrolyte balance). Whereas nutrition can be very complex, and there’s a lot of moving pieces, hydration is an easier thing: You either do it or you don’t.
But it is a common misconception that your pee should be clear. Most times if it is, you’re probably overhydrated. And overhydration is not necessarily a good thing either because it messes with your electrolyte levels in your bloodstream. You need a certain amount of calcium, potassium, sodium — all those minerals help with muscle contraction. If they’re diluted in your system, your muscles are not going to contract the way they should. And overhydration and dehydration have the same exact signs and symptoms, so at big races, if someone’s cramping or has the signs of dehydration, they may take a huge water bottle and chug it, but that may worsen the problem.
Ultimately, if you are someone who cramps often, make sure you’re alternating between water and some sort of sports drink, and don’t be afraid to salt your food because your electrolytes could be out of whack.
Should you do anything differently when it comes to nutrition as you’re getting closer to a race?
There’s the concept of carb loading, where people have pasta parties the night before and stuff like that. That’s great, but the best way to do that is during the couple weeks leading up to actual race day. Throughout your training, you’ve probably increased your carbohydrates to a certain extent, and you really just want to raise that by 5 to 10 percent for the couple weeks leading up to the race and the couple days leading up to it. You don’t want to keep things consistent all through training and the night before, go crazy. That can lead to a lot of water retention and bloat, and you’re not going to feel great on race day. It’s about doing it gradually so it’s not a shock to your system.
Any tips for changing your diet after a big race?
It’s going to depend what any person’s given routine is. If you’re training for your first half-marathon or Broad Street, and then all of a sudden you go back to your normal day job, maybe work out a little bit, maybe not, you’ll probably drop back down to your normal eating level. You should still be making sure you’re getting enough carbohydrates — about 50 percent if not more of your calories — for other reasons. But there aren’t negative effects on your health to drop down to where you were before.