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Kaitlyn Zufall/MEDILL

Nuts are a great source of energy because they provide a good balance of carbs, fats and proteins.

Eat well, run well

by Kaitlyn Zufall
Feb 07, 2013

Chicago Marathon Crop


Loading up on carbs the night before a race improves performance.

Training for a big race involves more than just adding miles to your runs. The food you eat is essential for optimal performance as you prepare for the big day.

“Make sure you’re fueling properly during training and day of,” said Chicago registered dietitian Roberta Clarke Jenero, the CEO of FigureFacts, an online, self-directed nutrition program. “It’s pretty much just a healthy diet.”

In the world of low-carb diet fads, she emphasized that carbohydrates are a critical component of a serious runner’s diet.

“One of the big things they have to keep in mind is that carbohydrates are the No. 1 energy source for the body,” Jenero said. She suggested that 65 percent of the caloric intake should be carbohydrates and especially recommends whole grains.

But carbs alone won’t get you to the finish line.

Chicago registered dietitian and blogger Amari Cheffer said that complex carbohydrates are “the key” when racing for performance, but suggested several other nutrients to keep your body performing well.

“Things like protein are going to be really important for muscle restoration,” she said.

She recommended foods such as chicken, eggs, Greek yogurt, quinoa and beans to ensure that you’re getting the protein that you need in your diet.

Additionally, Cheffer said that omega-3 fatty acids are “great anti-inflammatories.”

Salmon and flax seeds are both good sources of omega-3 and will help reduce the inflammation from running.

Jenero also recommended that runners “cover themselves” by taking a vitamin supplement with minerals.

For local runner Dave Schaefers, the president, creator and coach of Fast Track Racing Team, the keys to his training diet are carbs, protein and hydration.

“I love salmon,” he said about his protein food of choice. “An excellent carb for me is sweet potatoes. Both are pretty simple to make.”

He said that he’s careful to season both instead of slathering them with sauce or butter.

And though Schaefers said that the occasional beer won’t ruin your training regimen, he advised staying away from alcohol.

“Alcohol definitely dehydrates you,” he said. “It doesn’t help.”

Soda is another beverage that will leave you dehydrated. Instead, stick to water or sports drinks. Schaefers even recommended chocolate milk. Its blend of carbohydrates and protein make it a good post-workout drink, he said.

Cheffer said the benefit of sports drinks is that they replace the sodium and potassium that are lost when running long distances or in extreme heat. Because sodium is involved in muscle contractions, the loss can lead to muscle cramping. Potassium can also help prevent cramping, said Jenero.

But what works for one person may not work for another. Everyone’s body is different, pointed out Schaefers.

“Just test is out during training,” he said. “You just have to figure out what works for you.”

If you’re racing for performance, make sure to load up on complex carbohydrates the night before your race. Runners refer to the process as “carbo-loading.” A large bowl of pasta is a typical choice.

“That provides your muscles with a stored sugar, glycogen, for the next day,” Cheffer said.