The Analysis Of Sugar’s Role In A Runner’s Diet

You are rounding a new mile, the treadmill belt feels solid beneath you. The sound of the rubber soles of your shoes hitting the moving machine are muted under the high intensity playlist blaring through your earbuds. The runner’s high has come and gone, and you know there is just a little further to go before you can stop and bask in the feelings of fatigue and accomplishment…

Boom, your energy drops. You can’t get yourself to take another step. Jumping to the sides of your treadmill belt, you pant as you grip the hand rails. You have reached the dreaded Wall.

The Wall is the bane of anyone who takes part in an endurance based physical activity. It is the point at which your body just decides no more, it is done, and it can be next to impossible to overcome. At least, it is if you weren’t prepared for it in the beginning.

Your body needs proper fuel for endurance, recovery, and even speed. When you are running low on energy, it is your body’s way of telling you that you are not giving it what it needs to sustain your level of activity.

What it needs once you have hit the Wall (or to avoid hitting it all together) is a boost in nutrition-provided fuel to keep it going. But what part does sugar play in that need, and should the white stuff be taking a major role in a runner’s diet?

Macronutrients: A Tricky Balance

When we think of what we need most when running, hydration is usually the major source of concern. A snack or meal comes after. But what is in the food we eat before and after a run could have a major impact on how we recover, and perform the next time.

It all comes down to macronutrients. These are the three major components of everything that we eat:

  • carbohydrates,
  • fat,
  • and protein.

Each make up the nutritional value of what we put into our bodies, and finding the right balance is crucial for runners. It could make all the difference when avoiding the Wall, as well as other health problems.

Of the three macronutrients, only two can be used as energy sources.

The first is carbohydrates, found in grains, vegetables, fruits and starches. When you eat carbs, it converts the food to glucose, or sugar, within your system. Your body then burns that sugar during any physical activity.

The second fuel source is fat. Unlike carbohydrates, it does not convert to glucose when consumed. Instead, it is burned in its natural form. Your body can also burn your excess fat for energy, and will do so when it has gone an excessive amount of time without access to glucose.

Only protein can not be used as a fuel source. Instead, it is a restorative agent. It helps to repair tissue and muscles, making it an important additional food source to consume during training. Runners will recover more quickly when they eat a protein rich died.

So, which of these macronutrients should you be eating the most? The truth is that there is no single answer to that question.

Diets high in fat are known for providing endurance runners with a more slow burning energy source. But ketogenic or low carb diets can be complicated enough to discourage many from using them.

How Runner’s Run On Sugar

There is no denying that glucose is an effective form of energy, but it burns quickly. Meaning if you rely on carbohydrates for your diet, you will have to eat them in a high enough percentage to replenish your system after every run.

If you do choose to follow by a carb heavy diet, you have to know the right and wrong ways to consume sugars…not all carbs are created equal. Because, despite what we might like to think, runners can’t eat anything they like and stay fit. No matter how you appear on the outside, it may be a different story on the inside.

The Glycemic Index

Experts have been studying the impact of carbohydrates and glucose on the body for some time. This has led to the creation of the Glycemic Index, a database of of different foods and how they raise the blood glucose level in those who eat them.

This database is important, as a study published in the Int J Sports Med journal found in a 2011 study on low and high GI foods in runners. Participants who consumed low GI foods fifteen minutes prior to their run found an increase in their endurance, maintained their blood glucose levels, and prevented hyperinsulinemia (excess insulin in the blood).

In other words, runners who eat a lower Gi food of 55 or less, such as all-bran cereal (50), an apple (34), or even a high fat Snickers far (41) are going to improve performance and give more fuel to a runner than a high GI food, like instant white rice (87), raisins (64), or Cornflakes (80).

What About Simple Sugars?

As you may have noticed, the sources of many of the sugars listed so far have been of a more complex nature. The conversion of carbohydrates to glucose doesn’t account for the straight sugar you would get from, say, an ice cream cone. So do simple sugars have their place in a runner’s diet? Can they be both safely consumed, and even improve a runner’s performance if it falls under a lower GI?

The answer is: maybe.

A study at Syracuse University found that simple sugars could be used safely by many runners to refuel during or after a marathon or endurance activity. It provides a quick injection of fuel that could aid in the recovery process, and keep the runner from experiencing from hitting that pesky Wall mentioned earlier.

The caveat is that simple sugars cannot be consumed the rest of the time, and should be altogether avoided when not engaged in heavy training. If you are using simple sugars to refuel in the middle of a 10k, and then justify that extra piece of cake the next day at Sally from HR’s birthday party, you’re going to do more damage than it is worth.

How It All Breaks Down

So, with all this information in mind, how should the average runner’s diet break down? The common wisdom states the following base lines:

  • Carbohydrates: 5 – 10 grams for every pound of body weight, depending on the intensity of your training/running.
  • Protein: 1 – 1.4 grams for every pound of body weight, depending on the intensity of your training/running.
  • Fat: Less than 25% of your daily caloric intake, sticking to healthy fats coming from sources like olive oil, almonds, and fish.

Make sure that you are getting plenty of vegetables, and some fruit, within your diet. Grains should be whole grain to give you the benefit of both the fiber, and the lower GI impact. Lean proteins like chicken and turkey will give you the benefits of that restorative protein, without adding to your daily fat intake.

Runners need the right kind of fuel to keep them moving. Don’t let yourself crash into that wall.