Effects of Nutrition on Runners

by Matthew Tiszenkel

HLTH 1020

Runners, like all athletes, require energy to be able to compete at their peak

performance. Unlike plants, humans do not get energy solely from the sun; they require food

and liquids. This is where nutrition plays a critical role in the performance of runners. The types

of food and drinks a runner consumes could end up helping them or slowing them down. The

aim of this paper is to examine dietary trends amongst both distance runners and sprinters, as

well as to explore the efficacy of hydrating with a carbohydrate-electrolyte solution versus

water or not hydrating at all.

Distance runners are a special breed of athlete. Humans are particularly well adapted

for distance running most likely as an evolutionary imperative to aid in scavenging large areas

as well as to assist in hunting. With that said, distance running still requires a great deal of

physical and mental stamina. For the most part distance runners tend to fall within the normal

BMI range. In a study of 422 distance runners, of the 125 ultramarathon runners, the average

BMI was 23.3 with a standard deviation of 2.8 (Turner-McGrievy, Moore, Barr-Anderson, 2016).

Marathon and half-marathon runners had a slightly higher BMI than ultramarathon runners but

ultramarathon runners had, on average, been running for a greater number of years which

could contribute to their lower BMI. When it came to diet, 51% followed a generally healthy

diet, 17% followed no diet, 8% followed a vegetarian diet, 6% followed a paleo diet, 5% a

pescatarian diet, 5% a vegan diet, 4% followed a low carbohydrate diet, and 4% followed a diet
where they did not consume red meat (Turner-Mcgrievy et al., 2016). Interestingly, the

ultramarathon runners were far more likely to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet than the

marathon and half-marathon runners combined. Additionally, while most runners scored highly

on the REAP scale, a scale which measures the overall healthfulness of one’s diet, but vegan

and vegetarian runners scored the highest. Most athletes cited that they followed their diet

because it made them feel good but many of the runners claimed that it was also for

performance reasons, environmental concerns, and for the welfare of animals. Unfortunately, it

is hard to draw a direct correlation between a vegan or vegetarian diet and distance running

performance for a lot of reasons. The largest being that the demographic for distance runners is

largely comprised of educated non-Hispanic white people and so is the demographic for vegans

and vegetarians. Regardless, vegans and vegetarians, as a whole, tend to be at lower risk for

obesity and, assuming they get enough iron, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, iodine, calcium and

vitamin D, typically maintain a healthier diet. Whether vegan, vegetarian or otherwise, it is

important for distance runners to ensure they are meeting the nutrition guidelines to maintain

muscle mass, keep fat off and to promote adequate bone strength for peak performance.

The nutrition of a sprinter is based on very different principles than those of a distance

runner. Where distance runners tend to be lean, sprinters require a high power-to-mass ratio.

For this reason, they tend to try to increase muscle mass in order to increase power. Too much

muscle mass, however, can be detrimental as there comes a point of diminishing returns. The

added weight requires more power to move than the added muscle provides. Protein intake is

important for muscle growth and increased strength but energy intake is more important for

the performance of a sprinter. During training, it has been shown that a combination of
carbohydrates and proteins enhances stimulation of anabolic pathways. Furthermore,

utilization of amino acids for muscle protein synthesis is improved when amino acids are

consumed along with carbohydrates (Tipton, Jeukendrup, Hespel, 2007). Additionally,

carbohydrates could be helpful in reducing the possibility of muscle glycogen depletion during

training. Interestingly, while protein intake is important for muscle growth, the amount of

dietary protein necessary for a sprinter is difficult to determine as the evidence to support high

protein intake for increasing muscle mass is heavily debated in the scientific community.

However, it is unlikely that excess protein intake is detrimental to sprinters trying to gain

muscle mass. On the day of a race, a sprinter’s priorities should become more focused on

staying hydrated and comfortable. One should stay hydrated, maintain blood glucose levels and

avoid any behaviors that can cause discomfort (Tipton et al., 2007). Furthermore, while this

article will not dive too deep into supplement use, caffeine, in low doses, has been shown to

improve performance in sprinters. Unlike distance runners, dehydration from caffeine use is not

a major concern amongst sprinters. Additionally, caffeine has been shown to improve mental

alertness and decrease reaction time. Clearly, nutrition and diet must vary from one sprinter to

another. It is not rational to make claims about how much protein all sprinters require as that is

largely dependent on the needs of a given individual. Moreover, one’s nutritional needs for

training are vastly different than on race day; where sprinters typically compete on an empty

stomach. Lastly, muscle-to-power ratio is key for sprinters as too much weight will take more to

move.

Whether a distance runner or sprinter, one thing is always critical, hydration. Many

companies who create sports drinks and energy drinks make claims about their ability to
increase performance in athletes compared to water alone. Energy drinks are almost always

detrimental as they contain an excess of caffeine which will cause a runner to become

dehydrated quickly and likely induce gastrointestinal distress. Sports drinks however,

specifically those containing a carbohydrate-electrolyte solution have been shown to be

effective at increasing performance in endurance-trained runners. Unfortunately, there is not

much research to support the use of carbohydrate-electrolyte sports drinks for sprinting but it

is unlikely that their use is detrimental as it does promote hydration. In Rollo and Williams

(2009) experiment, eight endurance runners completed three 1-hour performance runs

separated by a week. On two of these occasions, participants were given a taste and color

matched placebo. While on the third occasion, they were given a carbohydrate-electrolyte

solution. The difference between the distance each individual travelled between the two

placebo trials was statistically insignificant. However, the distance travelled when given the

carbohydrate-electrolyte solution was significantly greater. The conclusion of the experiment

was that ingestion of a carbohydrate-electrolyte solution before and during a distance run does

improve performance. Nevertheless, one must consider the small sample size used in Rollo and

Williams’ (2009) experiment of just 8 runners. Typically speaking, a sample size becomes

statistically significant around 30. While it’s impossible to say definitively, the evidence does

suggest that a carbohydrate-electrolyte sports drink does improve performance in distance

runners if consumed before and during the run.

In conclusion, distance runners and sprinters have to take their nutrition very seriously

in order to perform at their peak. However, it is very difficult to determine a direct link between

a specific diet and a performance increase in any sport. Yet, it is largely agreed upon that
maintaining a diet that keeps one lean is important for distance runners and a diet and exercise

plan that keeps one’s mass-to-power ratio high is important for sprinters. Additionally, the use

of carbohydrate-electrolyte sports drinks is likely to improve performance in distance runners.

In sum, there are general guidelines runners can follow to try to increase their performance but

every athlete is different and a diet and training routine needs to be fine-tuned to the needs of

the individual.
References:

Turner-McGrievy, G. M., Moore, W. J., & Barr-Anderson, D. (2016). The Interconnectedness of

Diet Choice and Distance Running: Results of the Research Understanding the Nutrition

of Endurance Runners (RUNNER) Study. International Journal Of Sport Nutrition &

Exercise Metabolism, 26(3), 205-211. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.2015-0085

Tipton, K. D., Jeukendrup, A. E., & Hespel, P. (2007). Nutrition for the sprinter. Journal Of Sports

Sciences, 255-15. doi:10.1080/02640410701607205

Rollo, I., & Williams, C. (2009). Influence of Ingesting a Carbohydrate-Electrolyte Solution Before

and During a 1-hr Running Performance Test. International Journal Of Sport Nutrition &

Exercise Metabolism, 19(6), 645-658.