Diet for Runners: What Do Pro Runners Eat?

3 min read Christine Ellis

Christine Ellis
Written by
Christine Ellis
Head of Nutrition - enjoys long and steady pace runs 🏃‍♀️

There have been accounts of professional athletes eating what seems to be an unlimited amount of calories each day to fuel their intense training sessions. This brings the question of what is diet for runners and what pro runners eat every day. Let’s see what these ultra-athletes consume regularly and what we can bring into our own eating plans.

Can Runners Eat Whatever They Want?

The most commonly-touted case of eating a ton of calories each day as a professional athlete is the account of Michael Phelps’ diet of 12,000 calories per day to fuel his training to earn a record-breaking number of gold medals. By his own account, the amount was closer to 8–10 thousand calories per day, which is still a tremendous amount.

But this story makes headlines because it is an outlier instead of the standard. When examining the data of the number of calories burned, we’ll find that you can’t outrun a bad diet.

For example, a 185lb individual running 10 miles per hour will burn about 1,342 calories per hour. So, keeping that fast pace for 4 hours would still only be 5,368 calories burned. In addition to the person’s basal metabolic rate and other estimations, that would still fall below the 10,000 calories that Phelps ate daily.

So, even if a pro runner ran 40 miles per day at 10 miles per hour, they still wouldn’t be able to eat whatever they wanted all the time. Nobody is running that distance and pace daily, either.

So, it boils down to this: exercise, no matter how long or intense, isn’t an invitation to eat whatever you want. You can always overeat beyond what you burned through running, and it’s typically quite easy.

What Does a Pro Runner Eat in a Day?

Pro runners across disciplines tend to eat very similar diets, with individual differences in the energy substrates and demands placed on muscles for their running type. Sprinting is much different than running a marathon. But, many of the diets of pro runners look similar, regardless of their duration and speed.

For example, Usain Bolt eats plenty of carbohydrates and protein, with a limited amount of fat. His daily diet can include things like:

  • Egg sandwiches
  • Pasta
  • Corned beef
  • Plenty of fresh fruit and Gatorade for carbohydrates
  • Chicken
  • Dumplings

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the marathon superstar Eliud Kipchoge who utilized a plant-based diet with around 85% of carbohydrates, 10% of protein, and 5% fat.

Some competitors prefer the ketogenic lifestyle, choosing a high-fat, moderate-protein, and ultra-low-carbohydrate diet.

What you’ll find is that most pro runners eat whole foods that act as healthy sources of macronutrients and micronutrients.

The Best Foods Every Runner Should Include in a Meal Plan

Whether you are in the high-carbohydrate or the keto-club, you need to fuel your running bouts with the proper energy forms.

The runner’s main source of calories should come from the energy substrate utilized during their running. For carbohydrate-based diets, this means plenty of complex carbohydrates further from the run and more simple carbohydrates closer to the run for sustained energy. Keto-athletes need healthy fats further from the run and exogenous ketones closer to the run to be able to match the energy levels of a carbohydrate-based diet.

Here are some good sources of complex and simple carbohydrates for a runner:

  • Oats
  • Rice
  • Quinoa
  • Pasta
  • Fruit
  • Fast-acting sports drinks, like Gatorade

Runners also need protein to repair their muscles and connective tissue. The shorter the running distance and the faster the pace, the more protein is required. Again, whole food sources are best. Lean meats are great. Vegan proteins are great as well because most are full of complex carbohydrates.

Here are some excellent protein sources for runners:

  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Lean cuts of beef and pork
  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas

Fat is the last macronutrient to fill in gaps for a carbohydrate-based diet (carbs are in this category for keto-athletes). Here are some healthy sources of fats for runners to stay healthy with optimal hormone balance:

  • Saturated fats like animal fats, avocado, coconut
  • Polyunsaturated fats, including nuts, seeds, fish
  • Monounsaturated fats like olive oil

What to Include in Diet for Runners?

Eating enough to fuel your sessions and make optimal progress without weight gain is the goal if performance is your main target. If you want to lose weight, you need to eat a bit less without affecting your performance too much.

Finding the balance of calories and macronutrients will take experimentation and maybe even working with a professional to devise an optimal plan for your running needs.

For recreational runners who just want to be a little more efficient, tracking the caloric intake and adjusting it based on your weight and performance is a simple process that will get you great results.

Key Takeaways:

  • Regardless of how much you exercise, you won’t be able to eat whatever you want without gaining weight. You can never run long and fast enough to be able to eat unlimited food.
  • Professional runners typically eat a high-carbohydrate, moderate-protein, and low-fat diet to supply their energy needs, help their recovery, and prepare for future runs.
  • The best diet for runners are typically whole foods that give healthy amounts of macronutrients and micronutrients in proper ratios.
  • Calorie and macronutrient intake should be tracked and adjusted accordingly to ensure an optimal diet for running.

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