Ask a Running Coach: Hydration and Protein

A few weeks ago, I asked my Facebook page if they had any questions about training, racing, or any aspect of running. People asked several great questions and I thought I would answer them here as well and start a recurring post of “Ask a Running Coach.” Today’s questions focus on hydration during races, protein intake, and collagen supplements.

How should I hydrate during a marathon or half marathon?

Every runner is different, so the exact amount should be determined based on individual needs, weather, and level of exertion. While the claim that a 2% loss of body mass due to dehydration impairs performance has been contested in the past few years, dehydration will not help you race your best and can lead to problems during and after the race. 

My advice to my athletes balances Tim Noakes’ suggestion to drink to thirst and the traditional guidelines: drink to thirst at each aid station and alternate water and electrolyte drinks (or take electrolyte supplements). You do not want to dig yourself into a hole of dehydration, especially in a marathon. However, you do not want to risk hyponatremia (dilution of the blood). By assessing your thirst at each aid station, you are staying in tune with your body’s signals, rather than possibly ignoring thirst during the first few miles of a race. 

How much protein should long distance runners eat?

Carbohydrates (or for some runners, fat) is the popular macro nutrient for a majority of runners – and you certainly don’t want to skimp on either carbs or fat. Recent research indicates that long distance runners need more protein than previously thought – according to a 2016 study using runners, 1.6 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight provides enough protein to support the level of activity. 

Ideally, your protein intake should be spread equally throughout the day. Research indicates that the body can only synthesize 30 grams of protein in a single meal, so aim for 20-30 grams of protein at meals and 10-20 grams at snacks, depending on how much protein you need. 

Should I take collagen supplements?

Collagen is a type of protein that supports bone, tendon, and ligament health. The theory behind collagen supplements is that they support repair and maintenance of your bones and tendons. However, your body does not take the protein and deliver it whole directly to your bones and tendons. Rather, your body breaks down the individual amino acids. Additionally, even if you did digest the collagen protein whole, injuries aren’t repaired by a simple copy-and-paste of a molecule

By eating enough protein and prioritizing complete proteins (either meat sources or combinations such as grains and beans), your body will get the amino acids it needs to maintain and repair healthy bones and tendons. Collagen supplements are not harmful, just simply not the best use of your money. 

What questions would you ask a running coach?

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7 Responses

  1. I really like this idea, Laura! Good to know about the hydration and the protein. I am actually not a huge carb eater, but I tracked on My Fitness Pal for awhile, and it was easy to get enough protein and fats but not carbs. I have to make an effort to eat them (also a lot of foods that people may think are high-carb are not as high carb as they may think, as you find out if you pay attention to macros for awhile). I do feel like carbs get a bad rep with non-runners and some of that carries over into our sport because we see it with others… but you are right, they are the best fuel for workouts and recovery.

    1. Thank you, Amy! Carbs can be tricky, because diet quality trumps the amount of carbohydrates in a food. For example, you are far better off eating a sweet potato or russet potato than a huge amount of processed white bread or potato chips (which you know) – but those better foods contain less carbs. My theory is that percentage matters – for most runners, it’s 45-60% of your diet (it’s a big range because people respond differently to carbs), with over 60% during brief carb-loading periods. Like protein, carbs are best done spread throughout the day. I like to aim for two sources of carbs at each meal: one whole grain/starchy vegetable, one fruit or vegetable (and sometimes, more than one serving of fruit or veggies – I aim for 6-9 servings of veggies/fruit a day). And if you’re looking to add in carbs, before and after a run is the ideal time!

  2. I think the most common question that new runners ask is what should they eat before a run? The common misconception is that they need to eat like 8 zillion calories before and after a 3 miler and I swear that every single new runner puts on weight initially, just because they’re trying to figure out the whole fueling thing.

    1. This is actually a post (or a few posts, ha!) that I’ve been working on! I’m a big fan of the banana as a pre-run snack, because it has potassium and carbs, is easy to digest, and doesn’t have a lot of calories. If I’m running first thing in the morning and doing 7 miles or less, most mornings I will just skip the pre-run snack and run in a carb-fasted state. For runs over 10 miles, I’ll add in a piece of toast for extra carbs. I do agree that it’s a misconception – you don’t want to run completely on empty, but if you ate within the past 2-3 hours you don’t need a snack, and if you need a snack something small and light will do.

      1. What is your pre run meal in the morning? I’m still trying to figure out what works with my stomach. It is so sensitive 🙁 and I cannot have gluten!

        Any ideas for me? I’m training for my first full marathon and my first 20 miler is on Saturday so I’m super nervous!

        1. Before a run of 7-9 miles, I will have a banana, raisins, or a graham cracker. I eat a banana and bagel or toast before most long runs, and I coached some gluten free runners who ate gluten free bagels or toast before runs. Other runners I know swear by a sweet potato (baked) with almond butter. I highly recommend eating a good sized snack or small meal before a 20 miler and then giving yourself 2 hours to digest – that way you can have energy without stomach issues.

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