The Best Natural Fuel for Runners

Time Zone: During a Run

Need to Know: A study by the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise suggests that consuming carbohydrates during a workout will give you greater pleasure with exercise and lower perceived exertion. Consuming carbs during a run keeps blood glucose and muscle glycogen levels up, making exercise seem easier and delaying fatigue, says Kathleen Farrell, a sports dietitian at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine.

"Typically, benefits occur only when exercising for longer than an hour and at least 30 grams of carbohydrates are consumed each hour," Farrell explains.

Eat This: Honey

More: What to Eat During a Run

How Come: Honey has been found to be just as effective at improving performance during prolonged exercise as gels and other sugar sources.

"The simple carbohydrates in honey get into your system quickly to fuel muscles," Farrell says.

Try pouring honey in a gel flask and diluting it with a bit of water for easy access during runs. Farrell stresses the importance of testing foods during training to gauge how your stomach will handle it on race day.

"And drink 4 to 8 ounces of water every 15 minutes along with the food," she recommends.

Brownie Points: According to a 2009 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, honey has more antioxidant activity than refined sugar. Antioxidants may help speed muscle recovery and fight certain cancers.

Other Eats: Molasses, dried fruits, candy (Twizzlers, gummy bears), Fig Newtons, pretzels

More: Natural Race-Food Alternatives

Time Zone: 15 to 60 minutes Post-Run

Need to Know: As soon as possible following a run, consume carbohydrates to replace muscle glycogen stores and protein to attenuate muscle damage, says Jackie Dikos, RD, a dietitian who competed in the Beijing Olympic marathon trials. Consuming the right foods shortly after exercise also prevents a drop in the immune system.

"Ideally, aim for a 4-to-1 carbohydrate-protein ratio to maximize recovery," Dikos says.

Eat This: Cereal with milk and sliced banana

More: 10 Post-Run Drinks to Fuel Recovery 

How Come: A 2009 University of Texas study discovered that eating cereal and nonfat milk immediately following 2 hours of aerobic exercise was just as effective at stimulating muscle glycogen and protein synthesis as a carbohydrate-electrolyte sports drink.

"This makes perfect sense because cereal provides lots of carbs and low-fat milk is a source of quality muscle repairing protein," says Dikos. "Appetite can wane after a hard run, so familiar foods like cereal and milk are useful," she adds.

Bananas are high in potassium, which is lost in sweat during running.

Brownie Points: Milk has calcium and vitamin D to protect against stress fractures. Vegetarians can use fortified soy or hemp milk.

Other Eats: Cottage cheese with pineapple and honey, ricotta cheese spread on English muffins, pancakes topped with yogurt and maple syrup, cold chicken pasta salad

More: Recovery Foods That Ease Muscle Soreness

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Matthew Kadey is a Canada-based nutritionist and writer. Visit him online at wellfedman.com.

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