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The top nutrition advice for runners who do strength training

By Henry Howard

Shannon O'Grady has been a runner most of her life, competing in her first race at age 6. In graduate school, she found marathon running, which was also when she was pursuing a graduate degree in nutritional physiology.

“It was a nice overlap between my personal interests and what I really loved to do as far as research,” says O’Grady, the chief product officer at Gnarly Nutrition. “My thesis was more looking at adaptations to a plant-based diet or an animal-based diet in animals, but there is a good nutrition basis there and it really served me well in terms of trying to figure out and get really granular on what was required to do endurance activities.”

O’Grady received her doctorate in biology from the University of Utah. At Gnarly, she examines sports and athletes to determine where nutrition could be helpful, how that translates to creating a product that would be helpful and then researching what the science says. (See previous story on how O’Grady and co-founder Eli Kerr are focused on clean, quality products for athletes.)

In the final installment of my four-part series on Strength Training for Runners, O’Grady hits on key topics including recommendations for protein intake, using carbs during workouts and whether creatine is a good idea.

The series also includes:

Part 1: An overview with strength running coach Jason Fitzgerald, who provided a lot of great information in this Q&A.

Part 2: A focus on masters athletes, featuring elite runner Michael Wardian, who shares some tips and exercises.

Part 3: Tips for women runners on the best options for strength training.

Thanks to Gnarly Nutrition for sponsoring this series. Gnarly offers clean, healthy and tasty nutritional products for athletes to use before, during and after their workouts. For me, I regularly use either the Pre or the BCAA mix before almost all of my running and other training. For my recovery, I use the vegan protein powder and I add a scoop of Gnarly’s creatine to it or my morning coffee.

Nutrition advice for strength training

Question: As you indicated, your education background including studying the effects of a plant-based vs. a meat-eater diet. Are there different approaches that those who are plant-based or vegan should consider that differ from those who eat meat on a more regular basis?

Answer: As far as nutrition goes, I think it's just being a little more mindful of maybe some of the gaps in a diet that doesn't incorporate any animal sources of nutrition. I think they're easy to overcome, they're just things that you need to pay attention to, and that's whether or not you are a strength athlete or an endurance athlete.

Pay attention to where protein is coming from, make sure that you're getting protein from a variety of sources, maybe incorporate a protein powder. Often people associate the idea of processed foods as being a bad thing, but protein powders really make protein more accessible and oftentimes have combinations of different sources of protein, which is a really great thing for people that are vegan or vegetarian because plant-based proteins tend to be a little lower in a few amino acids. So by combining different sources, you balance out those low levels in one protein with potentially high levels in another.

And then also just trying to take in greater amounts of protein overall can help also with lower levels of things like branch chain amino acids, specifically leucine that you find in plant-based protein. So I think it's totally something that can be addressed, just have to pay attention and be more mindful of where you're getting your protein and how much.

Question: There are lots of different takes on how much protein somebody needs. Do you have a general recommendation, let's say for runners, for their daily protein intake?

Answer: Yes, I agree with you, the research has been a bit all over the place and for a long time people were following the guideline for cardio-based athletes, 1.2 grams per kilogram. There's been two meta-analyses done on this subject and both pointed at 1.6 grams of protein per kilo of body weight as being the minimum amount of protein intake required to really get a maximum amount of muscle protein synthesis.

Question: Earlier you mentioned your own running journey starting at age 6. Are you still on your own running journey? Or what other sports are you doing these days?

Answer: As I mentioned, I had gotten more into ultras and then found jiu-jitsu about seven years ago. And that for me has been my passion. Running will always be something that I enjoy doing, love doing, especially in the mountains of the Wasatch. Just getting out on the trails feels like a release from the hectic day to day. But much less of I think training for a specific running goal and more of just getting out and enjoying moving my body and being in the hills. And so for me, a lot of times that looks like hiking up to a ridge line in the Wasatch and then running down the ridge and running on the descent and back to my car.

Question: That sounds awesome. What's been a secret to your success, or what do you think has worked the best for you as you've personally become stronger and more fit?

Answer: I think incorporating strength-based training has been huge for me, both in terms of being an athlete, but also in terms of keeping my body moving, whether it's running or cycling or climbing or a lot of the other sports that I enjoy doing. Trying to maintain some mobility and just be more balanced.

I'd say that goes hand in hand with also making sure that I give my body the rest I need, and that I'm not pushing hard in all of those disciplines. I have worked with a group out of Jackson Hole called the Samsara Experience, and they believe in a lot of zone one, zone two running and really pushing that long, slow distance to build both a cardiovascular baseline and also encourage your body to use that a bit more as a fuel, which in zone one and zone two that is primarily what your body's using. And doing that has really just helped I think overall my take on exercise in general, not everything has to be hard all the time, and just increase my enjoyment of just doing it and being outside and not worrying about how fast I'm necessarily going.

Question: What's a good way for a runner who hasn’t been strength training to start?

Answer: I think it's always good, especially when you're just starting out, to find a good partner, whether it's a friend who has been strength training for a while or someone in your community that has training in a particular movement or field. The concern with strength training is that, one, if people do too much too soon and their technique isn't good, then it can result in injury. And I think also as runners there's a lot of strength movements you can do that will both complement your running but also help improve longevity and increase your resistance to injury. It’s always a good idea to find someone who has that in mind and knows what movements really compliment running, and also has good technique and can share it.

Question: For those who are pressed for time, could you recommend four to six priorities?

Answer: I'll preface this by saying that while I do a lot of strength work, I'm not a certified strength trainer. I am definitely just speaking from my personal experience. One, I think that you can do a lot of strength work at home, and not necessarily have to go to a gym. I will also say that you can get a lot done in 20 to 30 minutes, and try to make that a daily practice without feeling like it has to carve a huge amount of time out of your already busy schedule, which has been something I've struggled with in trying to get my time for jiu-jitsu, my time for strength training, my time for running, just being a mom and working full-time, it's a lot. Starting out with a smaller strength practice — I love the word practice, I'm stealing that from yoga — and just making a habit of it is always a good idea.

So specific for running, I think a lot of single leg, even body weight exercises are good. So you can do things like a single leg deadlift, or a modified pistol squat where you are touching your back toe behind you and still do the same movement. They both build not only strength in the leg, but also stability because some balance is required. I think those are great ones for lower body strength.

You can also do a squat with both legs and that's good as well. But I really like single leg exercises just because of the stability portion of it.

Often people don't realize how much of our core is used in running. So doing exercises to strengthen your core is always good. I do a lot of kettlebell work. Things like a kettlebell swing where you are really engaging your core at the end is a great way to do that if maybe you're not a fan of traditional sit-ups, which I know a lot of people aren't. Exercises that really emphasize not just building muscle but building stability, and then anything that is a whole body movement that really engages your core as well is probably a good thing to focus on.

Question: For our new runners, we've told them why it's important. We've given them some cues to get started. Let's now combine that with the nutrition. There's definitely recommendations how to fuel yourself before, during, and after these types of workouts. So what do you recommend in terms of protein, fats, carbs related to these exercises before, during, and after?

Answer: Make sure that you've had enough carbohydrates, since your body's really going to be using primarily carbohydrates during strength work. If you're exercising in the middle of the day and as long as you haven't been restricting yourself, you should be fine with the food that you've taken in prior, as long as you were not restricting carbs.

If it's a particularly intense workout, I would recommend maybe having a small serving of easy to digest carbohydrates, 100 to 150 calories in the 30 to 60 minutes before you're going to do your intense workout. But if you're just going through movements and not looking to PR on a certain lift or really get your heart rate up high, then what you've eaten over the course of the day should be fine.

If you're doing it first thing in the morning, then yes, I would also recommend maybe getting in a half a banana or something in the 30 minutes before you start, just because you will feel better and you'll be able to do more getting some carbs in your system than you would being fasted from the overnight period.

During the actual workout, if it’s less than an hour, make sure you have water. For a longer strength workout, additional carbs would be a good idea.

Afterward, whether it's from a supplement or from food, make sure you're getting in a good amount of protein so your body has those amino acids, which are really used as building blocks to repair and build new muscle. That can be from a meal you're about to have, or if you're really busy, a protein shake can be a great idea too.

Question: How soon after a workout should an athlete get in that nutrition?

Answer: Most of the research that I've seen shows diminishing returns after about an hour. So while you're not necessarily harming your body by waiting, you are getting more out of the food and your recovery is going to be better if you can get it in within an hour. And most of that research is looking at glycogen repletion. So building those glycogen stores back up. So that's going to be more focused on an endurance effort where you've really brought your glycogen stores down.

If we're talking about a daily strength or even three times a week strength practice, the likelihood that you're depleting your glycogen is really low, you are definitely using carbs. I doubt that most of us would be doing any kind of strength workout that would totally deplete our glycogen. So it's maybe less of an issue for strength work than it would be for endurance work, if that makes sense.

Question: Yep, absolutely. One thing that I've reversed my own thought on is creatine. I used to think that's more for those who are focused on body building, just strength. But as a runner and ultra runner, I've started using Gnarly's creatine and I think I have noticed the difference. Tell me about who should be considering using creatine and what the prevailing thought is about when and how to use it.

Answer: I'm a big fan of creatine as well, same as you, relatively new to supplementing with it. I've been supplementing with it for about a year. For most people we fall into the same story in that we thought that it was kind of a body building specific supplement. There are a lot of other benefits that extend to athletes of all types.

For one, building muscle for endurance athletes isn't a bad thing. And the interesting thing with creatine is that you're not going to just bulk up. It works specific to the exercise you're doing. So it increases your power generation for specific movements. So if you are not giving it the stimulus in the gym that bodybuilders do, you're not going to respond in the same way that a bodybuilder does.

But there are other benefits. There's some research showing that creatine is an intermuscular buffer, so it can buffer the acid production that many of us feel as a consequence of going anaerobic. There's some research showing that it can help with hydration status. So for a long time, people associated creatine with this water weight gain, which is true. When creatine is stored, it's stored with water. And that can be a positive actually for many athletes.

There's some research showing that it can be immensely helpful for brain function, and not just protection from traumatic brain injury, but there's research showing that in patients with depressive symptoms, can help with those symptoms. It's pretty amazing. I'd say above all else, there's a ton of safety literature on it. So I think it's one of the best studied supplements out there.

And it becomes particularly important for older athletes, and I'm putting myself in that classification at 44, where our metabolism has changed and we don't respond to protein in the same way. As you age it becomes even more important to really focus on your protein intake, to maintain the muscle you have. And if you can build more muscle, that's important for bone health. It's also just important for being able to move as we get older. Adding a supplement that is going to help the muscle that you already have, and may help you build new muscle, can really make a huge difference. I think everyone should be on it, but definitely if you're 40 or older. It's a great thing to add to your daily routine.

Editor’s note: This concludes my special four-part series on strength training. Thanks for reading! Let me know what other topics you would like to learn more about to give your training, running and racing a boost. Check out my Linktree for options on how to contact me.


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