Nutrition for Runners: 4 Simple Reminders
Nutrition for runners is as important as shoes, miles, and sleep. Without proper nutrition, it doesn’t matter how great your training, at some point, you will stop improving and most likely start going backwards.
In the fall of 2011, I watched, “Forks Over Knives,” a documentary about the benefits of eating a whole food, plant-based diet. I was fascinated, curious, and wanted to see if I could eat a diet consisting of only plant based foods.
My experiment lasted less than a year, but it changed my view on food forever. With such a restrictive diet, I was forced to think about every food decision and quickly realized that I was eating pretty poorly. Today, I don’t restrict anything, but focus on eating lean meats, whole grains, healthy fats, and as many fruits and vegetables as I can fit on my plate.
Sometimes, I think we need to be reminded of what eating health means. In our fast paced, fast food lives, nutrition is often neglected. I know I still struggle with this every single day.
Below are four simple nutrition tips to help keep your eating in check.
The Basics of Nutrition for Runners
I asked Jen Vega some basic questions about nutrition. She holds a Master’s of Science from the University of Minnesota in Nutrition, has worked in R&D for Nestle, and is currently finishing up her first year of pediatric residency at Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines, IA.
Jen has also been a runner most of her life. She won two state cross country titles and one in track during high school. She went on to run at the University of Minnesota as part of the 2005 cross country team who placed 9th at the NCAA National meet (highest finish in school history). She is a 2:50 marathoner.
What is Nutrition?
When you think of nutrition, you probably just think, food. While that is certainly true, it’s much more. Jen says,
I think of nutrition in the most basic sense of fuel for metabolism. From a running perspective it is what you need to run the biochemistry behind your training. From my experiences, (especially in women), food is seen as the enemy and another challenge to overcome instead of the training tool it can be.
She went on to say that runners, at least those who want to improve, need to appreciate how food can enhance their training, and ultimately help them become stronger runners.
View food as part of your training – it is just as important as the miles you run every day.
What type of diet should runners follow?
Tell me what to eat, and I’ll eat it! I like formulas, but Jen says most runners get a little too “fancy,” restricting or adding unnecessary foods.
I like the simple approach: eat real food. Go to the grocery store a few times a week and buy fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low fat dairy products. Throw in some unsalted nuts, peanut butter, oatmeal, lean meats, fish, dark chocolate, etc. Get a good cookbook, I recommend The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook. Cook good meals! I strongly believe that nutrients work best in their natural form. When foods are “engineered” you lose a lot of the synergy and interactions that occur in whole foods.
Being restrictive is unnecessary and unhealthy. Buy, prepare and eat real food!
How much should runners eat? Should we count calories?
I have done everything in the past – from monitoring every bite, to overindulging. Jen advises against counting calories, and instead says to use your training results and cues from your natural hunger and thirst.
Anyone who has trained seriously as a runner knows the feeling of true hunger. The successful ones have mastered how to manage that hunger in terms of fueling before a hard run, increasing calories during a block of high mileage or increased intensity, and then making reasonable reductions during a taper. If you are consistently “bonking” at the end of long runs, maybe you aren’t eating enough.
At the other end of the spectrum, if you have been putting in the work for a few weeks and don’t seem to be getting fitter or faster, maybe you should cut out a few calories a day. One way I look at it is if I am craving sweets and carbohydrates in the middle of the day or before bed, I am probably not eating enough. I don’t mean just wanting a fun-sized Twix, I mean wanting to devour an entire pint of ice cream!
Modify your caloric needs based on your daily or weekly training. Eat more on the days you run more, and less on the days you don’t.
What are common mistakes runners make about nutrition?
I have gone through periods of eating way too many carbs, to practically following the Atkins diet. The bottom line is more about appropriate balance.
Sometimes runners live on carbohydrates alone and neglect to get enough protein and fat in their diets. I think many of us are also running in a dehydrated state. Fluids are part of fueling, too.
I am reading Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald. One of my big learnings so far is that carbohydrates, while important, may be overemphasized. In the book, he cites two interesting ratios for protein and carb intake, and writes that if you are eating a balanced diet, you should be getting enough fat.
Runners need about 1.2 g of protein per pound of body weight. Carbohydrate intake varies based on intensity (see table below).
Eat a well rounded diet! Make sure you’re getting enough from all categories such as protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
This is meant to be a brief nutrition overview. I am curious what nutrition guidelines you follow, and what works best for you. Share in the comments below!