Today’s post previously appeared on Runkeeper’s Blog. As an Ambassador for Runkeeper, I write content for their blog and share it here on This Runner’s Recipes as well. I am compensated as a Runkeeper Ambassador, but all thoughts and opinions are completely my own.
People start running for a variety of reasons, like losing weight, improving fitness, and leading a healthier lifestyle in general. The desire to develop healthy eating habits often goes hand in hand with these reasons. But while getting out the door to start running can be simple, the conflicting information about nutrition can make eating healthy anything but simple.
Even experienced runners can fall into a trap of complicated nutrition. Paleo, high-fat/low-carb, vegan, and other trendy diets tempt those of us who are looking to optimize our nutrition for peak performance.
And yet, most Olympic athletes do not eat specific diets. If you read Shalane Flanagan’s Run Fast, Eat Slow cookbook, you’ll see everything from bison meatballs to grain salads (and Oregon microbrews). Molly Huddle fuels her 10K records with a high-quality but omnivore diet with everything from whole grain pancakes to salads with meat, and Desi Linden does the same for her marathons.
For the elite runners, nutrition isn’t complicated. They focus on high-quality, nutritious foods and avoid overly processed Frankenfoods.
Over my eight years of running, I’ve learned healthy eating does not have to be complicated. By following these tips and eating as many minimally processed foods as possible, you can eat healthy, maintain a healthy body weight, and fuel your running.
4 No-Fuss Guidelines of Nutrition for Runners
1. Don’t starve yourself.
Food is meant for pleasure (food should taste good, even nutritious food) and for fueling your body. Even if you are trying to lose weight, do not restrict your intake and consume too few calories. Eating too little will not only make your running feel miserable but will also impair basic bodily functions like cognition and breathing.
Additionally, restricting your calories too much overtime can disturb your metabolism and hormones that regulate hunger (such as ghrelin and leptin) and send your body into starvation mode. Your body will start clinging to its fat stores, drawing energy from muscle and lean tissues. You’ll lose the muscle mass that’s essential for keeping your body strong and workouts productive. Muscle mass boosts your metabolism, so over-restricting your calorie intake could actually impair your weight loss.
So how do you strike the right balance to lose weight safely? How can you really know how much to eat? It’s important to remember that calories are not the enemy. They’re simply a unit of energy – energy that every cell in your body needs to function properly. (Most of all, calories are not a measurement of your self-worth.)
If you’re trying for weight loss, you just need to burn more calories than you consume. Figuring out your Basal Metabolic Rate (the amount of energy your body burns at rest) and using a calorie counter can help you do so.
Personally, I track my calories and macronutrients a few times a week during marathon training to ensure I am fueling my body well by eating enough.
2. Aim for 6-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
Fruits and vegetables should make up the bulk of your diet for numerous reasons. They are rich in vitamins and minerals that aid your running by reducing your risk of injury and promoting recovery after your runs. Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in calories even as they pack a big nutritional punch, so you can eat a lot of them while maintaining a healthy body composition and weight.
Don’t worry about the sugar content of fruit or the starchiness of certain vegetables like potatoes. The sugars in fruit are naturally occurring and unrefined. Your body metabolizes them differently than it metabolizes refined, processed sugars.
Meanwhile, starchy vegetables, like potatoes, contain numerous vitamins and minerals, and (unless you add butter, cream, or other high-fat ingredients) are a whole food, and a minimally processed option for the carbohydrates you need to fuel your running.
Nature does not make junk food. You will better achieve your running goals by selecting foods that are natural – fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, meat, and dairy – then you will with a diet full of processed foods, even if those processed foods are labeled as “health foods.”
3. Opt for complex carbohydrates over simple.
Runners of course need to eat a balanced diet of carbohydrates, healthy fats, and lean protein. The lean protein and healthy fats tend to cause less debate, but the trend of Paleo and low-carb diets has given many people a case of carbo-phobia.
A nutritious diet includes carbohydrates. This is especially true for runners, because carbohydrates are such an important source of fuel. However, there is a significant nutritional difference between simple/refined carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates.
Complex carbs – whole grains (oats, brown rice, whole wheat), quinoa, potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, fruits, and other vegetables – are more difficult to digest, so they fill you up. Complex carbohydrates serve as an energy source for longer than simple carbs such as white pastas, white bread, cereals, and baked goods.
4. Don’t eliminate food groups.
Unless you have any allergies or intolerances, there is no need to eliminate particular food groups from your diet. Dairy offers calcium and protein, gluten and wheat provide carbohydrates and essential vitamins and minerals, and meat contains protein, iron, and essential B vitamins. In moderation, even sugar has a role to play in sports nutrition.
Elimination of a food group can lead to deficiencies in key nutrients, especially if not done under the guidance of registered dietician. For example, meat contains iron, protein, B vitamins (which women in particular need for reproductive health); dairy provides calcium, protein, and healthy fats; and whole grains offer fiber, iron, protein, and numerous vitamins and minerals.
While I eat less meat for sustainability and overall health reasons, I notice that eating meat at one meal per day helps me feel strong and energized on my runs while avoiding injury. I eat meat in the happy medium: not fully vegetarian, but not Paleo either.
What guidelines and tips would you add to this list?
Have you ever followed a special diet to improve athletic performance?
What’s your favorite meal currently?