4 Guidelines for No-Fuss Nutrition for Runners

No-Fuss Nutrition For Runners

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 Guidelines for No-Fuss Nutrition for Runners

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.

4 Guidelines for No-Fuss Nutrition for Runners

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. 

4 Guidelines for No-Fuss Nutrition for Runners

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. 

Be sure to check out the full Runkeeper article to get a nutritious Tahini Chicken with Brown Rice recipe.

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?


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30 Responses

  1. Wow I really love all of these so much, because there is so much balance. I think that diets often tend to get us focused on ‘extremes’, but these tips remind the runner that it’s all about balance. 🙂 And usually even though I like some simple carbs, complex carbs do keep me much fuller!

  2. I definitely agree with these guidelines. Sticking to unprocessed food and making sure you get enough fruits and vegetables is a good place to start I think! I definitely struggle to get enough protein without eating meat so I always eat it at least once a day.

    1. Thank you! I do think it is hard to get enough protein – and enough heme iron because that’s not found in plants – without eating meat at least a few times a week. I’ve tried vegetarianism and it just is too difficult to get enough.

  3. For years I was a pretty strict vegetarian, some days vegan. But then I started playing around with eating a little meat here and there and found I felt better. Every body is different so you need to find what works for you. Great tips!

  4. I never thought I would go meatless but when it happened, I felt so many wonderful benefits, especially when it came to running! I don’t know if I will always be this way but the thought of chicken grosses me out now so maybe lol. I now want those roasted potato wedges I spotted on your plate with the salad. they look so crispy and good! I know what’s for dinner tonight!

    1. I bake my oven fries (with a healthy dose of olive oil, garlic powder, and sea salt) at 425 for 30-35 minutes and then broil them for 5 minutes to make them crispy – they’re so good! Lol I can manage chicken but I don’t do much to it – funny enough I find that the more I handle meat, the less gross it is.

  5. I couldn’t put it better myself. I think the one/two point(s) that I would add would be a) refuel with a mix of carbs and protein and b) don’t eat all of your calories at once. I find all too often that people are just like REPLACE ALL THE CALORIES after a run!

    1. Thank you! I agree with both of those points. The body can only take in some many calories at once, and while you don’t want to skimp on that post run meal, spread the calories throughout the day!

  6. Oooh Number one. I saw this so very frequently when I owned my training studio. These were more weekend warrior athletes – – but there was still applies. It never ever helps.


  7. Yes to ALL of this and especially #4! If it’s not sustainable over the long term, it will not work. As for my personal diet, I always have to work harder to include my veggies. I can eat a truckload of fruits but sometimes have to force more servings of vegetables 🙂 Although summer is a lot easier with all the corn, squash and fresh tomatoes!

    1. Thank you! Lots of fruit taste so good after a run – especially summer fruits like berries. Vegetables are hard to get in – although I agree, summer vegetables are better! And fall with all of the squash.

  8. Six to NINE servings of fruits and veggies PER DAY?! Not month? Lol… I AM SO SCREWED. I’ve definitely nailed down the first point though… heh heh…. 😉

  9. This serves as a great reminder that I need (and want) to get more fruits and veggies into our diet at home. Sometimes the choices at the store just look so “blah”. I really wish there were more local fruit & veggie stands around this area. I feel like it would make it so much easier for me to keep up on what I want to have at home….(yes…I know that is just an excuse)….

    1. Really? I’ve found that the produce in the grocery stores and markets here is so much fresher than it was back in the Midwest. Vegetables aren’t supposed to look perfect – spots and weird shapes are normal and good (too perfect looking of fruit/veggies can mean too much genetic modification). Local stands are great as well, but the stuff at the groceries stores is good and often local around here – I love all the fresh local berries and apples right now!

  10. So true! I think it’s so important for runners to realize that carbs, especially, are vital for our fuel. Our performance is determined by what we eat! I would also add the nutrient-dense snacks are encouraged. Not only are they a great way to bridge the gap between the next meal, but they also offer the opportunity to get in more nutrients to fuel our previous or next run!

    1. I agree! When I work with runners it amazes me how many are still a little afraid of carbs or calories – but nutrition has just as much of an impact on performance as training does! Nutrient snacks are another great tip – and a great chance to sneak in more fruits and vegetables!

  11. This is such great, balanced advice! I completely agree. Everyone wants a specific “diet” or guidelines to follow when what actually works best is a little bit of freedom… eating what your body wants, aiming for high quality choices from real food as much as possible.

  12. You always have such great advice <3 I feel like #1 is especially important since most people don't seem to realize how much their bodies actually need to function optimally instead of just barely getting by. Cutting too many calories will always come back to kick you in the butt since you won't have as much energy to be active, and therefore not end up burning as much. Besides… food is just way too good 😆

    1. Awww, thank you, Amanda! I agree – cutting calories may be great for being model thin but you simply can’t function well like that. And also…food is just too good!

  13. Thank you for this wonderful post…I didn’t realize how easy it was to lose muscle/body mass while training the long miles for my last marathon…I needed to substantially increase my calories, and by not doing that, I found myself 5 lbs. underweight, weak and out of synch. This post is a wonderful reminder: Good nutrition and an increased bump in calorie consumption are key to staying healthy, strong and race ready.

    1. It is easy to lose muscle mass. Without eating enough calories, the body will actually catabolize muscle to help repair after a run. Good nutrition includes eating enough calories for runners!

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