(Disclaimer: I am not a certified nutritionist. While I did research the information presented in this article from verified sources, please consult a nutritionist or other professional with specifics involving your own diet).
Whether you are running to lose weight, to run a race, or just to be healthier in general, proper nutrition for runners goes hand-in-hand with logging miles. You want to find the right balance between eating healthy and providing your body with enough calories to sustain your running, especially if you are training for a race. Running is not a pass to eat lots of junk food; while you can indulgence in moderation, your health, weight, and running performance will all benefit from proper nutrition.
There are three main types of nutrients, known as macronutrients – fat, carbohydrates, and protein. All of these are essential for a healthy diet, especially if you are running. Rather than eliminate one of these macronutrients, you want to strike the right balance. For runners, a majority of your calories should come from carbohydrates, but that doesn’t mean you can eat a fat-free diet or skimp on protein. Carbohydrates provide the energy needed for both daily activity and for running. According to the Hansons Half-Marathon Method, approximately 60-70% of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates, 15-20% from fat, and 15-20% from protein.
Matt Fitzgerald points out in his book The New Rules of Marathon and Half Marathon Nutrition that the famed Kenyan runners (those who usually win the major marathons) eat diets averaging 76% of calories from carbohydrates. Fitzgerald doesn’t advocate that high of a percentage for everyone – elite runners train an upwards of two hours a day – but instead suggests about 3-5 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight. This means that if I am 5 foot 9 and weigh 130 pounds (roughly 60 kg) and I train for 45-60 minutes a day, I should eat should eat 240-300 grams of carbohydrates a day. My approximate daily calories requirement is 2200 calories; 300 grams of carbohydrates is 1200 calories, so that is roughly 55% of my daily calories from carbohydrates. The harder and longer I train, the higher this percentage will be.
When it comes to carbohydrates, it is not only quantity that matters – quality is also very important. You want a majority of your carbohydrates to be complex carbs. Complex carbohydrates include fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. Overall complex carbohydrates are whole foods that are minimally processed. Examples of complex carbohydrates that are great for runner’s diets are sweet potatoes, greens and other vegetables, bananas and other fruits, oatmeal, whole wheat bread and pastas, and brown rice. These carbs are all high in fiber, which is essential for your body and will help you feel fuller longer.
Quality matters also with fats and proteins. Fat is necessary for runners because it protects your cells and tissues, aids in the absorption of several vitamins, and supports your reproductive health (especially in women). This isn’t a pass to eat lots of sweets or fried foods; you want to eat monounsaturated and other healthy fats. These include nuts and nut butters, fish like salmon or tuna, avocados, and olive oil. Since fats help you absorb vitamins, it is ideal to add moderate amounts of fats like olive oil or avocado to your salads so you can absorb all the available nutrients from your vegetables.
When it comes to protein, lean is the best option, since the fats in many meats are saturated fats that should be eaten in moderation. Protein helps runners repair muscles, maintain hormonal balance, and stay hydrated. Milk, yogurt, eggs, legumes, nuts, and lean cuts of chicken and beef all offer lots of protein. Protein sources from dairy also help protect your bones and should be included unless you have an intolerance.
Fitzgerald also notes in this article on elite runner’s diets about the importance of a diet that has variety and plenty. Eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, proteins, and healthy fats ensures that you get a wide range of nutrients. Cutting out grains, dairy, meat, or fat – unless for a religious or health issue – robs your body of some of the nutrients it needs. In addition to eating a wide variety of food, you need to make sure you are getting enough food. While many Americans eat too much, if you are eating a diet full of whole foods and are active, you may not be getting enough calories. Including healthy fats and protein in your diet can help you make sure you do eat enough.
Finally, treats do have a place in a healthy and balanced diet. Foods like burgers and fries, beer, cupcakes, and pizza can be a part of a runner’s diet in moderation. You don’t want to eat them all of the time and you don’t want to eat huge servings, but you don’t have to eliminate them, even if you are trying to lose weight. Having treats can give you that feeling of indulgence. Feeling deprived can make you more likely to stop eating healthy overall, so having a small treat can help you maintain a healthy diet. Ryan and I frequently have bacon, beer, pizza, and sweet treats. We eat these in moderation. We also make our favorite indulgent foods at home so we can make them healthy – whole wheat pizza with lots of veggies, homemade cupcakes with lower amounts of sugar and fat, or oatmeal pancakes.
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