Whole30 for Runners: Why This Running Coach Won’t Recommend It

Why This Running Coach Won't Recommend Whole30 for Runners

For the next several week, Wednesday’s posts will focus on helping you achieve your running goals for 2016, no matter what those goals are. Rather than prescribe steps or offer tips to set and achieve a goal, today’s post will take a slightly different approach of analyzing a popular goal.

 I am a whole-hearted goal-setter, but I also firmly believe that (1) not every area in life requires high-reaching goals for success and (2) we all often too easily let the goals of others influence our own goals, rather than striving for what is personally best for each of us as individuals.

Healthy eating is no exception to this. Healthy eating is important and an admirable goal to pursue. Yet in this era of diet cults, a balanced approach to healthy eating falls to the wayside in favor of restrictive diets.

If you read running and healthy living blogs, you likely have read about the diet called Whole30.

Why This Running Coach Won't Recommend Whole30 for Runners

Whole30 for Runners: Concerns and Issues

Whole30 gains popularity in the blogging world and the broader running world each January, with the fervent resolutions of the New Year and the desire to detox after the indulgences of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve.

Yet, while it emerges from healthy intention, Whole30 is neither sustainable nor is it a prudent diet for runners to adapt.

Despite the popularity of the strict Paleo diet amongst runners during the resolution-driven fervor of the new year, as a certified running coach, I cannot recommend Whole30 for runners. I would never prevent an athlete of mine from participating in the Whole30 challenge, but I would never encourage any runner to partake of this diet.

Don’t mistake me: I believe in beginning the new year with healthy eating habits that emphasize whole foods. I am not a dietician, so some of the discussion surrounding Whole30 extends beyond my scope of expertise.

However, as RRCA certified running coach, I know enough about sports nutrition to disagree strongly with the elimination of many carbohydrate-rich foods, particularly grains. My expertise permits me to speak authoritatively on the basic science of running: in order to run, your body needs carbohydrates.

As many of us vow to eat healthier and restrict our diets in the new year, we also dedicate ourselves to intense workout schedules or begin training for our spring races. More miles, harder workouts, and additional strength training and flexibility workouts.

Here’s the thing about running: the more you run, the more carbohydrates your body requires to sustain such physical activity. It’s a scientific fact. Matt Fitzgerald, the renown author of nutrition for runners books such as Racing Weight and New Rules of Marathon and Half Marathon Nutrition, argues that most runners do not eat enough carbohydrates.

How Many Carbohydrates Do Runners Need?

On average, runners consume approximately 50% of their calories from carbohydrates. While this percentage of carbs may be enough for a sedentary person, the glycogen needs of runners is significantly more, up to 70% of your calories from carbohydrates.

To quote exercise physiologist Pete Pfitzinger, “If you want to run 26.2 miles at a good pace, you had better like carbohydrate foods because they’ll be a mainstay in your diet during day-to-day training and especially in the few days before the marathon.”

Why This Running Coach Won't Recommend Whole30 for Runners

Carbohydrates provide both immediate energy during running and replenish your glycogen stores throughout the day. Glycogen, which is your body’s storage form of carbohydrate, is the primarily fuel for running at any distance or speed. The faster and farther you run, the more your body burns through its glycogen stores.

Deprive yourself of carbohydrates enough, and your body cannot fuel your running. Your risk of overuse injury and overtraining increases, since nutrition plays a vital role in healthy running.

Both Fitzgerald and Pfitzinger concur that runners need at minimum 2 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight per day; if you run for an hour, you need 3-4 grams; runners logging 2 or more hours of running require 4-5 grams of carbohydrate.

So let’s do a quick bit of math: I run roughly an hour everyday and weigh, at the height of 5 foot 9, roughly 130 pounds. 3 grams of carbohydrate per pound (which is on the low end, given the amount of exercise I do beyond running) is what my body needs to sustain my activity.  This equation thus suggests I consume 390 grams of carbohydrate per day. Each gram of carbohydrate contains approximately 4 calories, which means most days I need to eat at least 1560 calories per day from carbohydrates alone.

That’s not accounting for when I increase my mileage and intensity as training progresses.

Foods such as apples, bananas, and potatoes do provide a substantial amount of calories from carbohydrates. However, the permitted fruits and vegetables of the Whole30 diet would need to be consumed in high volume to provide you with enough carbohydrates to support running, especially if you are running high mileage.

Even vegan runners, such as ultra-marathon legend Scott Jurek, support their running through a high-carbohydrates diet with a strong consumption of grains. A vegetarian/vegan diet can provide a runner with enough protein; but the same cannot necessarily be claimed for a diet as restrictive as Whole30 providing a runner with enough carbohydrates.

Does Whole30 Pose Risks to Runners?

Finally, why the severe restriction? For many of us runners, especially female runners, our healthy eating goals should not focus on restriction, but rather nourishing our bodies and enjoying the gift of food.

Our bodies need to be fueled and nourished, not deprived. Even simple sugars play a role in the diet of runners. As Meredith wrote about earlier this week, you probably don’t need to lose those five pounds, so why risk everything that comes with such restriction? As female runners, not consuming enough calories or carbohydrates can lead to amenorrhea, female athlete triad, and stress fractures. Even male runners will see their performance suffer, the energy levels drop, and their risk of injury increase without enough carbohydrates. 

A Counter-Argument for Whole30

Because any well-articulated refutation gives fair hearing to the opposing opinion, other runners have found that they were able to balance Whole30 and running, even while running high mileage. This just goes to show that what works for some people doesn’t work for others. To run your personal best and live your healthiest life, you must pay attention to your own needs and your body’s bio-feedback.

I know that many of you and many bloggers I read and respect have done Whole30, and I want to be clear that I am not writing this post out of disrespect for anyone and their dietary choices.

And, as hard as I have been on Whole30 in this post, I will admit it is certainly better for you compared to a diet full of processed foods and too many simple sugars and lacking in fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates.

Personally, I have never followed restrictive diets. I listen to my body and respond with what it tells me, and adapt and change my diet based on what I need. For me, it’s about a balance of fat, carbs, and protein from whole foods to fuel my body and nourish my soul with a sense of satisfaction and enjoyment.

Let’s instead set goals in the positive rather than the negative: a goal of eating enough complex carbohydrates from a variety of foods, a goal of providing our bodies with essential vitamins and minerals, and the goal of enjoying the taste of food.

[Tweet “Why This Running Coach Won’t Recommend #whole30 for #runners via @thisrunrecipes #fitfluential #sweatpink”]

Have you done a diet such as Whole30? How did you fuel your running while on this diet?
What’s your take on restrictive and low-carbohydrate diets?
Do you have healthy eating goals for 2016?

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73 Responses

  1. As a vegan, I am about as far from Paleo as is possible, but as I start 2016 with a goal to heal my body, the whole30 (vegan version) is something that I have considered as a way to cleanse my body, get back to whole food, get rid of sugar and other toxins, and get a clean start on nutrition this year. The thing is, it is only 30 days. As a running coach myself, I certainly wouldn’t recommend it in conjunction with intense training, but it might fit well in a recovery cycle, where higher protein and fat can help the body heal.

    1. And that’s my concern – runners who are joining Whole30 with high training, especially as a lot of people are preparing for Boston and other big spring races. You’re right though – fats and proteins do play a vital role during the recovery cycle!
      I’m genuinely curious – how does the Whole30 vegan version work, since you can’t have beans? Is most of the protein from nuts and seeds?

      1. There are different “rules” for vegans/vegetarians 🙂 We can eat beans.

        I’m on day 10 of whole30veg and training for my first half (in April) and my runs have felt slow/sluggish…..I wonder if this is why??

        1. Oh that’s good you can have beans! The protein is so important. Maybe try eating more Whole30 carbs like potatoes, dates, bananas, and seeing how those help? It’s also important to make sure there’s plenty of iron, B12, and magnesium. Low carbs or magnesium or iron deficiency can definitely cause sluggish runs. Let me know if this helps! 🙂

    It seems since Christmas Day Whole 30 is everywhere and being done by everyone no matter her athletic pursuits.

    1. Thank you!! It does seem to be everywhere once the holidays are over – which months ago sparked my blog brain to plan out this post since I can’t do restrictive diets like that myself.

  3. Its funny because when I did the Whole30 I didn’t think of it as restrictive (for myself) but I think that was because I was eating in a similar way already. It was more about no alcohol for 30 days and no processed food, which typically I try to avoid anyway but had gotten into some bad habits with it over the holidays last year. I had experimented quite bit with paleo before doing the Whole30 so I felt really comfortable about it. Also, I didn’t do it while training for anything so my mileage was much lower at the time. I do think if someone is struggling with food sensitivities it could be a way to figure out what foods bother them, but I also think it would be really challenging to maintain this type of eating while running high mileage. Not sure how many sweet potatoes I could possibly eat in a day! Thanks for sharing my link:)

    1. That’s interesting how it didn’t feel restrictive for you! It really does, as I said in the post, vary from person to person. I’ve had the exact same thought – I’m pretty sure I’d have to eat something like 5 pounds of potatoes in a day with training!

  4. OMG yes! You know I agree. While this might work short term for some people, I do not think it’s smart for runners or for really anyone who exercises long term. I also think it falls into the wrong hands most of the time and feeds restriction and a poor relationship with body image and food. The wrong people are doing it for the wrong reasons.

    1. I SO agree with what you said about restriction and poor body image – that group is my primary concern in writing this, much more than people who suffer from food allergies. Restriction is all too common amongst athletes and women, and especially common amongst female runners, but we skirt around the topic a lot instead of addressing it as the serious issue it is. And the restriction is socially acceptable under a guise of a new year’s resolution such as Whole30, but it’s far too often done for the wrong reasons.

      1. I completely agree!!! I loved this post and will be sharing on Pinterest. I struggled with bulimia for a couple of years – it was triggered when I began to experiment with “healthy” food options in college. Now, I try to enjoy anything in moderation – sometimes I even skip the moderation. It’s amazing how much more fulfilling life is when we can enjoy all food without guilt. I still run/exercise and I am the same weight i was in college (after 4 babies even). Freedom is amazing! Thanks again.

        1. I’m glad to hear you were able to overcome your struggle. The freedom is truly amazing – food is meant to nourish, be enjoyed, and bring people together, not bring guilt or have rules. Thank you for sharing and I hope you’re enjoying your weekend!

  5. Whole 30 intrigues me. I think it is a good way to get back to eating real food, which unfortunately, not a lot of people do. I’ve never done it but I did a eating reset last January while in marathon training. For the first 2 weeks we cut back on carbs. I was definitely feeling it in my running so I added more back and felt better. Every body is different. I know people who thrive in running on Paleo and low carb diets.

    1. Every body really is different – it is like how some people thrive on vegetarian diets and others need meat. And I agree that Whole30 can have benefit for helping people get into eating real food, but I do think if they do it they need to be in tune with their bodies and modify, just like in the example you gave.

    1. Thank you, Susie! I’d miss Greek yogurt and cereal a lot on Whole30, wouldn’t you? And those foods sure do our bodies a lot of good (calcium, probiotics, etc)!

    1. Thanks for your input! I’m glad to hear that I have some consensus from other fitness professionals. And yes, it is outside of scope to stop clients from doing it, which is why I said I wouldn’t recommend it – I wouldn’t prohibit it nor prescribe it, but just offer the honest opinion.

  6. I feel the same way about restrictive diets. While im vegan for ethical reasons, I don’t see my diet as restrictive because I eat everything I want and need and nothing I don’t. I started following the Racing Weight guidelines for carbs last year when I did the high mileage Hansons training. I had always (wrongly) thought of all carbs as bad, so it was a leap of faith for me. I was amazed at how strong and well-fueled I felt for all my workouts. And even though I was eating a ton of carbs–all the high quality ones the book recommends–I was at my lowest weight of the year, so it definitely didn’t result in weight gain. I can see why people would want to reduce processed foods and sugars…but why not just reduce processed foods and sugars instead of restrict essential foods a runner needs? As for me, I’m continuing to follow the Racing Weight guidelines since I’m doing Hansons again now, and again I feel great and well-fueled for workouts.

    1. YES! I abstain from meat consumption sometimes for religious reasons and avoid (but not all out eliminate) some foods that just don’t sit well with me, but there aren’t those externally imposed rules; as with you, its a personal decision.
      I did Hansons this summer and it is so demanding that I had to up my (already healthy) carb consumption as well. I’m glad you’re feeling well-fueled and healthy! I haven’t read Racing Weight, but I read Fitzgerald’s New Rules of Marathon and Half Marathon Nutrition, which has the same guidelines and agree with it so much. The emphasis on eating plenty of high quality carbs, rather than counting calories or restricting foods, is definitely an approach that is valuable for most runners. If anything, the Racing Weight guidelines taught me I needed to eat MORE, which is something I think a lot of runners (especially female runners) could learn from.

  7. I like your reasons and agree. I am mostly vegetarian but do eat seafood now, and I’ve had some running friends try Whole 30. One of my friends liked it, but she also runs a lot less than I do (her running is totally working for her, but still, nutritional needs for someone running 40mpw are different than someone running 20mpw). It’s pretty restrictive when you go out to eat, too.

    I hate putting a label on my eating habits. Many days I’m vegetarian, but I do eat seafood sometimes. I’d eat meat except I just don’t like it, but I have nothing really *against* it. I hate how everyone feels like they have to be on a special “diet” now or fit into a mold. I try to eat to fuel my workouts, keep me healthy, tastes good, and brings me joy. And yeah, sometimes a piece of cake is what brings joy!

    1. Thank you! I agree – mileage makes a huge difference, which is why a lot of my concern centers around runners who adopt Whole30 while ramping up their mileage and intensity for spring training.
      I also agree 100% with your eating philosophy – that’s how mine has evolved. I tried vegetarian and my iron was too low and I eventually craved meat, and now I just don’t see the point of putting any label on my eating other than “balanced” and “healthy,” and I still indulge often. You should read Matt Fitzgerald’s Diet Cults – his whole discussion centers around why people feel like they need to be on a special diet. Part of it stems from food as identity and community. Very interesting!

  8. Great information here, Laura and I appreciate your candidness. I love that you talked about the tendency to create goals based on others. I actually talk about something similar in my post today. This is just not a good idea for many reasons. I have never done a Whole30 before and at this time am really focusing on getting in whole foods more than following this diet (hence my adapting it for myself). I agree that carbohydrates are imperative for runners. Grains and fruits make up such a big part of my nutrition (and I enjoy them!) that I would never eliminate them. As you know, I am not a proponent of diets as they eventually end and likely people return to old habits. Fostering a balanced and healthy relationship with food is best in the long term. Thanks again for writing on this topic!

    1. Thank you, Angie! Grains and fruits are a huge role in my nutrition also – and I feel so much better when I eat them! And yes, you’re so right about returning to old habits – I just feel like after Whole30 I would end up eating a grilled cheese sandwich while drinking beer because of the restriction. That’s one thing I love about your blog – you do so much to promote a healthy relationship with food!

  9. I’m reading a lot of comments that question why the Whole30 restricts “essential foods” for a runner. As a marathon runner who has followed an ancestral (paleo) template for 6 years, I can tell you I’ve never considered my “diet” low carb. During high mileage training, I eat plenty of white rice and sweet potatoes. I love filling my plate with seasonal veggies: Cauliflower made a ton of ways, butternut squash, broccoli, spinach, asparagus…the list continues. But all of these foods provide me with 1) Carbs!, and 2) the Essential nutrients that I need that I cannot get from a piece of bread or pasta. I’m not even restrictive enough to eliminate eggs or full fat greek yogurt that vegans must leave out. I’m not eating for weight loss, just performance, and I’ve never felt a negative impact from my diet nor have I felt like I’m restrictive. I feel like everyone is following some sort of “diet”, whether it be vegetarian, vegan, paleo, low fat, high fat low carb, etc, and they seem to point to the others and say that way is wrong. Every body is different. What works for me doesn’t work for everyone. If I was sedentary, I def could not consume half the carbs I take in, but I’m fueling for my needs. I guess I’m saying people should be slower to completely dismiss different health approaches from their own.

    1. Since I’m the only one who used the phrase “essential foods,” I assume this is a response to my comment. The essential foods I was referring to were the carbs that the book Racing Weight describes and backs up with research as “most important because carbohydrate needs increase drastically as training increases, whereas fat and protein needs increase more moderately” and which was the point of the original post. The specific foods I was thinking of were the high-quality carbs Racing Weight recommends, including whole wheat bagels, bread, pasta, and cereals, oatmeal, brown rice, lentils, etc. I had thought Whole30 did not permit those, but if I’m wrong I stand corrected. It would be challenging to find someone who loves and eats as many veggies and fruits as I do, so when I started following the Racing Weight guidelines, I did try to get as many carbs as possible from veggies and fruits. The fruits are easier but I don’t like to over-do them, but it was simply impossible for me to get the carbs I needed from veggies, which are almost all low-carb. For example, at my current training volume, I should be eating 471-543 grams of carbs a day according to Racing Weight. I would need to eat 214 cups of spinach (1.1 carbs in 1 cup) AND 8 heads of cauliflower (29 grams of carbs in 1 head) a day to meet the low end of that. While it was out my comfort zone, I had to eat more of the high-quality, high-carb foods that Racing Weight recommends to try to meet the book’s carb guidelines, and it worked for me. (Of course, I only follow the guidelines when I’m training.) Anyway, just wanted to clarify since I’m not sure how my comment was construed as “completely dismissing different health approaches” from my own since I was simply agreeing with the original post.

    2. I honestly didn’t know that the Paleo allowed white rice. Why white and not brown or wild – I’m honestly curious? Whole30, however, restricts rice of any kind, and what really worries me about it is that some people do follow it for weight loss while running high mileage. I completely agree that every body is different – which is why I would never tell an athlete to quit Whole30 if they did it, but I would also want them to listen to their body and make sure they were fueling for performance. And I’m not completely dismissing WHole30 – I’m sure it does benefit people with severe food allergies – I’m simply saying why I wouldn’t recommend it when many athletes are considering it as part of their new year’s resolutions. I also wouldn’t prohibit an athlete from following it, nor would I promote it or any other diet to a runner.

  10. Of course I need to come in and address this 😉 I really appreciate you giving your opinion about this, especially from a coach’s point of view. I completely agree with you about this not being a sustainable lifestyle, and it’s not meant to be! The Whole30 is meant to be followed for 30 days, then the food groups are reintroduced to see which ones cause you problems. I think that if a runner is in a high mileage month, it would be really tough to sustain on the carbohydrates that the program permits, so I see your point of view. However, there are lots of other sources of carbs that aren’t grains, so it’s entirely possible to hit your carb goal (especially if you’re in a low mileage month or resting)! You also saw my post of a runner who does 75 miles a week and has done the Whole30 three times, so different people will react differently to this diet.

    For my side of the argument, I did this program because I had a really rough year. I wasn’t feeling great..I had tons of stomach issues (especially during running..even had some incidents during races) and went through periods of depression because I didn’t know what was wrong with my body or where to begin feeling better. Arthritis and lupus and other autoimmune diseases run in my family, so I was honestly scared that I was starting to get those symptoms, which also led to depression. I went on a gluten free diet for a race (where I PR’ed in the half!) and felt a bit better, but still not amazing. Over the holidays, I felt absolutely terrible and couldn’t even get through a mile run without being in severe pain and feeling like my legs were being weighted down.

    So, I decided to do a 30 day experiment cutting out all those foods that could cause a bad reaction. Whole30 has been shown in self-experiments to lessen effects of autoimmune diseases (particularly arthritis and lupus) which is what drew me in. Is it extreme? Yes. Is it tough? Yes. Do I feel better after week one? YES! I feel incredible, and finally had a few pain free runs that I never though I would have. I feel energetic, I’m faster than ever, and I seriously feel better than ever in my life. We’ll see what happens for the rest of the 30 days and when I reintroduce things, but I’m feeling great.

    Like you mentioned, this is not a diet or lifestyle change you would recommend to your clients, and I completely understand. Everyone is different, and without knowing the whole story you can’t recommend a one size fits all diet. I’m trying to figure out what works for ME and MY BODY, so I hope you can respect that I’m taking it a bit extreme to find that out. I’m just fed up with feeling like crap, and want to take control over my body. Plus, I’m having fun experimenting with new foods and changing up my life (just for 30 days!). Sorry for the long winded comment, but I just had to chime in 🙂

    1. This (and your email 🙂 ) is why I love blogging – I love the discussion it fosters! I very much respect your choice to do Whole30 – my post was never out of disrespect to anyone one, and I don’t want to seem as if I’m outright condemning it – I’m simply raising some concerns about it. I would never condemn a diet and tell an athlete to stop following that diet (unless, you know, that diet was drinking only water and not eating or something ridiculous and dangerous) but I personally would never tell an athlete to follow it. BUT I would never recommend any specific diet – Paleo, vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, dairy free – to any client, as that is beyond my scope of practice. That, like you said, is a very personal decision – and not one just to do because everyone else is doing it, but one of do for important reasons and with a lot of research as you have done 🙂
      I am very intrigued to see how Whole30 works for you, because the primary benefit it does offer is to aid in food sensitivities. Your reasons for adopting it (especially your family history and how you were feeling) are significantly different than the group I had in mind with this post, which is runners who restrict for the sake of excessive weight loss or disordered eating issues or without being aware of how to make it work for athletic performance. I honestly didn’t even think to mention food sensitivities in the post, so thank you for bringing that up! I really hope you feel better on the diet and uncover food sensitivities to make positive changes 🙂

      1. I’m the 75mpw runner that Gretch featured in her post (and that you linked). I feel like I thrive nutritionally on the Whole30. My energy and sleep are amazing and there is nothing low-carb about how I eat (a sweet potato or potato with every meal along with several servings of fruit a day). With the modifications I have made (following all Whole30 guidelines but eating more than the “template” prescribes – I add a lot more carbs and fat), I don’t lose weight and never feel as if I’m lacking anything. I don’t feel that the Whole30 is restrictive at all – and the foods that I’m eating while on it make me feel amazing – clear mind, clear skin, great sleep, no bloating, etc. Also helps me with a sugar addiction – after a Whole30, I go back to eating anything I want, but I definitely feel less inclined to eat 10 cookies after a long run and make better choices (just one or two cookies after a more nutritious meal 🙂 ). I’ve made the decision to do the Whole30 again multiple times whenever I feel like I’m starting to slip into phases where I’m relying too much and craving processed foods (white sugar, white flour). A Whole30 helps me get back into a healthier and more balanced mindset. I don’t have any food allergies or sensitivities, but without being restrictive, I think the Whole30 really helps as a nutritional reset. I am very conscious about getting enough to eat. I don’t think anybody would look at what I’m eating everyday and think at all that I was restricting (really, probably more on the other end – it’s a lot of food!). I love that the Whole30 emphasizes high quality food, and there’s really no restriction – there’s a huge emphasis on eating enough and not counting calories (as a lifelong calorie counter, this is freeing!). That being said, I know this is not a way of eating that I would do forever – it’s just 30 days and then hopefully finding a good balance that is more sustainable – and keeping that up so that I don’t feel the need to do something as extreme as another Whole30. I’ve enjoyed reading your post and the comments of others. I know what works for some people doesn’t work for others – but I do think it is possible for the Whole30 to work for runners without being destructive (even high-mileage runners), if it is done correctly.

        1. Thanks for your input, Carmen! I really appreciate the valuable insight of your post, which is why I linked it. There’s always multiple viewpoints worth hearing and valuing, especially on something as individual as fueling and diet. That’s good to hear how you modified it for your needs – my concern is often that type-As like myself won’t modify it because of the feeling of following all the rules.
          I can see also how the emphasis on high-quality foods rather than calories is freeing! I just worry about for some people are tend to restrict (I’m not thinking of anyone in particular, but rather of a larger tendency in athletes, especially female runners) that they’ll take Whole30 to a restrictive extreme. I know that can happen with any diet, whether it’s Whole30 or veganism or gluten free, which is why I don’t recommend any particular diet to my athletes. I would never tell an athlete to stop doing WHole30, veganism, or similar diets (unless they were having severe health issues and suffering performance, in which case I would recommend an RD).
          Again, I really appreciate your input! It is so interesting to read how you made it work for high mileage and hopefully runners doing Whole30 will follow your advice! 🙂

          1. I have to agree with these comments, I am on day 23 of my first ever Whole 30 and am training for a 50km trail run in two weeks time – so mileage has been high (and intense on hilly trails!) and so far, this way of eating has really energised me. I have ramped up my proportion of good fats (aiming for 60% of my total calorie intake, but probably not quite achieving that), I eat tonnes of fruit and sweet potato on training days, and find that during the long runs (3 hours or longer) I’m able to process these natural, energy dense foods much better than if I try to fill up on gels or grains and feel sluggish and full.

            5 hours is the longest run I have fuelled so far on the Whole 30 program, I’ll report back in two weeks as to whether it gets me through the 50km trail run (approx 8-9 hours) or not! 🙂

          2. I am glad to hear that it is working well for you! Ultra runners do tend to respond better to higher fat diets than marathoners/road runners. Sweet potatoes and fruit are excellent sources of carbs, and the problem comes when athletes on Whole30 do not consume enough of those. Even though I’m not Whole30, fruit and potatoes are go-to sources for me for slow-burning high energy carbs because you can’t beat them! I hope your trail race goes well! That sounds like it will be a fun experience and an awesome accomplishment!

  11. Ooooooh, I love controversy! Ha ha ha! Exciting. Okay but seriously, I don’t do diets. Never ever ever. My mom absolutely killed the joy of food for me because she has been on a never-ending diet for my entire life. It was always good food, bad food, sinful, righteous, fat, thin, blah blah blah. OBSESSED. I do not have any interest whatsoever in giving food any more of my attention. Andrew LOVES food. To him, it’s an art. And I have to say he’s lit a bit of a flame inside my belly but my mom really did a number on me. It’s probably a therapy session, but at the moment, I’ve got bigger fish to fry. HA HA! I’m hilarious.

    1. I hate polemics, but I do enjoy healthy and respectful discussions around heavy issues! That had to be rough growing up with your mom dieting like that. I had several friends who constantly dieted in high school or college, and it’s a negative mindset to be around, not to mention, as you say, it ruins what should be an enjoyable experience of eating. The emphasis in our culture of demonizing some foods is really unsettling to me, since then it begins to translate from demonizing a food to demonizing a way of eating to then outright condemning a person, which is SO wrong. When I say I don’t recommend Whole30, I don’t think that anyone who does it is a bad person, but our diet culture can make it seem that way. Wow, that was a tangent!

  12. You make some really great points in this! While I think that and diet that promotes more real, whole foods is great – Whole30 is a bit much. I think it can definitely be a vital tool if you’re trying to weed out food allergies, or jump start right into healthy eating.. but it I can’t see where it is a completely sustainable diet. I also don’t think its good for athletes (runners, weight lifters, yogi’s.. whatever you do). I did it for a month and found it very difficult to get in enough carbs in!

    1. Thank you, Liz! I agree that it’s great that Whole30 promotes whole foods, but I’ve also been ingrained with the mindset that legumes and grains are whole foods, since they grow out of the ground. It’s actually a rather interesting issues of semantics, since other diets such as veganism would define legumes and grains as whole foods and restrict the very foods which Whole30 emphasizes. I’m glad you shared what you found from your experience – thank you for that!

  13. Well, I had never even heard of this before. Yup. No joke. I am so out of the loop on everything, all the time.

    Acknowledging that I’m saying this from a point of privilege as someone who has never had health or digestive issues or food allergies/sensitivities, I personally have just never been drawn to any of these specific diets or, as someone above me said, putting a label on my eating habits. I like that you make the distinction between restrictive and non-restrictive diets, too. I take the same approach as you: I like balance, I eat what I want and listen to my body to make adjustments. Our bodies will always tell us when something isn’t working, we just need to pay more attention. I’m so glad that runners need carbs because I loooooooove them, but my diet used to be way too heavy on the pastas and breads and I realized that the carbs I eat need to be balanced with proteins and greens so that I feel full and get the nutrients I need. Listening to my body has taught me that I need to cut back on the processed foods as much as I can, that I need to go easy on the cheese and dairy and that I want to cutback on red meat as well.

    Great post!

    1. Thank you! As I’ve said before, I have food sensitivities (which I still sometimes eat, because hummus is just too good to eliminate), but I didn’t use a restrictive diet to uncover them – instead, I just noted how my body reacted to certain foods. I always got a stomach ache after breakfast, which pointed pretty clearly to milk for me. I do know that other people do need a different method for uncovering allergies (especially if they’re severe), so diets like WHole30 can serve a beneficial purpose for that.
      Good for you for listening to your body! that’s really what I just want athletes to do – fuel themselves in a way that’s right for their individual biology and training. Everyone is different, which is why I wouldn’t outright recommend any diet – different people respond in different ways.

  14. I totally appreciate your perspective on this. I’m on day 24 of my first Whole30 and I chose to do it less for the traditional reasons (I ate too much! I need to cleanse my system!) and more as a reset for my eating habits (which have been in the crapper), deal with my sugar addiction and to determine if there were specific foods affecting my eczema (driving me crazy!). It’s been an interesting experiment so far and I’m glad I did it because I’ve learned a lot about myself and my relationship to food. That being said, I’m also just building back up my running base and overall fitness. I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough energy during my runs and workouts but have felt surprisingly fine. However, I don’t think that I could do this if I were training for something intensely. It’s definitely not a long term thing for me but hopefully will help set me back on the right path.

    1. Thank you, Christine! I really appreciated your post today as well and look forward to reading your final thoughts on Whole30, especially if you find that certain foods were affecting your eczema. And I appreciate your remark on balancing it with training – that was so much of my concern in writing this post, was that runners would do it at the same time as high training volumes! How much we run really does impact what we need to eat. Also, I hope your return to running is going well!

  15. Excellent point of view! I agree with what you wrote, but also with what many have mentioned in the comments. To my understanding it’s only meant to be done for 30 days, and like Debbie said, it could probably be done during a lower-intensity training cycle without much negative repercussions. It’s one of those things where it has the POTENTIAL to have a negative impact on a person’s performance or health, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will.

    1. Thank you! I do agree with you and Debbie about it being done during a lower mileage training periods, as lower mileage means lower carbohydrates means and less overall risk of injury.

  16. I’m another person that hasn’t tried Whole30, and as a runner, I don’t think I ever will. I CRAVE carbs like nobody’s business after a long run. And I also subscribe to the “nourish your body” philosophy. Restricting yourself doesn’t help. I try to focus on eating whole grains and carbs from fruits and veggies instead of white bread and pasta.

  17. Love this post! I’ve never done Whole30 and I’m not sure if I ever will. I did, however, do a clean eating/almost Paleo eating challenge for 8 weeks last fall called the Whole Life Challenge. I initially wanted to die (sugar withdrawal is no joke) but by the end of it I was running stronger and faster than ever, and I ran my best-feeling half marathon ever! It was hilly and I had that stupid hip pain so it wasn’t my fastest, but I never hit the wall and felt great even at the end. There’s definitely something to be said about eating clean! BUT the main thing I’m trying to say here is that I did so well because I cut out all the crap I ate AND because I allowed myself to eat the best carbs for my body! I ate so much brown rice and sweet potatoes and oatmeal during training for that half, and I don’t know how I would have done it without them. I do think Whole30 could work if someone was running minimal miles, but there’s no way my body could handle so few carbs otherwise.

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you found a diet that worked for you – oats and brown rice are amazing for fueling long distance running! That’s so awesome you had such a strong half – there’s something significant to be said about feeling great at the end! There is something to be said for eating clean, and I think part of the issue though is how people define eating clean. We include whole grains in that, but then others don’t.

  18. Wonderful! I did a lot of research on Whole30 and gathered all meals to be successful. Come to find out, it’s just not for me! My brain and body need grains to function. However, I will be incorporating some of the meals here and there – they can be really tasty!

    1. That’s good that you listened to your body! Whole30 does have some really tasty meals and some of my meals are Whole30-ish. I like their emphasis on whole foods, but like you I just need grains.

  19. I found this quite informative as I’ve never tried the Whole 30 myself or any restrictive diet that eliminates certain food groups but as a blogger and a runner, I’ve been wondering about whether to try it as a way to improve body composition/ running performance. Some very clear points here.

    1. Thanks, Fiona! If you’re looking to improve body composition/running performance, I highly recommend the books Racing Weight and The New Rules of Marathon and Half Marathon Nutrition, both from Matt Fitzgerald. He’s a sports nutritionist and author of several running books, so these books are directed at helping runners improve their body composition, avoid hitting the wall, and eat in a healthy way that fuels running, but he doesn’t encourage restriction but instead a high quality and balanced diet (with indulgences – Fitzgerald openly says he drinks a beer a day). Here’s my review of it: https://lauranorrisrunning.com/the-new-rules-of-marathon-and-half-marathon-nutrition-book-review/ – hope this helps! 🙂

  20. While I totally understand why people experience Whole30 or Paleo as restrictive, in over 2 years eating this way, and training for and running 3 marathons, I truly haven’t experienced it as restrictive at all. If anything, the low FODMAP that I also need to consider to feel well irritates me more that Paleo itself. Whole30 doesn’t have to be low carb at all so I don’t think that’s an issue for runners. At the end of the day it’s what makes each person feel his/her best. Whole30 and Paleo is literally a lifesaver for some and a nightmare for others. For me there is just no going back – I’ve been healthier in the past 2 years than I’ve ever been before and I’m so thankful for finding Whole30!

    1. “Whole30 and Paleo is literally a lifesaver for some and a nightmare for others.” —-> yes 100% this! I think in part that, along with different individual nutritional needs, is why some runners such as myself view it as restrictive and others don’t. There’s no right and wrong, but it’s so individual and that’s why I wouldn’t recommend it to a runner – but I wouldn’t stop a client from doing it either. I’m glad to hear that you have had such great success with it, and your blog definitely shows that Paleo doesn’t mean low-carb, which I think is a fantastic resource for runners who are following Paleo/Whole30.

  21. SUCH an interesting post.

    I did 21 DSD two years ago when I wasn’t running as high milage (as I am when I’m healthy – right this second, not so much). I wasn’t recovering from runs well, I was bonking on long runs… as a runner, I needed those healthy carbs like oats and quinoa and bananas!

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Cassie! I’m glad to hear that you were able to figure out what works for your body. I agree – as a runner, I need those grains to help me stay fueled for my runs and recovering well!

  22. When I was in college, I ate a self-imposed very restrictive diet. It made me leaner, but it was not sustainable. I have much more energy when I listen to my body and obey. Therefore, I’m very wary of diets that require you to cut out entire food groups, like grains or legumes. I appreciate your balanced approach to the Whole 30 diet in this post.

    1. Thank you, Laura! I’m glad you’ve listened to your body and found a way of eating that works for you! I agree with you on the concern of sustainability – I know Whole30 is only supposed to last 30 days, but even that’s a long time and could teach people restrictive habits.

  23. I agree with SO MUCH of what you wrote here!! I’m definitely not a fan of restrictive diets of any kind and, as a runner/triathlete I tend to listen to my body and fuel up with what it needs and wants, and that means plenty of CARBS!!! Thank you for writing this and shedding some light on Whole 30 for runners.

    1. Thank you so much, Allie! I also think listening to our bodies fueling needs and hunger is so important, and that seems to scare people – it’s easier to follow a set of rules than try to intuitively determine what we need. And yes to lots of CARBS! I think there’s still some lingering Atkins mentality and people tend to think carbs, even good ones like whole grains and potatoes, are bad – which is so far from the truth!

  24. Laura thank you so much for this perspective. It seems like Whole 30 is the “flavor of the moment,” but it has not appealed to me. While I’d like to clean up some of my eating habits, I’m not a fan of restrictive diets. And, as I build up my mileage post injury I know it will be important to nourish my body.

    1. Thank you, Michelle! I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the post! I agree so much – cleaning up one’s diet from junk foods is good, and significantly different than restricting certain healthy foods (like beans, grains, and dairy such as yogurt). Nourishing is important, especially as you build up your mileage. Happy running!

  25. Your expertise?…You’re an RRCA certified coach – that’s a weekend course. Are you a sports nutritionist qualified or a dietitician or even a certified nutritionist?

    1. I did clarify in the post that I am not a certified nutritionist. Yes, the RRCA course is only one weekend, along with several hours of studying, first aid courses, and CEUs. In terms of scope of authority, certified coaches can address the basics of nutrition for runners. I am not saying that no one should do Whole30, as that is a completely individual choice. I simply do not recommend it to athletes nor prescribe it to any of my own athletes, but I never tell an athlete not to do Whole30. I simply wanted to offer an opinion as a fitness professional—not a be all end all, just an opinion as you as well are entitled to.

      1. Hi, sorry I did not mean to come off poorly. My questions were genuine. I see so much info out there on the net nowadays and I really wonder sometimes. Thanks for your time.

        1. I apologize if my response appeared uncharitable! It is hard to know nowadays and scopes of expertise can be blurred. It is a bit tricker for coaches in regards to nutrition- we can do broad info but I could never give a client a meal plan. Most of my concern is helping runner sort through trends and find what works for them – whether or not the diet has a name.

  26. I did Whole30 with my roommates a few months ago. They wanted to do it for general health, and I just joined in with them. I ran a 5k on day 20 and PR’d by almost a minute. I had been running regularly (about 15-20 miles per week) but not specifically training for a 5k, so my finish time surprised even me! For me personally, it was probably about eating fewer processed foods and excess sugar. Now I am beginning to train for longer races I’m wondering what type of nutritional plan I should follow! I know that Whole30 isn’t sustainable, but I saw clear results from it.

    1. Hi Kate! That’s awesome about your big 5K PR – a minute PR is hard in that distance. Eating less processed foods and avoiding added/refined sugars is a very good diet practice for runners. Of course it doesn’t need to be as strict as in Whole30 – you can enjoy treats in moderation – and there are times where refined sugar is okay, namely during long runs for quick energy (of course, there are whole food alternatives as well). While I’m not a certified nutritionist or registered dietician, as a running coach I am qualified to offer some general advice on nutrition. You may find that adding back in whole grains like oats, brown rice, amaranth, and quinoa help you fuel longer distance running, and unless you have special sensitivities, legumes and dairy (especially fermented dairy like yogurt) are nutritionally beneficial for athletes as well. All of these foods are minimally processed and free of refined sugars, plus they provide the key nutrients your body needs for long distance running. While I don’t offer nutritional counseling or meal planning, I do work with the runners I coach in nutritional issues, especially when it comes to fueling your training, so please let me know if you are interested and I can work with you and help you more on that!

  27. Thanks for the post! I’m a little late to the party, but am considering whole30 (modified to meet my training needs). I’m currently training for a 50k. I used to never buy prepackaged anything, but with two kids under two, I’ve had to compromise that. I’m thinking of whole30 with extras like Ezikel bread and brown rice and possibly a ‘cheat day’ (20+ mile long runs, I deserve it!). Thoughts/recommendations?

    1. Hi Kristen! I am glad that you found the post helpful! I think extras like brown rice or Ezekiel bread – along with oats and quinoa – are worth adding to any diet. A 50K requires a lot of fueling in the form of carbs and fat and a lot of recovery nutrition in carbs and protein. If you are following Whole30, it’s important as well to ensure you eat enough calcium to avoid any risk of stress fractures. If you are interested in Whole30 for weight/health reasons, I recommend checking out nutritional resources geared towards endurance athletes, since Whole30 is not created for endurance athletes. Matt Fitzgerald’s The Endurance Diet is an excellent resource, or you could find a registered dietician who specializes in working with endurance athletes. Please let me know if you have any other questions!

  28. I just came across this article a year later but you make some good points. I am studying to be a dietitian and I am in my last year of school. It is true that your body needs carbs when exercising. It replenishes your glycogen stores. Carbs are generally supposed to make up 45-65% of your calories. I have done whole 30 and I like it. I have a gluten intolerance so it closely follows my gluten free diet anyways since I can’t have most grains. However, when coming off of whole 30 I do add brown rice back into my diet while still following other aspects of whole 30. Whole 30 isn’t supposed to be restrictive. They encourage you that if you are hungry to eat but eat healthy options. Also I don’t think whole 30 is meant to be done for people who do endurance training and run long distances. Like you said everyone’s bodies are different and people have to do what is best for them. I wouldn’t recommend doing whole 30 for someone who does that type of training and running but if it works for them then that is great!

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