Authors: The Editors of Runner's World
It’s not that you’re starving. Most runners are taking in lots of calories and nutrients—but they’re in the form of energy bars, nutrient-enhanced drinks, and fortified packaged foods. The problem is, “real” foods—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats—are better for you than fortified products.
That’s because there’s more to a carrot or a sweet potato than just vitamin A. Within the body, vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients work together with literally thousands of other compounds, such as color components in fruits and vegetables, special starches and fibers in whole grains, and unique fats in seeds, nuts, and dairy. And it’s the whole package that promotes good health and peak athletic performance.
Of course, protein bars and calcium-fortified juices seem like a convenient way to take in all of the nutrients every runner needs daily. But getting them—and more—from real food is easy. This book shows you how to do it, from simple recipe ideas to smart snacking to eating for optimum energy on the run.
Even if you just make a few of the changes we recommend in this book, your body will get everything it needs for better health—and better running.
Most runners love eating almost as much as running, even if they don’t go about it the same way. Some diligent souls keep track of every gram of carbohydrate and protein that passes their lips. Others are so consumed with work, kids, and training that they grab whatever seems healthy enough to consume on the fly.
Of course, there’s no single right way to eat well. Each approach has its own merits and drawbacks. The key to fueling your body and running your best, says San Diego—based nutritionist Tara Coleman, is to understand your tendencies, so you can build on healthy choices and adjust any not-so-good-for-you habits. Whether you graze every few hours or eat the same three meals every day, here’s how to tweak your diet so it better meets your nutritional—and running—needs.
“Reactive eaters listen to their bodies,” says Coleman, “eating when hungry and what they crave.” That’s good because it means you stop eating when you’re full, reducing your risk of consuming too many calories and gaining weight. But when overwhelmed by work, family, or training, reactive eaters choose whatever foods are close when hunger hits, which sometimes means not-so-healthy fare.
Your diet will benefit from some planning, says Coleman. Cook extras of a dish you can eat cold so it’s ready when you need it (try whole-grain pasta with vegetables). Stock your gym bag, desk, and car with carb-and-protein snacks (sturdy fruit, like apples, and peanut-butter and trail-mix packs). On the road, skip the chicken patty at the drive-through and get the marinated, grilled chicken with roasted veggies in the prepared foods section at the supermarket.
You want to stay lean to run your best, so you look for ways to trim calories and choose low-fat foods. The problem is that restrictive eaters often don’t eat enough, or they cut out too much fat out of fear of gaining weight, says Alison Ozgur, R.D. Big mistake, as fats help reduce injury risk. Another drawback? A recent study published in the journal
found that closely monitoring calories raises stress levels.
Once a week, forgo restrictions, says Coleman. Eat when you’re hungry and what you crave; then take note of how you feel running. You may realize foods you avoided actually energize you during workouts. This can help you start to think of eating in a positive light—as a way to fuel your running—and reduce feelings of stress. Make healthy fats part of most meals, says Ozgur, since they improve vitamin absorption. Try mixing walnuts in oatmeal and adding avocado to wraps.
As a creature of habit, you never miss a meal. That’s good, because a study conducted by researchers in Sweden in 2008 found that eating meals regularly lowers your risk of developing insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome (a condition that can lead to the onset of diabetes and heart disease). But if you don’t change up the foods you eat, says Coleman, you could develop a nutrient deficiency.
A few times a week, substitute similar but different-for-you foods, says Monique Ryan, R.D., author of
Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes
. If you normally eat cornflakes and a banana for breakfast, try a hot multigrain cereal (for a fiber boost) topped with antioxidant-rich berries. In a grilled-chicken rut? Make a lean flank steak, which contains more iron. Try a new recipe every other week to liven up your taste buds.
Rather than sit down to three squares a day, grazers snack every few hours. So they’re fueled before a run, says Coleman, and they refuel quickly postrun, helping speed recovery. But grazers can eat too many or too few calories if they don’t watch portion sizes. And while they rely on convenient options (granola bars, pretzels) these foods often lack protein.
“Look at the day as a whole and then work backward,” says Coleman. She suggests calculating your daily calorie needs (on Web sites such as
). Evenly divide those calories through the day. If you need 1,800 calories and like to eat six times, make six 300-calorie snacks with a mix of carbs and protein. Have whole-grain toast with almond butter, an apple, and two pieces of string cheese, or half a turkey sandwich.
Detail-oriented, you keep a food log and stick to a meal plan. But adhering too closely to that regimen can detach you from eating based on how your body feels. Planners eat something because their schedule says they have to, says Coleman, not necessarily because they want to.
Keep that food log—but write down what you eat and how you feel before and after meals and workouts, says Coleman. You may discover you need that postrun protein shake only after your toughest runs—not every run. On days you work out in the evening, you may find your usual dinner doesn’t fill you up and you need more calories. Being in tune to those feelings will help you create a more flexible eating plan that better meets your needs.
“Running is an accomplishment,” says Coleman, “but some think it means they can eat everything they want.” It is okay to indulge in high-calorie or high-fat fare, but regularly overdoing it will hurt your health and running by adding (or preventing you from losing) extra pounds.
If you like a sweet treat every day, you don’t have to give that up, says Coleman. But you do have to keep the portion size in check—a single square of fine dark chocolate rather than a whole box of cookies. If you find that’s just not satisfying, you can still have the three-scoop sundae—just make it a once-a-week or so indulgence, rather than daily.
What makes seeds so special? Seeds—including whole grains, many beans, and even tree nuts—contain the crucial mix of nutrients necessary to grow a new plant, which means they are packed with health-boosting compounds. In addition to traditional nutrients, like protein and essential fats, seeds contain bioactive compounds, such as phenolic compounds and ferulic acid, which act as antioxidants.
Eating a diet with ample plant seeds has been shown to improve health and help maintain a healthier body weight. People who eat whole grains and beans have a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, and they tend to have lower cholesterol levels than people who don’t eat nuts and seeds.
You already know that eating fruits and veggies supplies your body with vitamins, minerals, and the carbs it needs to fuel your running. Fruits and vegetables also fill you up, but with fewer calories, helping you maintain your weight. But to get the most from your produce, you need to think in terms of color—yellow, orange, red, green, blue, purple, and every shade in between. There are 400-plus pigments that light up the produce aisle, and each offers unique health benefits.
The rich red in pomegranate comes from anthocyanins, the deep red in tomatoes comes from lycopene, and the bright orange in sweet potatoes comes from beta-carotene. These and other pigments have been shown to lower your risk of cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s, while also improving your memory. And since most pigments act as antioxidants, they can help reduce inflammation caused by disease or heavy exercise. But new studies suggest that the pigments in produce need to interact with other color compounds in fruits or vegetables to produce their beneficial effects, which is why it’s important to eat a wide variety of colors every day. The results of these studies also explain why taking a single pigment, such as beta-carotene in supplement form, doesn’t lead to the same health improvements as eating the whole food and may even increase your risk for some diseases.
Drop the peeler. From apples and black beans to red potatoes and zucchini, plants’ outer skins protect them from UV light, parasites, and other invaders. As a result, those skins are bursting with a wide range of phytochemicals that also protect your health. Grape skins, for example, are high in resveratrol, and onion skins contain quercetin, both of which can help lower your risk of heart disease and colon and prostate cancer and boost your immunity.
Produce skins are also rich in resistant starches and various types of fiber. These compounds promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the intestines, improve intestinal function (relieving constipation and decreasing hemorrhoid risk), and help curb appetite and aid in weight control. Studies have shown that fiber from vegetable and fruit skins (which contain both soluble and insoluble fibers) actually blocks absorption of three to four percent of total calories consumed when eaten as part of a high-fiber diet. This is why people who follow a higher-fiber diet (over 35 grams daily) that consists of mainly fruits and vegetables tend to have lower body-fat levels and smaller waist sizes than low-fiber eaters.
Whether from a cow, a goat, or even a reindeer, mammal milk (as opposed to soy milk) and other dairy products, like cheese, yogurt, and kefir, should be a part of every runner’s diet. Sure, milk supplies calcium, and calcium builds strong bones, which is great for your running. But animal milk offers much more.
Dairy supplies a runner’s hardworking muscles with an ample amount of protein to help speed recovery. But whey protein, the specific type of protein found in dairy foods, may also help strengthen the immune system. Milk products also contain stearic acid, which is thought to improve blood-cholesterol levels. Ample research also suggests that regular dairy consumption can lower your blood pressure and your risk for heart disease. And for anyone watching his or her weight, studies have shown that dieters who include dairy in their low-calorie plans lose more fat than those who simply cut calories.