Nutrition for Runners
Speedwork, intervals, tempo runs, long runs. Snow, rain, ice, blustering winds and monotonous treadmills. So many different levels of training and elements runners are willing to commit to and sacrifice for (no late night Saturday socializing for me, gotta nail that long run Sunday morning). All in the name of reaching that next running milestone, whether it be running faster than ever before, farther than ever before, or conquering a new terrain. So what in the heck does all this have to do with nutrition for runners? We are willing to suffer and make sacrifices to improve our running except for doing the very thing that could yield us some of our greatest improvements. Running in sub-zero temps while wearing a headlamp? You got it. Running in a foot of snow uphill both ways? No problem. Just don’t mess with a runner’s food. So many of us are not willing to take the one step to improve our results. Why are we willing to go to such extremes with our bodies, but aren’t willing to bypass the donuts or beer? What if we were willing to make changes so we could run faster, farther and with less recovery time?
This is what dialing in your nutrition can do for you.
It’s not an overnight process, despite what marketing tell us. I witness this overnight/spur of the moment mindset a lot in the running community. A great example of this mentality is the common question, “What should I eat for my long runs?” If you decide to really fine tune and pay attention to your nutrition ONLY while you’re actually running then you’ve missed a golden opportunity to build a solid nutritional foundation and will continue to deal with the same issues (injury, GI distress, low immune function to name a few). In fact, under nutrition symptoms are often the same symptoms of overtraining.
So while what you eat during your long run does matter, what you eat on a daily basis matters much more. I know, I know, what we all really want to do is go for our run, do our cross training, and then justify our poor food choices because we worked out and burned calories. If that’s you or someone you know, then you might want to read this . But if you’re looking to take your performance to the next level, then improving your nutrition is the next step. However, if you’re not ready for this type of commitment and want to continue making unhealthy food choices justified by exercise, then you are not ready for the rest of this article. But if you really want to know how and why eating the right foods can help take your running to the next level then let’s take a look. Below is an oversimplified version of a portion of the digestive process
So in a few words, food gets digested. Digestion breaks the food down into absorbable nutrients that are transported into the bloodstream. Here nutrients for the cells are delivered which is where your power and energy are created. (1)
If you decide to fuel your cells with some type of real food, (let’s use kale for example) as it’s the hip and trendy super food right now (*side rant; ALL real, whole foods offer some amazing type of nutrients for our bodies, but in our society’s quick-fix miracle mentality we only focus on the ones that get the most exposure. Beet greens, dandelion greens, etc. are some examples of super-green foods that get relegated step-child status, rant over*).
Here’s how it would look:
Chew (saliva and chewing begin the breakdown of your food). Swallow. Stomach. More digestive juices released and churning action happen, then food is released in small amounts into the small intestines. Pancreas, liver and gallbladder all do their parts by releasing enzymes, and producing and releasing bile to break down food further and help you digest fats. All these juices mix with other juices secreted by the wall of your small intestine and digestion continues. What was once a pile of kale salad is now a substance being propelled into the second portion of your small intestine. This is where it gets broken down into molecules small enough they can be absorbed as nutrients.
This is our body’s “aha!” moment. Did we feed it something that can be broken down into useful nutrients (nutrients= substances that provide nourishment essential for growth and the maintenance of life) to be shuttled to our cells or did we just give it more waste to process and get rid of? Is it thinking, “What the heck am I going to do with this crap, other than store it away in fat cells where it can’t harm the rest of the body?” Or is it thinking, “Sweet! Magnesium!” – just one of many nutrients (a nutrient that runners are usually deficient in) found in several REAL foods. “Now we can work on our electrolyte balance, oxygen uptake and energy production, all of which help improve our muscle function (2). Nice choice brain/body!”
That’s the body’s response to real food. But what if we just ran a really hard race or had a grueling training run and “reward” ourselves with a donut? Here’s how that process will look:
Chew. Swallow. Stomach action, you get the idea, same steps as with the kale. But here’s the difference. Unlike whole grains that contain at least part of their bran and germ layers, processed and refined grains, which are found in our donuts, bagels, bread, pasta, and most desserts, basically everything we love to double down on, have both the bran and germ removed during processing; therefore all of the nutrients in these layers are also removed. Uh-oh. Hence the reason for “enriched” grains. Nutrients that were lost during food processing are added back. Unfortunately several nutrients are lost and only a few are added back in (4). And, even after enrichment, refined grains often do not contain nearly as many nutrients and much less fiber than their whole grain counterparts. With around 80% of the fiber removed you end up with rapid-release carbs that creates a blood sugar spike, telling the body to store fat. Not to mention the bulk needed to sweep the gut of debris and keep things “moving along” is no longer there. This bulk is needed to support the body’s natural elimination and detoxification process, without it things get a little stagnant if you know what I mean (3).
We have managed to feed our body little to no nutrients, create a spike in blood sugar, and not give it the bulk it needs to push things through the rest of the digestive tract. If our end goal was to set our bodies up to do a fantastic job storing fat and creating a sluggish energy supply then mission accomplished. If that was not the goal, then it’s probably time to take a step back and look objectively at your food choices.
Will changing your diet for one day or even one week create some kind of overnight miracle? No. It should be a gradual process if you want to make lasting permanent change. Hang in there, the results will come. And please, forget following restrictive diet plans or fads with fast results, they’re never permanent and will leave you feeling worse than before. Learn what real, whole foods are, what they can do for your body, and how they make you feel. Then find the ones that work for you and eat them. Expect to have some days better than others and be patient with yourself. And keep in mind, a myriad of factors can affect our nutrition choices, including quantity and quality of sleep, stress levels, hormonal imbalances, and social situations just to name a few. To get a head start with your running nutrition here are 5 real foods to consider including in your diet and the top 5 foods to avoid. If you’re ready to get started but feel lost in a sea of information and would like some guidance then find a nutrition professional to work with that understands your sport.
Did you find this article helpful? Sign up for my newsletter for more advice and recipes for runners by clicking here.
Why the Calorie Mentality is Making Us All idiots (lower-case i)
Should you count your calories? No.
Should you run naked through the streets in the middle of a snow storm? Maybe?
Should you wear grellow and take the Idiot oath? Yes.
Alright, move along folks, that’s it. Simple answers to simple questions.
Okay, okay, perhaps you are a person who needs more of an explanation why the answer to the first question is no. Calories in, calories out, or “a calorie is a calorie” mentality has been stuck on us like the glaze on a doughnut for the last several decades, too bad neither one is healthy. Turns out that counting calories is not the best way to go when focusing on improving your nutrition. Here are the top 3 reasons I suggest you put down the calculator, forget the marketing hype, and focus on the quality, not quantity of your food.
1. Calorie counting creates justification for unhealthy food choices.
How many times have we heard (or been) the person who says, “I can only eat (insert number of calories here) today, so I had twigs and berries for lunch and saved the rest for donuts/pie/cookies, after my run for a reward?” Where do I start with this mindset? It’s so backwards. Folks, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! Does that seriously sound plausible? In the morning you’re a twig eating cavemen, but at night you’re basically a cheeseburger p*rn-star in a fast food commercial? All the while maintaining a perfect figure, perfect health and running injury free? Wake up from your sugar coma, peeps! Let’s stop, pause, and reflect like all good Idiots and ask ourselves this question, “Are we going to push our bodies farther, faster, and harder than they have ever been pushed before and then reward it with what?” Nutrient void pseudo-food? We’re treating our bodies like Rodney Dangerfield (no respect)! So where’s the respect and love for a body that just pushed past its limits? Where are the nutrients it needs? Eating for recovery and repair is what we should be doing so our bodies can go even farther and faster next time, right?
2. All calories are not created equal. If calories were really king like we’ve been taught, then diet soda and 100 calorie snack packs would make us all thin. We could eat all the low calorie processed foods we wanted and never gain a pound while simultaneously sending our flying monkeys out to capture all the red velvet cake they could find to bring to our sugar-laden lair. It’s a lovely dream, but it’s time to get our heads out of our sugar-free Cool Whip cloud. When we start counting calories it’s easy to lose focus and quit looking at nutrients and start looking only at the number of calories. This shift in focus is our loss and I’m not talking pounds here. It means we will choose the 100 calorie pack over a nutrient dense food that might also be calorie heavy, for example, say, the avocado. If we choose the avocado then our body gets a good dose of potassium (more than a banana), fiber and healthy fat that will not only help us feel full but help our bodies properly assimilate the potassium. If we choose to eat the 100 calorie pack, besides the obvious (still being hungry, I mean really, who eats just ONE of those and feels satiated? I could eat the whole box and it might just take the edge off) we get processed sugar and factory produced Frankenfoods that our bodies have no idea what to do with. All we’ve done is successfully confused the body and left it still asking for nutrients that it didn’t get.
3. Calorie counting shuts down our own natural intuition. We put more faith in a machine (online calorie calculator, food app, whatever it may be) to tell us how much and what nutrients to eat instead of listening to our bodies. If we allow it, our bodies will tell us how much food we need and when to eat it. This requires eating by feel, which, isn’t that why we’re wired with these feelings? If I no longer feel hungry, then I can quit eating. If I feel full, or in some cases, overly full I know I should have backed off and probably won’t make that same mistake at the next meal. If I feel hungry, then I eat. Our bodies were intelligently designed to give us the proper feedback. So trust your gut and give your calorie counting brain a break.
The best advice to follow is to shift your focus and do what you’ve known intuitively all along; focus on the quality, not the quantity of your food and enjoy all the healthy, real foods that nature has to offer.