One of the most important axioms in the running world is that you can’t outrun a bad diet. Many runners improperly believe that if the furnace is hot enough, anything will burn. That said, many runners believe that if they’re running enough volume -- if they’re posting enough kilometers or miles week after week, month after month -- that they have carte blanche access to eat anything and everything they’d like. Small portions, big portions, or gigundo portions: if you’re running lots of miles, anything is fair game.
Unfortunately, though, that’s not really the case. Surely, if you’re running many miles each week, then to a degree you will have some amount of liberty and license to eat whatever you’d like without much fear of repercussion or consequence, at least of the weight-gaining variety. However, there will come a time when your metabolism will begin to slow, and/or your body will become accustomed to all the running you’re doing, and things will begin to slow down. It’s an inevitable part of aging.
Given all of this information, what exactly are runners’ nutritional needs? Should runners follow popular diets or the latest fads, or should they stick with government recommendations and heed the food pyramid? How can runners navigate the maze that is the diet and supplement industry?
Below, I’ll describe in some detail some insight into runners’ nutritional needs. They include the following:
Ignore fad diets
Fad diets come and go so quickly that it is pretty hard to stay abreast of them at any given time. Some weeks low carb, high-fat diets are the rage; at other times, it seems that raw vegan is the latest craze. Without hesitation, I’d recommend that all runners ignore passing fad diets. More often than not, these diets don’t make considerations for people like runners who are torching hundreds of thousands of calories each week while running.
Nothing should be off-limits unless you have a medical or personal belief precluding them
I’m of the opinion that runners shouldn’t limit or exclude anything from their diets at all. The exception, obviously, is if runners have a documented medical allergy or intolerance to a particular food or food group or if they have a personal belief that precludes eating that food, such as avoiding meat for animal rights reasons. I’m of the mindset that everything is healthy and safe in moderation and that variety really is the spice of life.
Water -- good ol’ fashioned water -- is critical
While water, itself, isn’t a food group, I think it’s important enough for runners that it should be. It’s important that runners remain well-hydrated throughout the course of their day, even when they’re not logging miles. Moreover, I think runners should refrain from getting many calories from sugary beverages, such as soft drinks and juices, simply because they’re typically devoid of nutrients.
Emulate the pros
Runners, especially recreational runners, always want to do what the pros are doing because they think it’ll give them an edge. When it comes to diet, I think this is key. If you examine the diets of some of the world’s strongest runners, particularly those from East Africa or elsewhere, you’ll notice that the world’s powerhouse runners eat everything and that carbohydrates are a mainstay, a staple, even, in their diets. Runners who eschew carbohydrates are doing themselves a disservice and aren’t giving themselves ready energy stores to help fuel their running exploits.
Let the rainbow be your guide
Runners -- and quite frankly, everyone -- should aspire to “eat the rainbow” at most of their meals. Ideally, runners should aim to consume multiple colors at each meal because typically, different colors of fruits and vegetables will confer different vitamin and mineral benefits. Even white is important since runners can still glean benefits from consuming white foods like jicama, cauliflower, coconuts, and white potatoes.
Make sure you’re eating enough by working with a sports dietitian
Finally, one of the best ways that runners can help ensure they are meeting their nutritional demands is by enlisting the help of a registered sports dietitian. Many athletes mistakenly self-sabotage by actually not consuming enough calories each day or week, and invariably, this malnourishment will deleteriously affect their running performances and abilities to recover. Working alongside a registered sports dietitian can help guide runners to the appropriate number of calories they should aim for each day and can help elucidate for them from where, exactly, they can or should be deriving most of their calories.
Runners’ nutritional needs typically don’t vary all that much from that of the general population, but one of the biggest differences is that runners must ensure they’re eating enough to fuel their performance and recovery each day. Failing to do so may lead to under-performance or worse yet, injury. Establishing a working relationship with a sports RD may be one of the best investments a runner can make and very well could become the impetus to a breakthrough performance.