Runners come in all sizes and run for a variety of reasons. Some heed an instinctive inner call to run faster, go farther and jump higher; to be the best, or at least to finish among the best. Others enjoy their running time as a buffer against the day; a space-time continuum that has only one person in it. Still others run for health or social reasons, we want to look and feel great in our clothes. Nutrition should be an important part of the runner’s daily regimen; without out it every type of runner will fall short of their goals.
So what is the best daily diet for runners? Running requires fuel, and that fuel is carbohydrates. Generally, the best diet for all runners, from beginners to elite, is a diet high in complex carbohydrates, with a lower variety of proteins and fats. Just like your mother told you, eating a diet rich in variety is best. Hydration is another important piece of the runner’s diet puzzle. You should replace lost fluids every 20 minutes of running during training or a race. The recommendation from Runnergirl.com for a short run is to weigh yourself before and after running to determine fluid loss, then drink that much to replenish.
There are two major groups of runners: competitive elite runners and the rest of us who run for fitness, and the nutrition needs for these two groups are different.
If you run competitively or are running 30+ miles weekly, your percentage of complex carbohydrates should be 55-60% of your diet, with 20% protein and 20-25% fats. What are complex carbs? They are found in grains, vegetables and fruit, and are the body’s main source of fuel. Whole or multi-grain breads, pasta, vegetables and fruits fill more nutritional needs than highly-processed foods with a lot of fat and sugar added. Eat a meal high in complex carbs a few hours before to load up with fuel and also after a race to replace depleted glycogen stores. Without sufficient carbs, you will have low energy and fuzzy thinking; you will feel like you’ve “bonked”,“hit the wall” or “been run over by a truck”.
Conversely, if the second group of runners who run for fitness eat 60% carbs in our diet, we may gain weight in spite of our fitness routine. For those who run less than 30 miles a week, eat 50% carbs, 25% protein and 25% fats. Don’t look for foods with these proportions, think of including this general ratio in your total diet. Eat a meal high in carbs 2 hrs before your race. Bring energy gels or power-bars for refueling on longer races. Although popular, High-protein diets are not recommended for runners because they produce harmful excess proteins that dehydrate you and stress your kidneys. Likewise, Low-fat diets leave you feeling hungry and vulnerable to snack attacks. Carbs that are not burned as fuel are stored in the body as fat.
Many runners eat the right foods, but they may eat too much. Multiply your weight x13= number of calories needed to maintain weight. Reduce calories and increase frequency, intensity, or duration of exercise for weight loss.
The chart below suggests several nutritional choices for runners.
Carbs to Choose Often
Fruits (about 60 calories per serving)
Apple, orange, pear, nectarine: 1 small (tennis ball size)
Banana: 1 small (5 inch)
Peach, plum: 1 medium (fist size)
Grapefruit: 1/2 whole fruit
Canteloupe: 1 cup
Berries: 1 cup
Fresh pineapple: 3/4 cup
Canned fruit (in its own juice): 1/2 cup
Low-Starch Vegetables (about 25 calories per serving)
Carrots, celery, cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, leeks, onions, green beans: 1 cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked
Green pepper: 1 whole
Asparagus: 7 spears cooked or 14 spears raw
Lettuce/raw greens: 1 cup 100-percent vegetable juice: 1/3 cup
Carbs to Choose with Caution (watch those portions!)
High-Starch Vegetables (about 80 calories per serving)
Beans (lima, navy, pinto): 1/3 cup
Corn: 1/2 cup
Peas/lentils: 1/2 cup
Baked white or sweet potato with skin: 1 small (tennis ball size)
Pasta/Rice (about 80 calories per serving)
Couscous (cooked): 1/3 cup
Brown or white rice (cooked): 1/3 cup
Noodles/pasta (cooked): 1/2 cup
Bulgur (cooked): 1/2 cup
Breads/Cereal/Crackers (about 80 calories per serving)
Tortilla (white or wheat): 1
100-percent whole-wheat bread: 1 slice
English muffin: 1/2
Pretzels: 3/4 ounce or 8 sourdough nuggets
Popcorn (air popped): 3 cups
Saltine crackers: 6
Rice cakes (all varieties, large): 2
High-fiber cereals: 3/4 cup
Oatmeal: 2/3 cup cooked or 1 instant packet
Proteins are an important part of the runner’s diet because their primary function is to repair and rebuild muscles. They also take longer to digest, satisfying our hunger for much longer periods. With protein-rich foods you will eat fewer overall calories. We all need to have a treat occasionally. A good rule of thumb for both proteins and fats is the higher in fat/sugar content, the smaller the portion.
Proteins to Choose Often
Very lean (about 35 calories per serving)
Chicken or turkey breast (skinless): 1 ounce
Fish fillet:1 ounce
Canned, water-packed tuna: 1 ounce
Shellfish: 1 ounce
Egg whites: 2 large
Egg substitute: 1/4 cup
Lean (about 55 calories per serving)
Chicken or turkey (skinless dark meat): 1 ounce
Salmon, swordfish, herring, trout, bluefish: 1 ounce
Lean beef (flank steak, top round, ground sirloin): 1 ounce
Veal or lamb (roast or lean chop): 1 ounce
Pork (tenderloin): 1 ounce
Canadian bacon: 1 ounce
Low-fat hot dogs: 1
Low-fat luncheon meats: 1 ounce
Dairy Products (about 90 calories per serving)
Fat free or Low-fat cottage cheese: 1 cup
Fat-free, sugar-free yogurt: 1 cup
Low-fat cheese (all types): 2 ounces
Healthy fats add taste, aid in vitamin absorption and provide Omega 3 fatty acids helpful for brain function. Nuts, light oils, avocados, olives are fats of choice. 1 Teaspoon of dairy fats or mayo is about 25/calories per serving.