Did you know that there isn’t “one food” or “one meal” that is ideal for all runners? It all depends on your metabolic dominance and which foods you efficiently convert into energy.
Myth # 1: Runners should eat lots of carbs
People, runners or not, have biochemical differences that strongly influence our nutritional requirements for more fat, protein or carbohydrate.
The mainstream nutrition recommendations for runners are processed, carbohydrate-rich foods: bars, gels, and drinks. That may be fine if your biochemistry is such that you metabolize carbohydrates well, but if you are someone who is fueled more steadily on fats and proteins, following those recommendations will spell disaster!
Some runners need more carbs than others. Regardless of amount, it is the quality of carbohydrates that demands attention. Processed carbs like pasta, crackers, breads and the aforementioned bars don’t improve running performance. Runners who run well consuming processed foods will run better on nutrient-dense, unprocessed carbs like vegetables, rice, amaranth, and quinoa combined with both protein and fat.
Myth #2: If you run a lot, you can eat whatever you want
This myth, in part, depends on your goal. If your goal is to be thin, some runners do seem to be able to ingest “whatever they want” and not gain weight. However, no one can eat poorly without some repercussions. If being thin is your only aim and you don’t mind having digestive problems, hormonal imbalance, infertility, headaches, anxiety, hypoglycemia, or thyroid issues, then go ahead and eat poor quality foods. If your aim is to have a lifetime of good health and to stay active as long as possible, beware of:
- Processed foods. Processed foods have become the norm. What do you think runners used to eat before we had goos, gels, shakes, and thousands of bars to choose from? Real food.
- Sugar and refined carbs. Insulin is most influenced by sugar and refined carbs. Fat and protein help to balance blood sugar, which means you have more energy for a sustained period of time. The current nutrition emphasis for runners tends not to be on whole foods, but rather on processed foods that tend to be high in sugar. These convenience foods may come in a nice package and last in your workout bag for ten years without rotting, but is that a good thing?
Myth #3: Fat is bad for you
Fat is vital to the formation of every single healthy cell in your body. It also helps balance your blood sugar and provides lasting energy. Include healthy fats in your meals such as butter or ghee from pastured cows, expeller-pressed olive oil, raw nuts and seeds, avocados, raw cheeses and yogurt, and coconut oil/butter.
Several Santa Cruz runners shared that their favorite trail running snack was bacon. How’s that for unconventional?
Whole food choices are better
Runners who eat whole foods have fewer complaints of cramps, energy slumps, bloating and side aches. Best food choices will depend on a runner’s metabolic type. If they metabolize carbohydrates too quickly, eating a meal high in carbs before their run will assuredly lead to an energy crash, perhaps right in the middle of their run.
Here are a few examples of “runner approved” meals. Ideal quantity of food before a run varies greatly depending on speed of digestion so experiment and see what works for you.
- For carb types: Vegetable-based carbs (arugula, romaine lettuce, butter lettuce) including some higher-starch carbs like beets or carrots, chicken or turkey breast and some fat such as avocado, olive oil, or sunflower seeds; lentil or vegetable soup; tuna and celery; chicken breast, zucchini and coconut oil; eggs and sautéed vegetables, cottage cheese and fruit.
- For low-carb types: grass-fed beef, spinach and mushrooms; dark-meat chicken salad with plenty of olive oil; salmon, greens beans and almonds drizzled in coconut oil; lettuce wrapped hamburger and small amount of sweet potato with plenty of organic butter.
For low-carb runners, snacks that will energize you include jerky, nuts or nut butters (perhaps with a few slices of banana or apple), cubed avocado, cubed cheese, lunchmeat rolled up with avocado or cream cheese and cucumber or carrot, or cubed meat or poultry. Small pieces make for easier chewing during a run. Keep an open mind and see what works best for you.
Depending on the length of the run, nutrition needs are going to vary. Local Bay Area nutritionists and coaches are especially valuable for endurance or competitive runners.