Good nutrition for training can be complicated. Every day we’re presented with stories about the latest superfood, the newly discovered benefits of some ancient grain or spice, or an amazing new dietary supplement. Truth is, building the ultimate training table doesn’t have to be hard.
Experts agree— variety and balance are key. So let’s start with five foods every runner should add to the menu. But first, some basics concepts on the foundation of good nutrition.
“Have a diet that’s very colorful,” says Dr. Karan Shukla, a Family and Sports Medicine Physician at Novant Health’s Randolph Family Medicine and a member of the medical team at Novant Health Charlotte Marathon since 2016. “If you have all of the colors of the rainbow in a day, you know you’re eating healthy.”
Okay, we know it’s a little more complicated than that, or this would be a paragraph instead of an article, right? Dr. Shukla walks us through five essentials, with the caveat that these foods should be part of an everyday healthy diet, not day-before or morning-of changes.
You will also need to adjust based on distance and mileage, just like your car tires. The type of races you do and your daily training will prompt you to fine-tune your diet accordingly. Build your nutritional plan at the same time as your training plan.
1. LEAN PROTEIN Chicken and fish are tops for this, as long as they’re baked or grilled and not fried. But adding an essential element of Omega 3 fatty acids makes SALMON a top choice. Or, try EGGS, FLAXSEED, or SOY for lower cost and more variety.
Proteins allow our bodies to build healthy tissues, whether it’s healthy muscles, tendons, or ligaments,” says Dr. Shukla. Gotta care for those muscles if you’re pushing them, right? Try to eat 20-30 grams of protein at every meal, and 10-20 grams at every snack. There’s a range because we’re not all the same; .7-.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day is a general rule of thumb.
2. CARBOHYDRATES. What runner doesn’t love carbs? But not all carbohydrates are created equal. Complex carbs are the main source of fuel that give us the energy to go the distance. QUINOA is a good complex carb that also has protein and good fats. OATS make a good pre-race meal or post-race recovery food.
High carb meals help maximize our glycogen reserves, or energy stores,” says Dr. Shukla. “It’s important to have enough energy while you’re conditioning or competing.”
But work them into your training table— not just the day before your race, reminds Dr. Shukla. “Carbo-loading” that your body isn’t used to can cause abdominal discomfort, cramping, and diarrhea. Energy drinks and gels can be useful on race day if you use them the way you usually do. Loading up extra can cause a “gut hangover.”
Instead, mix up the carbs! On race day, eat a waffle with syrup, or fruits rich in carbs and electrolytes, like bananas. “The more types of carbs you eat, the more readily they’re absorbed,” says Dr Shukla.
3. HEALTHY FATS. Try seeds, nuts, walnuts, AVOCADOS, and quinoa. They’re a rich source of energy stores and loaded with micronutrients like omega fatty acids for heart, lung, and joint health.
4. ANTIOXIDANTS. All sorts of BERRIES in general – blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries offer a good amount of micronutrients that are high in antioxidants and fiber. They can maximize gut bacteria and add some carbs for energy.
5. MICRONUTRIENTS. These are your vitamins and minerals that support healthy immune function and recovery.
- VITAMIN D – Strengthens our neuro-motor system, nerves, and muscles; increases energy levels; fortify bones with its interplay with calcium, and limits stress injuries. Doctors evaluate your Vitamin D for fatigue. FISH, SALMON, TUNA, EGG YOLKS, FORTIFIED MILK, and ORANGE JUICE.
- VITAMIN K2 – Aids cells’ abilities to manufacture adenosine triphosphate (ATP), our body’s energy currency. ATP is very important for endurance, and strengthening our heart and muscle tissue. EGGS, LIVER, HARD CHEESES. For vegan choices, SOY, VEGAN CHEESES, and some mushrooms.
- VITAMIN C – Very important to recovery of knee cartilage, collagen for skin and bones, absorbing iron, and immune response. FRUITS, especially citrus, VEGETABLES, BERRIES.
- COPPER – For iron absorption, connective tissue regeneration, and supporting red blood cells. Eat green, leafy vegetables like KALE and SPINACH, which are also loaded with fiber, iron, and Vitamin C.
Again, the key is to mix it up and make it a habit, not a pre-race ritual. A body trained to eat right will make a body trained to run, better!