An Introduction to Nutrition for Runners

Is there a way to eat to ensure you'll run as well as Joanie Samuelson and Barb Broad when you're in your 50s, 60s and beyond?
Is there a way to eat to ensure you’ll run as well as Joanie Samuelson and Barb Broad when you’re in your 50s, 60s and beyond?

Do you wonder what to eat before, during, and after a run to maximize performance? Do you link what you eat to your long-term health and fitness? You might want to run a PR in your next half or full marathon, but wouldn’t it be nice to be running well into your sixties, seventies, and why not, eighties? What’s the right approach to eating well, being healthy, staying fit, and performing at high levels?

Everyone seems to have the answers about nutrition, but strangely there is very little, or contradictory, science to back up most diets’ claims. Paleo, vegan, macrobiotic, whole foods, low carb, clean eating are all nutrition theories that some people swear by, but they can’t all be right. How do we cut through all this nutrition information clutter to discover what we runners should eat for maximum performance and long-term health?

Here at Salty Running, we are all about looking at the facts to discover the truth, so over the next few weeks I am going to be writing about nutrition for runners and looking closely at different theories, schools of thought, and the science to help us formulate a better understanding of our dietary needs as athletes.  

Cinnamon recently went to a seminar espousing the low-carb lifestyle.
Cinnamon recently went to a seminar espousing the low-carb lifestyle.

Nutrition Theories

There are likely as many nutrition stories, theories and preferences as there are runners. The environment is fluid with new ideas popping up almost daily about good health and nutrition. Once considered hard and fast rules about “healthy diets” are changing. The USDA food pyramid (created in 1977) morphed into the food plate. Scientists have now debunked the low-fat/high carbohydrate diet encouraged in the ’90s, which was based on the belief that saturated fats were associated with heart disease, effectively dispensing with meat, eggs and whole-dairy products. Now, while the authorities have yet to give the green light to unlimited red meat, eggs are back in their good graces and many others espouse the benefits of returning to whole milk.

As history has shown, what may once have been considered the gold standard for eating well to perform well could, in fact, be wrong. Alternatives to the standard American diet, including vegan, vegetarian, low-carb, “plant-based,” and Paleo, have their proponents and doubters in the running community. While it’s often a topic of conversations, blog posts, and books there is no consensus on what is the right way to eat.

Disclaimer

I am not a scientist, dietitian or medical practitioner, nor someone who espouses to any particular diet. I don’t profess to have the answers but try to be vigilant and smart about eating and training.

Goal for the Series

My goal with this series of posts is to shed some light on nutrition for runners and how it has changed, alternative ways to eat for training and performance, and practices that might seem far-fetched now but have strong dietary support from respected scientists and nutritionists. There’ll be resource materials if you want to “dive deeper” into some of the science and research behind the information presented.

We read a lot about nutrition, endurance athletes, and running.
My reading list.

Maybe this information will encourage you to be open to new perspectives, innovation, and ways of eating that may be uncomfortable or contrary to life-long habits, but may also be important to your current running goals and performance, your long-term health, and your overall fitness. Thinking about nutrition and trying different foods may also decrease your chances of developing chronic illnesses, inflammation, and other precursors to disease.

The posts will include a basic primer about the connection between food and performance and how the body metabolizes carbohydrates and fats (think about sprinting versus running an ultra marathon). There’ll be information about the current thinking about fat-adapted diets for endurance athletes, the benefits of intermittent fasting, the importance of sleep to general health and athletic performance, new thinking about hydration, and the impact of sugar on health, fitness, and performance.

Before we dive into it, let us know what you’re interested in on the topic of nutrition or if you have a nutrition style that works great for you. We’d love to hear from you about food!

I'm a senior masters runner. I write about my running journey and topics of interest to runners of all ages. My current goal is to maintain of steady base of road and (new to me) trail running, with some 5k, 10k, and half marathons throughout the year.

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17 comments

  1. Definitely interested in following this series! I haven’t paid much attention before, other than constantly trying to eat enough fruits and vegetables, but am currently starting to track my food to look for connections between macros, micros, performance and recovery. Will be following!

  2. This is great! I recently adopted a vegetarian diet because I wasn’t eating much meat to begin with. I decided to take the full plunge as a sort of experiment to see how it would affect my well-being, running performance, overall health, etc, so the timing of this couldn’t be more perfect. I look forward to reading along!

  3. I’m most interested in what t eat pre and post long runs – and I’m vegan/plant based 🙂 I mostly run super early in the morning, so I just lace up and go and that works for me. But I eat the same the rest of the day whether it’s a long run or a short run or even a rest day. I’m guessing that’s not good.

  4. I’m very intrigued where this takes us. There’s strangely not a ton of nutrition science out there and much of what is is anecdotal and of course, tons of quackery masquerading as science to sell books, etc. Thanks for taking this on!

  5. This is such an important dialogue to have and with so many runners trying to adopt healthier habits in the new year, the timing is perfect. I’m a vegan that eats almost all whole foods with nearly no refined carbs or sugars (exception being late night chocolate cake benders). I know my diet helps me both perform and recover faster. I’ve been trying to incorporate more super foods into my meals. Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones book has some really interesting info on how to get improved health & well being. Sunny Blende has written some powerful stuff on metabolic efficiency and I do plan on experimenting with her advice on becoming fat adaptive as I look to go to run 50 and then 100 mile races later this year. I look forward to following along!

  6. You are right, there is so much contradictory information. I have no idea what to believe anymore.
    I’m trying to cut back on sugar and eat fewer refined grains. I still love white rice and feel it gives me a boost if I eat it before a long run. Could be all in my head. Who knows?
    To deal with all of the confusion I just try to eat a balanced diet and avoid too much alcohol and sugar. I could never be a vegetarian, but I do eat more vegetarian meals than I used to.
    I’m hoping you can provide some clarification on this subject.

  7. I’m a former vegetarian who has taken on the ‘flexitarian’ lifestyle (mostly veg, but open to anything.) We became friends with a family who raises 100% pastured, heritage-breed hogs and they’ve opened my eyes to the benefits of pastured meat. I am now rendering lard from their pigs and using that as my primary cooking fat. It’s full of vitamin D (something we northerners lack this time of the year) and, from the research I’ve read, nearly as healthy as olive oil.
    I am very interested in nutrition and so excited about this series!

  8. This is a huge undertaking for you to write on this topic! As a person who has struggled with finding my nutritional comfort zone, this will be a fun series to follow! Right now, my nutrition goals are “post Christmas stop eating everything in front of my face and eat a damn vegetable for once.” 🙂

  9. Sage,

    I don’t want to be argumentative, but I am going to dissent from your comment here:
    “Scientists have now debunked the low-fat/high carbohydrate diet encouraged in the ’90s, which was based on the belief that saturated fats were associated with heart disease, effectively dispensing with meat, eggs and whole-dairy products. Now, while the authorities have yet to give the green light to unlimited red meat, eggs are back in their good graces and many others espouse the benefits of returning to whole milk.”

    If someone wants to understand why I think saturated fat (and low-carb diets generally) is unhealthful, I recommended the following recourses. Just punch these into a Google search.

    Healthy Longevity Clearing Up the Confusion on Saturated Fat

    Jeff Novick Saturated Fat Still Unhealthy After All These Years

    Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020

    Dr. Greger How Not To Die (full length book published in December 2015)

    3.Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake. Consume an eating pattern low in added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium. Cut back on foods and beverages higher in these components to amounts that fit within healthy eating patterns.

    Comparison of predictive performance of various fatty acids for the risk of cardiovascular disease events and all-cause deaths in a community-based cohort. Atherosclerosis. 2013 Sep;230(1):140-7. doi: 10.1016/j.atherosclerosis.2013.06.015. Epub 2013 Jul 12.

    “Conclusions: Our data provides strong evidence to support that plasma saturated fats and trans fats can predict all-cause death and CVD more effectively than other fatty acid markers.”
    In the editorial to the Siri-Tarino meta-analysis, Jeremiah Stamler noted that saturated fat intake was more strongly associated with fatal than non-fatal incidence of coronary heart disease. Stamler calculated that based on the 11 studies included in the meta-analysis which provided estimates specifically for fatal cases, saturated fat was associated with a 32% increased risk of death from coronary heart disease, when weighted by person-years of exposure. Siri-Tarino and colleagues noted this concern in a follow-up paper, but instead downplayed these findings by asserting that in their own analysis of only 7 studies, saturated fat intake was associated with only a borderline significant 18% increased risk of death from coronary heart disease, when using the random effects model (RR=1.18 [95% CI 0.99-1.42]). Similarly, in the more recent meta-analysis, Chowdhury and colleagues found that in their sub-analysis of only 9 studies, saturated fat intake was associated with a borderline significant 7% increased risk of death from coronary heart disease (RR=1.07 [95% CI, 1.00-1.13]).

  10. Thank you for this thoughtful response. I reviewed the referenced articles as well as several others related to the “diet-heart hypothesis,” e.g., http://www.docsopinion.com/2015/10/19/saturated-fat-back-in-the-gutter-failing-to-see-the-bigger-picture; Ann Intern Med., 2014 Mar 18; 160(6); 398-406 (Chowdhury and associates who found no significant association between intake of SFAs and the risk of coronary heart disease).

    What I derive from many of these discussions is the question of causation versus association or correlation between eating SFA and the risk of CHD. The evidence is contradictory, sometimes selective, and at times without consideration of variables (hard to have controlled studies in human populations). Proponents and opponents on both sides of the issue, absolutely!

  11. For the past couple of years, my doctor has tried to counsel me into a lower white/refined carb diet, citing my risky levels of blood sugar. The idea of not carbo-loading on pasta before a race seems like the antithesis of being a runner! I’m hoping to pick up some tips on how to sustainably adjust my diet for long-term health. Performance boosts would be an added bonus!

  12. Don’t know if I can help but I believe, personally, that refined sugars/carbs cannot be good for us, e.g., inflammation and related chronic diseases. Will be touching upon fat-adapted for endurance runners, which back off carbs although some still suggest more carbs before/during race….maybe it’ll help?

  13. Honey, “For the past couple of years, my doctor has tried to counsel me into a lower white/refined carb diet, citing my risky levels of blood sugar. The idea of not carbo-loading on pasta before a race seems like the antithesis of being a runner! I’m hoping to pick up some tips on how to sustainably adjust my diet for long-term health. Performance boosts would be an added bonus!”

    I would suggest that you switch from highly refined, highly processed carbohydrate heavy foods to less refined, less processed carbohydrate heavy foods.

    For example, instead of drinking apple juice or eating applesauce, just eat the whole apple (except the core, of course). Dr. Pepper is high in carbohydrate. In fact, it’s 100 percent carbohydrate. Eat a baked sweet potato or a baked russet potato instead, without soaking the potato in vegetable oil or smothering it in sour cream, cheese, bacon and cheddar cheese.

    Instead of eating white pasta, you could eat whole wheat pasta or even better, eat intact whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, spelt berries, buckwheat and oats.

    This way, your body’s glycogen stores are completely filled, but you also get the intact fiber of the whole foods you are eating. (Did you know that 97 percent of the American population does not consume the recommended daily amount of 35 grams of fiber each day?) You are less likely to overeat when you eat foods in their relatively unprocessed form. Allow the digestion of food to occur in your digestive tract, not in your food processor. That’s my advice.

    In general, high dietary carbohydrate in take is not correlated with high blood glucose (sugar) levels. The human body has about 7 hormones that it uses to keep blood glucose levels in a narrow range. The most important of these hormones are insulin and glucagon.

    When we consume too many calories and get fat or when we eat too much dietary fat or when we don’t exercise enough, this balancing act on blood glucose is disrupted, leading to pre-diabetes and possibly type 2 diabetes. To avoid this gradual loss of ability to metabolize blood glucose, more whole fruits and vegetables, more whole (preferably intact) whole grains and more root vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash) and beans, peas and lentils are the way to go.

    1. Thanks, Indy. I’ve already tried to be conscious of adding more whole grains, using more quinoa, millet, farro, and barley where I would have used rice and couscous. Turns out black rice (in addition to brown rice) has a much lower glycemic index and looks nice in a curry. 🙂 The root veggies are my new friends too, although I’ve been counseled away from the regular white potatoes.

      And Sage, I appreciate the care and thought you are putting into this series. Obviously, I should be in closer consultation with my health professional than a blog (even one I love as much as SR), but I’m always looking for new ideas and information that I can take with a grain of, ahem, salt.

      1. Honey: paying attention to the glycemic index of food (which measures how a carbohydrate-containing food raises blood glucose) is important. Did you know that white bread has higher GI than sugar? There are so many pieces to the health and nutrition and fitness puzzle but focusing on whole foods (i.e., non-processed), fruits and vegetables, high-quality proteins (e.g., eggs, certain (not all) nuts, fish, lean beef/poultry/pork, if you’re a meat-eater), probiotics (e.g., sauerkraut), and dairy (hard cheeses and Greek yoghurt) is good start. Sweet potatoes are one of my all-time “go-to” foods!

  14. Indyspiral: My concern is giving specific dietary or nutrition advice to individuals. I do not know their body composition, tolerance for foods, metabolic processes, preferences for carbohydrates or fats or proteins, what type of intensity of exercise they may be doing or planning…thus the nutrition series is meant to be more of an overview of alternatives, nutrition information, etc.