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What do runners actually eat?

What do runners actually eat?

If you’re new to the sports nutrition game it can be intimidating. With many differing opinions on what makes the best diet for long distance athletes, it can be difficult to know where to start. 

We’re not here to tell you what to eat, but we are here to give advice on how you eat. 

And as always, everyone is different. So, if you really hate a certain food don’t worry, you don’t have to eat it.  

The key things to think about when it comes to nutrition for long distance running are: balance, quality, quantity, and carbs! 

Balance

A well-balanced diet is a healthy diet.  

A lot of people will try and tell you that to improve your performance as an athlete you need to adopt a certain diet- vegan, paleo, gluten-free, low-carb, you name it. What really matters is eating a variety of foods in a balanced way.  

This means trying to eat foods from each of the six main food groups: fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, meat and fish, grains, and dairy, and making sure you’re getting the key micro and macro nutrients that your body needs. 

However, this isn’t to say that a vegetarian and vegan diets aren’t suitable for athletes. Those who adopt a more plant-based diet should be aware of the nutrients they’re lacking and learn about alternative foods sources. For example, meat and fish are a common source of protein and iron in many people’s diets. Vegetarians and vegans don’t eat meat or fish but can easily find protein from other sources like soy, nuts, beans and some leafy green vegetables.  

If this isn’t possible then supplements are a great way to get any extra nutrients that you might be missing from your food.  

Quality

Always think about the quality and nutritional value of your food. 

While balance is key, this doesn’t mean that anything goes. As well as the main natural food categories there are also four main low-quality food types: refined grains, processed meats, sweets and fried food 

These tend to be avoided, or their consumption at least kept to a minimum by professional long-distance athletes. Eating natural, high quality, unprocessed foods is far healthier and better for your performance.  

This doesn’t mean you can’t allow yourself a treat occasionally, as long as you generally follow a healthy balanced diet then most things are fine in moderation. So yes, you can have that brownie, but maybe think about making them yourself.  

If you can, cooking and baking from scratch is the best way to really make sure you’re getting the highest quality food possible. Foods like ready-made sauces contain a lot of added sugar and salt which aren’t necessary in such quantities, or particularly healthy. 

Cooking for yourself gives you the ability to choose and control exactly what you’re eating. Not to mention it can also be great fun and very rewarding. 

Quantity

Always make sure you’re eating enough.  

You can eat all the healthiest foods but, if you’re not eating enough then this will do you more harm than good. Food is fuel for your body, even when you’re not running, and without it you can’t function properly.  

Eating less calories than you burn while working out creates a caloric deficit. Everybody has different calorie needs depending on things like gender, weight and height, but it’s important that unless your current goal is to lose weight, you make sure you’re eating more calories than you burn.  

Carbs

Lastly, don’t be afraid of carbs! 

People are often wary of carbs but this really shouldn’t be the case. In the late 60’s, Swedish Physician Gunvar Ahlborg discovered a link between carb intake and endurance performance. This led to elite long-distance athletes all over the world increasing their carb consumption.   

Carbs are also vital for maintaining glycogen stores in the muscles. Exercising with low levels of glycogen will put you at greater risk of illness and injury due to exercise induced immunodepression. 

Some good sources of carbohydrates: 

  • Pasta (wholewheat)
  • Rice (wholegrain) 
  • Baked potato 
  • Couscous 

To learn more about carbs and why we need them, click below.

To recap

Foods that make up a healthy balanced diet: 

  • Fruits- Bananas (high in potassium), apples (reduce cholesterol), mango (full of vitamin C) 
  • Vegetables- Leafy greens (great source of iron and fibre), potatoes (source of carbs)
  • Nuts and seeds- Contain protein, fibre, vitamins & minerals. 
  • Meat & Fish (unprocessed)- For protein, iron, omega-3, etc. 
  • Grains- whole wheat bread/pasta, brown rice, bulgur wheat, porridge- Carbs.  

Foods to try and avoid/ reduce in your diet: 

  • Processed meats- sausages, ham, salami, corned beef 
  • Refined grains- white flour, white rice, white bread etc. 
  • Fried foods 
  • Sweets/refined sugars- Fruit is a great natural way to satisfy your craving for something sweet. 

A few last things to mention: 

  • Make sure you’re eating at least 2 hours before exercise- it's important to give your body time to absorb all the nutrients from your food.  
  • Don’t forget to drink plenty of water! - Staying hydrated is also key to unlocking your best performance. 
  • Try to maintain variety- an elite athlete’s diet isn’t meant to be restrictive. Instead, you should try to focus on more mindful, clean eating.
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