The Power of Nutrition for Running Performance
The beauty of running is its simplicity. Stress your body by either running farther or faster than you have previously, then let your body recover and adapt. Repeat this process consistently over time and a personal best performance is imminent.
The simplicity, however, becomes exponentially more complex as we factor in the seemingly endless number of additional variables that supplement the sport. One such variable that can have a profound effect on running is nutrition.
Too often, runners’ attention to nutrition is taken to one of two extremes. Either a heavy training load leads to the mindset that ‘if the furnace is hot enough, anything will burn.’ Or, the desire to achieve ‘race weight’ provokes a cut in calories that causes undernutrition. These extremes can both have serious health consequences if taken too far, which is why a balanced approach using the guidelines below can help maximize long-term success.
Change your food mindset
As a runner, I don’t think traditional diets, which are typically attributed to unsustainable cuts in calories, dramatic changes in eating habits, and a refusal to eat anything that might be considered unhealthy, are viable for peak performance. They are certainly not fun nor are they the best long-term solution for weight management and optimal health. Instead of a restrictive meal plan, viewing food as fuel and nourishment can foster a more positive relationship.
Before a long run, the type and quantity of fuel needed differs from what is needed before, say, an interval session or a short recovery run. Similarly, varying levels of refueling are warranted post-workout depending on the activity performed. While fueling properly in the meals leading up to a big workout can enhance your ability to knock the workout out of the park, refueling after a workout can accelerate tissue regeneration and the recovery process. The body is in an endless cycle of craving healthy foods so it can improve, which can be best solved by thinking of food in terms of consuming what your body needs in order to perform its best instead of restricting specific foods based on a diet.
Make sure to eat enough
Long distance running is often connected with a stigma that lower body weight will have a positive effect on performance. In certain circumstances, this may be true. However, a problem manifests when athletes fall into a spiraling trap where they become encouraged to further perpetuate weight loss, engaging in disordered eating behaviors, such as food restriction, extreme exercise, fasting, or purging. The end result is usually injury or the onset of a more serious health condition.
It is far better to be on the safe side and ensure you have enough fuel instead of the opposite. This does not give permission to pig out, but it does mean that filling up on wholesome foods to provide the energy needed is beneficial all around. It allows you to get the most out of your training session by having the energy needed to find that extra gear, as well as provide the body the nutrients required to recover and grow.
The scale doesn’t tell us much about our body’s readiness to perform, although conventional wisdom opines it does. If the focus is on shedding a few pounds to achieve ‘race weight’, the consequence may be that more muscle was lost than fat in order to achieve that weight. This is ultimately detrimental to both performance and overall health. Framing nutrition’s role in training as a necessity for your body to perform at its best, recover, and grow can bring forth newfound abilities over time.
Don’t count calories, just eat healthy foods
Everyone is looking for a hack with the next bulletproof diet or superior superfood that will revolutionize his or her health. The reality is that we need a well-rounded diet that encompasses all food groups and has enough variety to take in all the macro- and micronutrients needed to sustain complex body functions. If your body is saying it is hungry, it likely is. As long as you are consuming wholesome, nutrient-dense foods, there is no shame in listening to your body and learning what it needs over time to feel its best.
Restricting calories simply for the sake of restricting calories is denying your body’s innate senses and is mentally arduous to sustain. Not all calories are created equal. Just look at high-calorie, nutrient-dense foods like nuts or avocados. With the calorie mindset, a 300-calorie avocado is equivalent to a 300-calorie candy bar. The former is packed with nutrients while the latter provides nothing beneficial. I am always in favor of keeping things simple, which is why I don’t bother thinking about calories, but rather just try to make sure that the majority of food I consume is healthy. Balance is key.
Running does not give permission to overindulge
The previous sections addressed the undernutrition extreme and methods to counter it, but the opposite extreme can also be very harmful. Some runners use a high training load to justify eating anything and everything in sight. Fried foods, pastries, candy, you name it. This can lead to major unforeseen health consequences even if there is no physical presence of an altered state of health (e.g. no weight gain).
First, running performance definitely suffers from overindulging on unhealthy food because the body cannot properly recover or prepare for the next difficult training session. A poor diet affects sleep, energy levels, and mood, among many other things. This also translates into overall health risks, such as high cholesterol, blood pressure, increased risk of heart conditions, and more. While the effects may not show immediately, a habit of eating poorly over time, no matter how much you exercise, is a pitfall to avoid.
There is no one-size-fits-all nutrition plan for losing weight, performing at your best, or maximizing overall health. Each person’s situation is unique and our bodies react differently to the same food. The key is being in-tune with your body and learning over time what foods make it feel best. Simply eating a balanced diet with mostly wholesome, nutrient-dense foods will have noticeable impacts that allow you to continue to perform at your best in all aspects of life. Perfection can be the enemy of good, so it is important to let yourself enjoy foods you love once in a while. The takeaway to remember is what you usually do is more important than what you sometimes do.