I wanted to write an article about running nutrition for some time now, but I couldn’t make up my mind on how to tackle this subject. First I wanted to write about various diets and theories on them, but I decided that I didn’t want to write a book, then I thought that I could write about tons of stuff that people intake that do not work for them, but again, this was suppose to be just an article, finally I decided just to write about my thoughts on effective nutrition for runners in general. In future posts I will tackle more deeply separate components (macro-nutrients, vitamins and minerals, water and other substances) of running nutrition.
I decided to write this post because I hate watching a growing number of people wasting their time, money and health on so-called “professional supplements” that are useless for them, while in the same time their basic diet that should do 99% of the job for any healthy athlete is a garbage. I am not saying to avoid taking any supplements at all, but I do say that any supplement taken should have a real positive effect on your health and/or training – otherwise it is just a waste of money. Believe me I know what I am talking about because I spent years on getting to this observation – years of trying tons of supplements and various substances and composing them so they would be strong and complete in terms of nutritional values (just as real food is). Now in my late thirties I can say that I was in my best condition when I relied only on eating real healthy food and working my guts out in training. If you are a healthy individual you don’t need anything else to get to the national level in sports. Once you are there you can start thinking seriously about real professional supplements, otherwise you are just a sponsor of pharmaceutical and other supplement-selling companies.
Let’s first consider the basic functions of nutrition (for a healthy individual) arranged in a certain hierarchy.
I propose the following hierarchy:
- survival – providing for all basic living functions of organism
- general health and body composition – providing for all essential elements that are required by organism to operate in a good condition and maintaining all elements (especially macro-nutrients) in proper amounts and proportions
- sport specific diet – providing for energy, body composition and special nutritional needs for a given sport
- professional nutrition – going beyond sport specific diet, by adding performance oriented supplements and providing for special needs of a professionally trained (loaded) athlete
I proposed this simplified model to show how one should evaluate own nutrition in order not to address specific needs or add very specialized supplements before addressing general health or body composition issues. If one tries, for example, to get enough energy for workouts by taking energy boosting supplements instead of first providing a reasonable amount of energy from macro-nutrients (either carbohydrates or fats – depending on a diet model) it is just like pouring fuel enchantment formula to an empty gas tank – it is expensive and it leads to a fast engine failure. The same goes for an athlete’s organism. First provide for basic needs (macro-nutrients, water, vitamins and minerals) then assess your general needs, energy expenditure and lifestyle and adjust everything you ingest, then provide for your special needs (for sports – the most important are the pre-workout and the post-workout meals) and finally you can add some supplements to get more kick for your performance (energy boosters, other supplements) or just to make things easier in an everyday life (meal substitutes). If you are healthy – there is nothing more to it – just be frank with yourself and don’t try to cheat yourself by skipping any of above mentioned stages. If you follow my advice and reach the sport specific diet stage – you will be among a very narrow group of athletes with a potential for successful competing in their age categories and/or with a good chance of staying in good health for the rest of their lives.
There is one more thing that goes along with nutrition – that is pleasure, yes – eating can be among the most pleasurable daily activities and human brain demands this pleasure, so be sure not to take nutrition only in terms of macro and micro nutrients and other ingredients, but cherish the taste and the pleasure it gives – that makes the difference between a happy athlete and a miserable one.
Now, let’s get to real business; if anyone asks me what should one consider in terms of nutrition for runners, I say about five basic components of a diet:
- vitamins and minerals
When I am asked which of these components is the most important, I say: any and none. The thing is that no single nutritional component works alone and no nutrition plan is complete without taking into consideration all of the basic components. Of course the full number of substances that people need is very long, but fortunately if you use healthy, unprocessed sources of your macro-nutrients, you can be almost sure that you provide yourself everything your organism needs (at least on the level of amateur sport).
So, what is a healthy, balanced diet for a long distance runner? First of all, in terms of energy sources, it is based on carbohydrates. I know that by this statement I might just have set a cat among pigeons, but for me floating between a balanced and a carbohydrate oriented diet works the best. Virtually all serious athletes in this sport use high-carbohydrate diet and there is no serious evidence that low-carbohydrate and high-fat diets have positive effects on endurance training. Although it is documented that high-fat diet can slightly increase the ratio at which muscles can burn fat as their energy source and therefore increase endurance, but in the same time such diet reduces everyday training capacities. So even if it may, for some runners, bring a slight benefit in a given prolonged run (various sources indicate benefits on distances of marathon or longer) it reduces the overall capacity of a runner by reducing an everyday training outputs. That is why I believe that high-fat experiments can be beneficial for some runners only during the tapering protocol, but even those are not seen as substantial enough for most coaches to recommend it, as the results turn out to be inconsistent among various athletes. Bottom line is, if you want to train endurance sports your best chances are with balanced or high-carbohydrate diet even if you try to loose some weight.
In my diet I try to deliver daily approximately:
50-70% of calories from carbohydrates
10-30% of calories from fat
1,2-1,5 grams of proteins per kilogram of my body-weight (that is about 100 – 130 grams)
To calculate macro-nutrients it is best to start with proteins. A sedentary adult needs about 0,8g/kg of his body-wight. If you train seriously you can increase the intake of proteins up to 1,5g/kg. Higher numbers will in most cases produce only over-acidity of organism and transition of proteins into fat. Than you should calculate your calorie needs – it is best to use online calculators from major running sites, which should produce fairly accurate results or some more sophisticated applications that monitor your daily activity levels that are present in activity monitors. Just have in mind that those are estimations to start from, and then you can monitor your weight, body composition and feel – which will show you black on white how are you doing. Once you have your numbers, calculate your macro-nutrients. I try to eat more fats in the first stages of training and the closer I am to my main event I cut the fats and add the carbs.
As I stated before, if your sources of macro-nutrients are healthy, natural and unprocessed you should provide your organism with sufficient amounts of vitamins, minerals and all other substances needed for endurance sports. The last thing you should consider is drinking enough fluids to hydrate your body. It is difficult to calculate a precise amount needed as it depends on many various factors, like temperature, humidity, type of exercise, body weight and composition or intake of diuretic substances. The safest strategy is to drink water or other fluids throughout the day, have at least one glass some thirty minutes before any workout, and at least a glass or two after any workout. A good indication of body hydration is your urine – it should be colorless or light yellow at most. Anything darker is a sign of dehydration. Of course you should be aware that your urine can have intensive color if you overtake vitamin B or eat beetroots, which in that case does not indicate any dehydration at all. When you type-in “urine color” into your browser you will get countless color charts which can be of assistance in this aspect.
Following this approach should set anyone between second and third stage in my hierarchy. To achieve a good sports specific diet one should consider introducing two special meals – a pre-workout meal and a post-workout meal.
In short words a good pre-workout meal should give you enough long energy for your workout and not impose too much stress on the digestive system, while a good post-workout meal should provide fast energy source (carbohydrates) in purpose of replenishing energy stores and and proteins for boosting regeneration.
I try to eat three-four bigger meals, at least two snacks and a post-workout meal right after coming back from my run/gym, but your number of meals may vary depending on your daily schedule. Although it is best to keep your blood sugar levels fairly stable during the day, if you eat at least three meals per day plus a post workout snack – it is a still a good plan… and yes you should have a plan – why? I like the way Jeff Galloway has put it in his book “Nutrition for Runners”. According to Jeff, in any given moment, you can choose one of two brain operating systems: the more ancient subconscious brain and the conscious brain. The former stimulates us to eat whenever food is available and make us feel good after consuming sugar and fat by releasing dopamine – a joy hormone. What we need is a cognitive eating strategy which can be achieved in the easiest way by following a plan. On the power of planning check out my “why do you run” article here. Anyway, try to follow your nutrition plan, and if you have never planned your meals before, start from your first meal – it may be the famous breakfast of champions (oatmeal), eggs or sandwich, make it a habit and then, after three or more weeks take your next step and plan another meal. This is how you will not get discouraged after jumping into a deep water at once and you will not experience any kind of nutritional shock. Pay attention to the quality of the products you eat and over time your diet will become better and better.
The last “pro” stage is about using supplements. Initially I stated that you should be professional athlete to profit from supplements, but I am not among opponents of using supplements in amateur sports – I just see their limited benefits. Consider how much are you willing to pay for few seconds of improvement on your favorite distance… Does it really matter that much? Yeah, I know that for some people it matters, but unless you are a professional athlete and this second or two makes a difference between qualifying or not for a major event, should you really pay, or maybe you should just improve your amateur training or think of your average diet to achieve the same or even better effect? Sometimes you don’t even have to do anything more – you just have to stop doing things that are counterproductive for your performance. I know that there are many ways to achieve own goals, but for the sake of own health, money and motivation amateurs should rather focus on the basics and not look for miracles, as they don’t happen in endurance sports…
There are however some substances that actually work for people and when used wisely can be very helpful in training and racing – those are:
- two pure macro-nutrients (proteins and carbohydrates) and pre-made mixes of those that are used to make pre-workout energy drinks, post-workout regeneration drinks and isotonic formulas/energy gels used during workouts.
- creatine, which is mostly used in strength sports, but has also a positive effect in endurance sports by retaining water in muscles thus helping athletes not to get dehydrated and overheated during workouts or races.
- caffeine, which for some athletes may be useful for boosting energy and increasing endurance during workouts and races, but should be considered as potentially risky due to its side effects (additional heart stress and diuretic effect).
Despite the great marketing efforts of various drug companies to encourage sales of their products, everything else that is on the market today (I am talking about legal substances) is either not well-tested or has no effects on endurance sports, so you should not waste your time and money on it.
That is all for now, in consecutive posts I will write on how to manage good regular meals, prepare good pre- and post-workout meals, load carbohydrates before marathons, use supplementation, liquids and gels (during long races).
See you on running paths!