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Let’s face it: trail runners like to eat. You may have even heard your trail partners say that’s why they run. And we all know there is an important relationship between proper nourishment and our trail performance. But many of us wrestle with what constitutes the optimal nutritional plan.
The process of researching and assessing possible food allergies, the endless array of diets, agenda-driven nutrition studies, supplementation, food sources and nutrient ratios is daunting. We’re left questioning when, what and how much we should be eating. By looking at a few common nutritional myths and putting the above issues into perspective, we can lay the foundation for a sensible nutrition plan.
Myth #1: “I’m really active, so I can eat whatever I want.”
We’ve all heard the adage about a runner’s metabolism: “If the engine’s hot enough, it’ll burn anything.” Well, not all fuels are created equal, and, says two-time Olympic Marathon Trails qualifier and McMillan Running coach Ben Rosario, “We should all agree that we run better on ‘premium.’”
“It is true, a runner’s body needs a lot of calories to perform,” says Amanda Carlson-Phillips, Vice President of Nutrition and Research at Athlete’s Performance in Phoenix, Arizona. “You may not be facing the same weight-gain struggles of those who are less active, but it is important to think about the quality and quantity of the foods you eat.”
We shouldn’t be scared of eating fats, says Kelinson. Low-fat diets can lead to injury and illness.
Carbohydrates are generally considered a fueling necessity for runners, although many modern diets exclude them due to their weight-gain potential. It’s important to understand the difference between “good” and “bad” carbohydrates. Carlson-Phillips emphasizes that only the “good” or unrefined carbohydrates—those that are brown and found close to the ground—will provide stable energy and be packed with fiber, vitamins and minerals.” Beans, quinoa, steel cut oats and brown rice are good examples.
Refined carbohydrates, those that have undergone manufacturing or a repacking process, we should limit or eliminate from our diets. They are low in nutritional value, can spike blood sugar and are the leading cause of heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Common examples are soda, chips, pasta, fries, pizza and most desserts.
Adds Adam Kelinson, the author of The Athlete’s Plate: Real Food for High Performance and owner of OrganicPerformance.com: “The most bang for your buck comes from foods packed with nutritional content and flavor. Conventionally grown food like that iceberg lettuce that took three weeks to get to your plate has a fraction of the percent of nutrition that organically grown foods do, especially those grown locally on small-scale farms.”
Myth #2: “Avoiding fat in my diet will make me a better runner.”
Dietary fat is often the first nutrient to go when a runner is trying to lose weight and is often misconstrued as the cause of the spare tire or love handles. “We shouldn’t be scared of eating fats,” says Kelinson. “Low-fat diets can lead to injury and illness.”
Certainly, saturated and trans fats, like those found in packaged snacks, fried foods and coconut and palm oils, can be rightly blamed for playing a role in heart disease and weight gain. “In the quest for leanness,” says Carlson-Phillips, “many runners create a caloric deficit by restricting carbohydrates and fat, putting them at risk for overtraining, under recovery and injury.” Healthy fats like those found in nuts, olives, flaxseeds, sesame oils, fatty fish and avocados decrease inflammation, regulate blood sugar, improve cholesterol and provide energy.
Follow the motto ‘the fewer legs the better’ when choosing meat.
“Your diet should consist of 25-to-30-percent fat,” says Carlson-Phillips. “There are benefits to being at the best body-fat percentage.” Body fat is necessary to protect the organs, maintain normal reproductive function and sustain life. According to the American Council on Exercise, fit male trail runners should strive for six-to-17-percent body fat while women’s body fat should vary between 14 and 24 percent. Methods for estimating body-fat percentage, however, can be inaccurate or expensive. If you wish to find out your body-fat percentage, visit a nutritionist.
Myth #3: “After my runs, I’m not hungry, so I don’t need to eat until I am.”
A runner’s body takes a beating during every workout. Without proper recovery through diet, it’s hard to adapt to tougher workouts and longer distances.
“All good food has healing properties,” says Kelinson. “Recovery foods aren’t any different than the foods necessary for proper performance. It’s all about the timing of ingesting those foods and replenishing our bodies as quickly as possible.”
The best time to refuel is 30 to 45 minutes after a hard effort. Says Carlson-Phillips, “A 2:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio is the secret to maximizing recovery. For athletes who cannot handle meals after heavy exertion, I recommend liquid, for example, chocolate milk, a scoop of whey protein with two bananas or a smoothie with fruit and Greek yogurt.”
Carlson-Phillips underscores the importance of protein. “Due to the damage runners incur, they need just as much protein as a power lifter, body builder or wrestler.” Lean proteins help post-workout recovery by accelerating muscle growth and strengthening the immune system. Follow the motto “the fewer legs the better” when choosing meat. Tuna, salmon, chicken and turkey are excellent lean-protein sources. Vegetarian protein sources include nut butters, quinoa, tofu, lentils and black or pinto beans.
But for some runners, the above guidelines might not be enough to improve overall health and performance. Runners also should consider individual factors, like food allergies, stress, dietary supplements, age and dedication to a sound nutritional plan.
The “right” foods for some runners may be wrong for others. Flagstaff, Arizona, trail runner Janel Lanphere says, “For 10 years I suffered through runs with an uncomfortable stomach; I thought that was just normal. After researching food allergies, I started looking into my diet, removed a few foods like wheat and dairy and now run misery free.” Easy running shouldn’t aggravate the gut. If you’re struggling regularly, eliminate common allergens from your diet like soy, wheat, eggs and dairy. “Listen to your body,” says Carlson-Phillips. “Be systematic about how you experiment with pre- and during-run nutrition. Be detail oriented and keep a nutrition log.”
The role of stress
“Your nutrition is only as good as your body’s ability to digest it,” says Kelinson. “Combine food toxins (pesticides), environmental components (pollution) and emotional stresses (long hours at work or relationship issues), and the digestive system is bound to start failing.” Exposing your digestive system to even trace amounts of chemical poisons can destroy “good” intestinal bacteria, or flora, that aid in digestion. Excessive fatigue brought on by “all-nighters” during grueling endurance events and the anxiety produced by losing a job or splitting with a partner will wreak havoc on the endocrine system, the gland system that regulates digestion.
Take action to reduce your overall stress: for example, dial back your workout volume and intensity, take a day off from work, if possible, or change what you eat.
Browsing the supplement shelf at your local health store can be overwhelming. There are so many products that claim to do wonderful things. But more isn’t always better. In fact, too much of any supplement can be harmful to the body and, at the very least, to your wallet. Rosario believes there are only two reasons to supplement. “The first is if you’re unable to absorb nutrients from your diet, for example, if you have celiac disease. The second is need-based supplementation, where you find out from your doctor that you’re low in a vitamin or mineral.”
Adds Carlson-Phillips: “The more nutrients you can get from regular foods, the better. Multi-vitamins, fish oil, whey protein and some recovery formulas can be incredibly helpful. Complement your diet with things you know you are missing and always check for supplement safety at www.nsfsport.com.”
As we get on in years, our bodies change. After 40, the body’s metabolism slows, muscle mass and strength are more difficult to sustain, and post-workout recovery becomes more important than ever. Carlson-Phillips recommends two diet adjustments for masters athletes: more protein and higher-quality foods. “Focus on eating a rainbow often. Eat fruits and vegetables with each meal. By choosing a wide variety of colors, you’ll ensure you’re getting the right kinds of vitamins and minerals that will help slow the aging process.”
Maintaining healthy habits
It’s one thing to understand the basics of good nutrition, but it’s an entirely different task to stay committed to a sound program. Like logging those first miles of a new training plan, the initial set-up is difficult. But once the routine is set, the rest will follow.
Kelinson shares a few ideas to help you get on track. “Start by adding a weekly trip to the farmer’s market and setting a small amount of time aside on the weekend to prepare some foods that you can enjoy throughout the week. Seek advice from training partners; nutrition should be just as much part of your conversation as gear and workouts. Take a cooking class.”
By no means does changing your day-to-day eating mean omitting those foods you take pleasure in. Food, like running, is something we should enjoy. Carlson-Phillips says to remember this simple rule: “Each meal and snack is an opportunity to fuel your body optimally. Choose foods that are the best for you 80 percent of the time and incorporate some foods that may not be the best, but are your favorites, 20 percent of the time.”
This article originally appeared in our October 2014 issue.