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As an athlete, you need to fuel your body to perform its best. But despite what you may hear, this is probably less complicated than you expect.
Every runner is an experiment of one. Just like there is no magic workout that’s ideal for every runner, there is no “perfect” diet for all of us.
While the specifics of what constitutes “healthy” eating may be a little fuzzy for most of us, the benefits are clear: you’ll feel stronger, stay energized, train more successfully, and recover more quickly. In order to do this, you need to fuel like a runner. Let’s address some of the general concepts, and then tackle how to fuel your workouts.
Keep it simple: Above all else, eating healthy does not have to be complicated. Counting calories, calculating exact percentages of macronutrients.
Eat real food: “Real” food simply means that it is as unprocessed as possible. This encompasses all fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes, whole grains, and quality sources of protein. Whole foods are much more nutrient dense than their manufactured counterparts, but eating an entirely unprocessed diet can be impractical. If a food is processed, try to stick to ones with an ingredient list that is short and simple.
Eat well-rounded meals: Meals should be well rounded to increase satiety. That means including protein, high quality carbs and healthy fats in every meal.
Eat like a runner: While Paleo and low carb diets are all the rage, if you’re a runner you need to remember that carbohydrates are your friend. This doesn’t mean you should indulge in pizza and candy for every meal! But carbohydrates are the body’s primary fuel source, especially as workouts become more intense, so they’re an important part of your diet.
Don’t aim for perfection: Nobody can eat perfectly 100% of the time. It’s unrealistic. Small indulgences like chocolate or a piece of cake are perfectly acceptable. Try to keep your house stocked with healthy options so that they are your primary fuel source, but always allow yourself the opportunity to find pleasure in food.
You’re not a garbage disposal. Even though you might be running a lot of miles or completing fast speed workouts, you can’t eat anything you like. The old adage that “if the furnace is hot enough it’ll burn anything” isn’t true.
Fueling to Run
While the concepts above apply to your everyday eating, how you fuel to run depends more specifically on the type of run, the length and the intensity. Generally, your runs can be categorized into 3 types: easy/recovery runs, workouts and long runs.
Just like diet choice, fueling is very personal. Some runners may be able to head out the door with nothing in their system while others prefer a full meal. It takes some trial and error to know what foods and timing work best for you. But here are some concepts that apply to the majority of runners:
- Recovery run: For easy runs shorter than an hour, you may need no fuel, or just a small, easily digestible pre-run snack.
- Workouts & Long runs:To feel your best, you’ll want to fuel adequately prior to these types of runs. Avoid too much fat and fiber, as this can be hard to digest. Stick with carbohydrate-based meals and allow about 2-4 hours for a full meal to digest prior to a long or hard effort.
- Depending on the length of your run and your experience level, you may not need to fuel for runs under 60 minutes. But as runs progress in intensity and stretch to 90 minutes or more, you’ll need to fuel at least 1-2 times during runs up to 120 minutes (and more often for even longer runs). What you choose to fuel with – gels, blocks, real food, etc. – will require some trial and error, so use your longer training runs to nail down your nutrition strategy for racing.
- Recovery runs typically don’t require any special post-run fueling, just continuing healthy eating throughout the day.
- Workouts and long runs require more specific refueling strategies. Ideally, you’ll want to eat a small meal within 30 minutes to help jumpstart the recovery process. A 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein is often touted as ideal for this, but something is better than nothing after a hard effort! Refuel with a more substantial meal within 1-3 hours, since adequate refueling is the best way to improve recovery, reduce fatigue, and feel ready to tackle your next run.
Learning how to fuel in a way that works best for you requires some time and effort, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Stick with these general principles and you’ll reap the benefits with more energy, quicker recovery, and faster racing.
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