Healthy-Eating Tips for Runners
These simple diet tweaks can improve your mood, energy and sleep—and make your miles feel better too.
Eat well consistently and you're going to feel good. Anecdotally, we know this holds true. It's also backed with evidence: Good nutrition can spark positive changes in our bodies at a microscopic level.
The nutrients in the food we eat feed our mitochondria, the engines inside our cells. Those mitochondria power everything our bodies do, including breathing, producing essential hormones and flexing our muscles. "The better the quality of the food, the more power we provide", says Brian St. Pierre, RD, Director of Nutrition at Precision Nutrition, a wellness-coaching company for professional and everyday athletes.
"Eating whole fruits, vegetables, protein and minimally processed foods can help improve your mood, increase your energy and improve your sleep and recovery", says St. Pierre. "In the long term, all of those things should help make you a better runner".
While this sounds like common sense, one of the biggest reasons we fail to eat this way is because we adopt a must-be-perfect outlook. "People take a hardcore, all-or-nothing approach to their diet", says St. Pierre. "Then they fall off because it isn't sustainable". What is sustainable: small, healthy shifts that easily become habits.
"Look at your diet as a continuum", says St. Pierre. "This means asking yourself: 'What nutrition choices can I make that are just a little bit better than what I'm doing now?'". Maybe that's drinking one less glass of fizzy pop a day or swapping a biscuit at lunch for a piece of fruit. You make the tweak, St. Pierre says, then you ask yourself the question again, week after week.
"Before you know it, you've made a huge transformation in your diet", he says, one that wouldn't be possible overnight.
The Simple Change
Include a vegetable in your meal, and eat it first.
"Vegetables are some of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. Eat them first. If you can just do that, you guarantee getting a healthy dose of vitamins, minerals and fibre in every meal", says Chris Bennett, Nike Running global head coach. "Just like running, nutrition is about consistency. And just like running, maintaining that consistency is dependent on variety, so mix up those veggies on your plate from time to time".
Starting with any vegetable is great. But for extra protection against inflammation (which St. Pierre says can prolong running injuries and increase your risk of getting them in the first place), opt for dark, leafy greens like spinach and kale, cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cauliflower, and peppers and mushrooms. They're all loaded with antioxidants known to help reduce inflammation.
"Look at your diet as a continuum".
Brian St. Pierre
RD, Director of Nutrition at Precision Nutrition
More Tips to Move You Forwards
01. Drink water.
We often mistake hunger for thirst. What's more, dehydration is one of the top reasons people get injured from running. "When your tissues, muscles, tendons and ligaments are dehydrated, they're more likely to get injured", explains St. Pierre. That resonates for four-time Olympian and Bowerman Track Club coach Shalane Flanagan. "If I could give just one piece of advice to a lot of athletes, it would be to hydrate. If you're feeling lethargic or you've got headaches or you just want to improve one little area of your life or even just affect your muscle tissue, hydration is huge".
02. Snack like your hanger depends on it.
"When you get to the point of being ravenous—hangry—you lose mental focus and your energy crashes", says Flanagan. "And that's when you make bad food choices". She always has a healthy snack stuffed away in her handbag, backpack and car, like a Superhero Muffin from her latest cookbook, Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow.
03. Eat iron-packed foods.
The nutrient is in shellfish, chicken and beans. "Iron is super-important, because it helps make our red blood cells, and red blood cells transport oxygen to the working muscles when you're running", says Flanagan. Healthy muscles, healthier runner.