Words by: Matt Fitzgerald, Lead PEAR Sports Coach and Pacer.
As a runner, you might wonder whether you need to eat differently than nonrunners. Is there a special diet that is best for people who train for events like the Lexus LaceUp Running Series? The answer is yes and no. The basic rules of healthy eating apply to everyone. But runners do have some special needs that must be accounted for to get the most out of every mile.
The foundation of running fitness is general health, and one of the pillars of good health is a high-quality diet. There are 10 basic categories of foods. In descending order of quality, they are vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, fish and organic meats, whole grains, dairy, refined grains, sweets, processed meats, and fried food. Your diet should be weighted toward the first six items on this list. Most of us have room to improve our diet quality. If you eat more high-quality foods and fewer low-quality foods, both your health and your running will improve.
The most basic special dietary need that runners have is a greater daily calorie requirement. Running burns a lot of energy. If you don’t make up for these extra expenditures by eating more, you won’t have the energy to train effectively, recover optimally between runs, or adapt to your training. How much more should you eat? Contrary to what you may have been taught by popular media reporting on diet, you can trust your appetite to guide you, provided (1) your overall diet quality is high (because high-quality foods are more satiating) and (2) you eat mindfully (in other words, you avoid eating when you’re not physically hungry). There’s no need to count calories.
There are three main energy sources in the diet: carbohydrate, fat, and protein. Running increases carbohydrate requirements more than it increases fat and protein requirements. If you run a few miles a day or less, there’s no need to go out of your way to add carbs to your diet, but if you get into heavier training, you should make that extra effort. Start at a baseline of 3 grams of carbs per kilogram you weigh daily and add 1 g/kg per day for every 20 miles you run in a week.
The most common micronutrient (i.e. vitamin and mineral) deficiency in runners is iron deficiency. The reason is that running causes muscle inflammation, which in turn causes the body to release a protein called hepcidin that lowers iron absorption. Iron deficiency is especially common in women runners, because premenopausal women need more iron than men due to menstrual blood loss. To avoid this common problem, make sure your diet includes iron-rich foods such as shellfish, beef, legumes and spinach. Also, get your iron level checked by your doctor once a year.
There is no one-size-fits-all diet for runners. There are runners who thrive on all kinds of diets, from vegetarian to traditional Ethiopian. As long as your diet conforms to the guidelines presented above, there is plenty of room left to exercise your individual preferences.
** Matt Fitzgerald is an acclaimed author, world-class running and triathlon coach, and sports nutritionist. His mission is to inspire, educate, and help athletes and fitness enthusiasts achieve their goals. His books include Racing Weight, Diet Cults, The New Rules of Marathon Nutrition, and many more. He will be the lead pacer at each location of the Lexus LaceUp Running Series presented by Equinox.