Although I am not a dietitian, I have seen one weekly for two years now. Technically, I’m not an expert, although I sometimes pretend I am I have tried a lot of different things recently when it comes to fueling for running and here’s what I have found works for me. Not only in my eating patterns but in my attitude, beliefs, and overall relationship with food.
Taking a step back, I started running competitively in high school. My foods I ate daily were peanut butter and banana sandwiches, oranges and chocolate. Really balanced, I know. It definitely wasn’t ideal for running, however I still performed at what I consider a high level (5:05 mile, 11:08 two mile). I am not suggesting that anyone try this way of eating for your current training. My point is that your body can actually function pretty well for a while when you don’t take the best care of it. The question is why would someone want to abuse their body and live a life like that? Why not fuel it for optimal performance if that’s your goal?
While running at Texas A&M, the training intensified. We practiced at 6 am, 6 days a week and they usually lasted until at least 9 am (warming up, stretching, drills, abs, running, and weights). We would do workouts (tempo runs, hills, fartlek, intervals) 2-3 times a week depending on whether or not we raced that week. We also had a long run. I didn’t really change that much from high school…. I ate a lot of protein bars, oatmeal, chicken, fruits, vegetables, and chocolate. And I still performed at a pretty high level. The highlight of my college running career was qualifying for the Division I National Cross Country Meet individually my junior year.
Looking at that list of foods from college, my first thought (simply out of habit) was, “That really doesn’t look that bad.” However, WHERE IS THE VARIETY AND FLEXIBILTY?!?!? What about beans, rice, cheese, pasta, red meat, potatoes, nuts, eggs, fish, white bread (heck any kind of bread), chips, crackers, casseroles, butter, oil, seasonings and spices, sauces, juice…
I don’t think my lack of variety was completely my fault. I’m going to shift part of the blame to my favorite scapegoat: the media. How are people supposed to have a healthy, balanced, and vital relationship with food when you HAVE to avoid a list of 95 different foods that changes weekly based on “the latest research”? The responsibility is mine however to filter out the trash messages they send me, be healthier than our society, and listen to what my body needs. So, there’s a little history for you. Getting back to nutrition in running, I’m going to tell you what I truly think works and it probably won’t be what you wanted to hear…
I think you need to experiment for yourself. Try a week where you eat the majority of your intake in carbs and make notes of how you feel physically, mentally, emotionally etc. If you are feeling good in those areas I can almost guarantee you will have good runs. Do something different the next week and see how that feels. Eat different amounts at different times and see how that works. Joe likes to eat the most at lunch and have a smaller dinner where as I like a bigger dinner and a night snack to help me stay asleep at night. It’s about what works for your body. I definitely want to still experiment with having a bigger breakfast and seeing how that works for me.
Try to let go of the garbage messages from the media. It’s really tough, I know. I intentionally buy white bread and tortillas now because for so long I had fear around them. Do I still eat wheat? Of course. At a molecular level though, your body has no idea if what you are eating came from wheat, whole grain, half grain, white, red, brown, blue etc. It’s all energy at it’s most basic level. Our labeling food as “good” or “bad” is where the trouble really is. And letting what we eat define how we view ourselves as a person. I honestly used to think I was a bad person for eating a piece of white bread or choosing a “not healthy” version of a meal. Thankfully, my morality and food choices are *almost* completely separate now.
I think the most important thing a runner needs to make sure of (especially when competing) is that you are getting enough in and at the right times. Eat too much before a workout or race and you will regret it. Eat too little and you will also regret it. You have to figure out what works for you and even more importantly what you ENJOY. I really like having a grilled sandwich at lunch most days so that’s what I do, and I try to fill it with different things to keep it interesting. I can however, have something else if I choose to. I don’t feel like that’s my only option. Another factor that’s big for me is convenience. I want something easy with minimal clean up. The less stress I feel the more energy I have to devote to other things (like being a mom, wife, friend, running, etc).
For me, there aren’t certain foods I feel bound to to enhance my performance. I think it’s all in your mindset, and that being said, if you have a food that makes you feel your best on your race day because it’s tried and true than by all means- EAT IT! Just as an example, the night before my marathon I ate buffalo chicken tenders, a sweet potato, and a salad. I had a bar before bed and two for breakfast. The night before the half I recently ran we had chicken pasta with salad, a cookie, and a brownie. I felt great in both races and I knew I had enough fuel to get through. I don’t think my performance was related to the types of food I chose, I think it was related to my mindset going into those races.
Do I think there are benefits to eating “healthy” foods like avocados, nuts, lean meat, whole wheat, fruits, and vegetables? Yes. Do I think that having so much anxiety around only eating the most nutrient dense foods you can is highly detrimental? Definitely. Research shows the anxiety has just as many damaging effects on the body as does eating too many quadruple cheeseburgers.
What about this… What if where ever (is that one word or two… my brain can’t figure it out right now) you are ok right in the moment in your relationship with food, whether you feel like you have a completely healthy relationship with it, you are in the throws of an eating disorder, or somewhere in between, what if that was ok? What if there was something higher than you that has you right where you are for a specific purpose. It might be to learn more about yourself, grow, teach, or help someone else. I really think right where you are is okay. And it’s where you’re supposed to be at this moment. It’s easy to get down on ourselves and think that we need to be doing better, improving, etc… and that’s ok too. Just for a moment though, I want you to believe that there’s a purpose for where you are.
I’m sure you wanted that detailed of a post My main take away points are:
- Find what works for YOU by trying different things.
- I don’t care what you eat, just make sure it’s enough and the timing is right.
- If you are living by certain “food rules and restrictions” I challenge you to take a small step outside of the box and notice how it is for you.
- ENJOY what you choose!
- And keep in mind… just because you find something that works probably doesn’t mean it’s the only thing that will ever work ever ever ever in your whole entire life (I used to have really bad black and white thinking…) In fact, it will more than likely change at some point based on what your body needs.
- You are where you’re supposed to be. I truly believe that.
I don’t really have any questions, but feel free to leave feedback! If you loved it, hated it, have questions, etc… I like honesty!