For the next several week, Wednesday’s posts will focus on helping you achieve your running goals for 2016, no matter what those goals are. Rather than prescribe steps or offer tips to set and achieve a goal, today’s post will take a slightly different approach of analyzing a popular goal.
I am a whole-hearted goal-setter, but I also firmly believe that (1) not every area in life requires high-reaching goals for success and (2) we all often too easily let the goals of others influence our own goals, rather than striving for what is personally best for each of us as individuals.
Healthy eating is no exception to this. Healthy eating is important and an admirable goal to pursue. Yet in this era of diet cults, a balanced approach to healthy eating falls to the wayside in favor of restrictive diets.
If you read running and healthy living blogs, you likely have read about the diet called Whole30.
Whole30 for Runners: Concerns and Issues
Whole30 gains popularity in the blogging world and the broader running world each January, with the fervent resolutions of the New Year and the desire to detox after the indulgences of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve.
Yet, while it emerges from healthy intention, Whole30 is neither sustainable nor is it a prudent diet for runners to adapt.
Despite the popularity of the strict Paleo diet amongst runners during the resolution-driven fervor of the new year, as a certified running coach, I cannot recommend Whole30 for runners. I would never prevent an athlete of mine from participating in the Whole30 challenge, but I would never encourage any runner to partake of this diet.
Don’t mistake me: I believe in beginning the new year with healthy eating habits that emphasize whole foods. I am not a dietician, so some of the discussion surrounding Whole30 extends beyond my scope of expertise.
However, as RRCA certified running coach, I know enough about sports nutrition to disagree strongly with the elimination of many carbohydrate-rich foods, particularly grains. My expertise permits me to speak authoritatively on the basic science of running: in order to run, your body needs carbohydrates.
As many of us vow to eat healthier and restrict our diets in the new year, we also dedicate ourselves to intense workout schedules or begin training for our spring races. More miles, harder workouts, and additional strength training and flexibility workouts.
Here’s the thing about running: the more you run, the more carbohydrates your body requires to sustain such physical activity. It’s a scientific fact. Matt Fitzgerald, the renown author of nutrition for runners books such as Racing Weight and New Rules of Marathon and Half Marathon Nutrition, argues that most runners do not eat enough carbohydrates.
How Many Carbohydrates Do Runners Need?
On average, runners consume approximately 50% of their calories from carbohydrates. While this percentage of carbs may be enough for a sedentary person, the glycogen needs of runners is significantly more, up to 70% of your calories from carbohydrates.
To quote exercise physiologist Pete Pfitzinger, “If you want to run 26.2 miles at a good pace, you had better like carbohydrate foods because they’ll be a mainstay in your diet during day-to-day training and especially in the few days before the marathon.”
Carbohydrates provide both immediate energy during running and replenish your glycogen stores throughout the day. Glycogen, which is your body’s storage form of carbohydrate, is the primarily fuel for running at any distance or speed. The faster and farther you run, the more your body burns through its glycogen stores.
Deprive yourself of carbohydrates enough, and your body cannot fuel your running. Your risk of overuse injury and overtraining increases, since nutrition plays a vital role in healthy running.
Both Fitzgerald and Pfitzinger concur that runners need at minimum 2 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight per day; if you run for an hour, you need 3-4 grams; runners logging 2 or more hours of running require 4-5 grams of carbohydrate.
So let’s do a quick bit of math: I run roughly an hour everyday and weigh, at the height of 5 foot 9, roughly 130 pounds. 3 grams of carbohydrate per pound (which is on the low end, given the amount of exercise I do beyond running) is what my body needs to sustain my activity. This equation thus suggests I consume 390 grams of carbohydrate per day. Each gram of carbohydrate contains approximately 4 calories, which means most days I need to eat at least 1560 calories per day from carbohydrates alone.
That’s not accounting for when I increase my mileage and intensity as training progresses.
Foods such as apples, bananas, and potatoes do provide a substantial amount of calories from carbohydrates. However, the permitted fruits and vegetables of the Whole30 diet would need to be consumed in high volume to provide you with enough carbohydrates to support running, especially if you are running high mileage.
Even vegan runners, such as ultra-marathon legend Scott Jurek, support their running through a high-carbohydrates diet with a strong consumption of grains. A vegetarian/vegan diet can provide a runner with enough protein; but the same cannot necessarily be claimed for a diet as restrictive as Whole30 providing a runner with enough carbohydrates.
Does Whole30 Pose Risks to Runners?
Finally, why the severe restriction? For many of us runners, especially female runners, our healthy eating goals should not focus on restriction, but rather nourishing our bodies and enjoying the gift of food.
Our bodies need to be fueled and nourished, not deprived. Even simple sugars play a role in the diet of runners. As Meredith wrote about earlier this week, you probably don’t need to lose those five pounds, so why risk everything that comes with such restriction? As female runners, not consuming enough calories or carbohydrates can lead to amenorrhea, female athlete triad, and stress fractures. Even male runners will see their performance suffer, the energy levels drop, and their risk of injury increase without enough carbohydrates.
A Counter-Argument for Whole30
Because any well-articulated refutation gives fair hearing to the opposing opinion, other runners have found that they were able to balance Whole30 and running, even while running high mileage. This just goes to show that what works for some people doesn’t work for others. To run your personal best and live your healthiest life, you must pay attention to your own needs and your body’s bio-feedback.
I know that many of you and many bloggers I read and respect have done Whole30, and I want to be clear that I am not writing this post out of disrespect for anyone and their dietary choices.
And, as hard as I have been on Whole30 in this post, I will admit it is certainly better for you compared to a diet full of processed foods and too many simple sugars and lacking in fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates.
Personally, I have never followed restrictive diets. I listen to my body and respond with what it tells me, and adapt and change my diet based on what I need. For me, it’s about a balance of fat, carbs, and protein from whole foods to fuel my body and nourish my soul with a sense of satisfaction and enjoyment.
Let’s instead set goals in the positive rather than the negative: a goal of eating enough complex carbohydrates from a variety of foods, a goal of providing our bodies with essential vitamins and minerals, and the goal of enjoying the taste of food.
Have you done a diet such as Whole30? How did you fuel your running while on this diet?
What’s your take on restrictive and low-carbohydrate diets?
Do you have healthy eating goals for 2016?