What do you eat during training? This is a common question I get from friends, athletes I coach, and blog readers. It’s a question from genuine curiosity – many are wondering to get ideas of how to fuel their running – that I’m always eager to answer. In short, I eat everything.
I think many of us have constructed an image, based off of diet trends and social media, of a dainty runner who eats a green smoothie for breakfast, fat-free salad for lunch, and skinless chicken breast with beets for dinner. No dairy, no gluten, no alcohol, no red meat.
When in reality, the diet of most elite endurance athletes is quite the opposite. When Matt Fitzgerald surveyed the diets of elite endurance athletes across the globe – from America and Switzerland to Kenya and Brazil – he concluded that one of the overarching patterns of eating was eating everything.
“There are three reasons why you should follow the example of… elites and eat everything. First, eating everything is healthy. Second, eating everything is natural. And third, eating everything is enjoyable.” – Fitzgerald, The Endurance Diet.
You certainly do see some ultra runners opt for low-carb and high-fat diets or veganism, but a majority of endurance athletes eat diets rich in carbohydrates with lean protein and healthy fats. Superfoods and clean eating may be the bread and butter of many recreational athletes, while elite runners eat shockingly normal foods – pasta, steak, bread, and the like.
A recent article in Outside covered the pre-marathon meal choices of Boston’s top elites, including Desi Linden, Meb, and Jared Ward. Their pre-marathon meals included pasta, potatoes, red meat, chicken, eggs, and rice – foods that, while nutritionally dense, aren’t “superfoods” and would make both Paleo proclaimers and vegans cringe. Desi also noted that she’s “not opposed to a beer” in the days leading up to her goal race.
We can learn a lot from the habits of elite athletes – the importance of running truly easy on easy run days, the priority that rest and recovery take in the training process, and the benefits of eating everything and not restricting food groups.
When I was 20 and again when I was 24, I attempted to donate blood. As an overall healthy individual – no smoking, moderate alcohol consumption, and at a healthy body weight – I didn’t anticipate any issues. But both times, I was turned away from donating due to low iron levels.
Concomitantly, I wasn’t eating red meat at either of those instances. When I was 20, I experimented with cutting red meat out and minimizing my poultry consumption of my diet for ethical reasons; when I was 24, I ate a primarily vegetarian because of balancing healthy eating with a grad school grocery budget.
It strikes me as an incredible phenomenon that we can live in a country with so much food and yet see so many nutritional deficiencies such as anemia, osteopenia, and the like in otherwise healthy and well-fed individuals. I was overall healthy back then and thankfully I didn’t experience any negative repercussions, but I learned that eliminating a certain type of food didn’t equate to being healthier. Since then, I’ve added back in red meat in moderate, sustainable amounts.
Back in 2015, I temporarily cut out dairy, when I realized the milk I used in my morning oatmeal caused stomach aches. I felt better, but I also began to worry about my bone strength. I know that many people argue that you can get sufficient calcium from broccoli, spinach, and kale, and while I enjoy all of those, there’s only so many cups of leafy greens I can eat per day to meet my individual needs.
I added back in dairy, primarily in the form of yogurt and low-lactose cheeses such as cheddar, feta, and goat cheese, for the benefit of calcium and probiotics. Oddly enough, making sure I ate yogurt almost daily improved my stomach. I still don’t consume milk regularly, but I also don’t restrict dairy at all – I’ll enjoy ice cream, whipped cream on pie, or cheese on my pizza.
I try to minimize my added sugar intake, for both health and athletic performance. I have been diagnosed with both lean PCOS and endometriosis, which warrants being a bit more careful about sugar intake. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having dessert if the rest of your diet is high quality, I simply choose to not eat sweets often for that reason. I make my own bread, peanut butter, hummus, etc., don’t use many condiments, and choose unsweetened organic yogurt (Stonyfield) to further minimize unnecessary sugar.
Still, I obviously eat some sugar in its natural form – the nutrients in fruit outweigh the sugar and I enjoy some 85% dark chocolate each day. I don’t restrict baked goods when I want them, which may be weekly or just on special occasions like holidays or after races. You better believe I eat enjoy that donut after a race or a chocolate chip cookie when the craving strikes on the weekend. Cutting out sugar completely would be overly restrictive, even for me who often prefers savory to sweet.
Many of us runners are on the thinner side as it is – restricting certain food groups can lead to an energy imbalance or nutrient deficiency. Depending on your mileage and intensity, your nutritional needs are far different than those of someone sedentary or even lightly active.
Quite simply, the most effective change I have ever made to my sports nutrition is to eat everything. I’ll eat kale salads for lunch most days and then have a bratwurst and fries on the weekend. I aim to eat my 6-9 servings of fruit and vegetables and then enjoy a pint of craft beer or a glass of red wine at night. I may be more aware of eating high quality in the weeks leading up to a race and laxer about my nutrition in the week after a race or during the holidays, but overall I strive for this balance year-round.
By not eliminating any food group, I don’t eliminate any certain nutrient. I don’t create stress about my diet or deprive myself. This simple change over the past several years has helped me run faster times across all distances, qualify for Boston, and never have to take a break from running due to injury or overtraining.
Note: I am not a certified nutritionist or registered dietician. I am a certified running coach.
What’s the biggest change you’ve made over the years to your nutrition?
Do you eat everything or follow a particular diet?