A proper diet is a common necessity and everyone can benefit from having one. Runners, on the other hand, require more calories on average and a greater variety of nutrients to keep their power levels high. This is why healthy eating for runners is an essential part of their everyday life and a centerpiece of their running success. In this article, we will go through some of the fundamentals of having a proper diet for a runner. We will also go through some examples of the different types of runners out there.
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The main rules for a healthy runner’s diet
There are a few main rules that you need to follow if you want to nail your diet. Those are:
- Eating more
- Tackling hunger
- Stocking up
- Enjoy and experiment
You will soon grow to love these rules mainly because they provide a loose dietary environment for your needs and are also super easy to remember and follow! Now, let’s go through all of them and see how big of a role they play in your runner’s diet…
The very first thing you have to do when it comes to how much you’re eating is determining how many calories you’re burning. There are a lot of calculators online which can help you with that. After you’re done determining your daily calorie spending, you will need to start figuring out how to replace them. Eating more, in general, is a good way to cover your loses. Still, knowing what to eat is the natural follow-up question that has to be answered. Eating more of just one type of food (ex. carbohydrates) will work against your goals, so we will have to be balanced in that. More on that in a moment!
The good news here is that there have been many studies that have decidedly shown that frequent long-distance running boosts one’s appetite. This will make things easier on the eating front. This might be a bad thing for new runners since they won’t be able to resist the new-found hunger and will maintain their weight or even gain some. If your goal is shedding a few pounds, be very mindful of that feature of your body. Running on an empty stomach promotes fat burning in your body. In fact, let’s discuss the empty stomach issue now.
If you’re training for a half marathon or even a full one, you might notice the feeling of hunger in between meals. If that is the issue, then you might need to take a closer look at your dietary plan.
If you aren’t getting enough protein in your diet, your body might rely primarily on carbs for its short-term energy, meaning you will feel faster and stronger after a meal but you will soon feel empty and depleted. The presence of protein in your body stabilizes your blood sugar spikes and helps your body feel full for longer periods after each meal.
As I pointed out, running with an empty stomach can lead to more fat burning but it can also lead to huge hunger issues later in that day. This is why you should be mindful of how much and what exactly you’re eating before your workout. We will discuss possible meal ideas and scenarios in the next chapter.
Now let’s talk about something that a lot of runners often ignore – stocking your home with diet-oriented supplies.
When you decide that it is time to fill up your cupboards with clean and real food, you might wonder what exactly to get. Some of the best choices for that would be foods that are as little processed as possible. Those can be:
- Rice (wild)
- Quinoa, Nuts, and Beans
- Fruits & Veggies
- Meat (various kinds)
Rice is the ideal source of clean carbohydrates (and a little fiber) making it the go-to choice for any long-distance runner’s high carb needs. The quinoa, nuts, and beans will provide you with the needed fats, vegetable protein, and fibers.
Regarding meat, try sourcing it from local butchers. In most cases, they will have organic, grass-fed meat that will be clean and appropriate for a healthy diet.
Fruits and vegetables are the hardest to store but are also the easiest to consume. Fruits require no preparation unless you include them in your diet recipes. Bananas and apples are a perfect addition to any thick smoothie/yogurt bowl. Bananas are also a great source of carbohydrates, potassium, and magnesium which is a perfect nutrition blend for a mid-run snack.
Cheat days are fairly common among workout diets. For runners, however, they are sometimes amazing! There is nothing wrong with a bowl of ice cream or a cheeseburger with fries after a day in which you ran 10 miles. After every long run, your body will crave for calories so providing it with a quick access to some carbs is generally a good idea.
Including vegetables in your runner’s diet is one of the most important rules. They are typically low on carbs, nutrient-rich and are often low on sugars. Trying to include at least 1 serving of veggies in your daily meal plan is strongly recommended. Bonus points if you incorporate them into your meals. I will give you an example meal plan further below.
Enjoy and experiment
Everyone is different. This is why you should always try to nail down what works best for you. Experimenting with the foods you’re consuming during your workout days and your off-days is the key to nailing down the perfect diet plan. I personally have a few set meals which are always my safety net and which I can always eat if nothing else pops up in my mind, be it before a long run or after an exhausting day. Remember, the key is to enjoy what you’re eating so if there is something you don’t like in your diet you can substitute it with equally nutritious foods.
Now that we’ve been through the rules of the game, let’s talk meal planning and give a few example meal schedule ideas for the average runner…
There are a lot of different meal planning tips and ideas on the internet. The easiest one that I found when I started running was the 1-2-3 meal plan idea. Here is what exactly it consists of:
1- Light Intensity days: In these days you are either not running or having a recovery run that is a light jog. Your body will need fewer carbohydrates during those days so you can safely prioritize protein, fats, and some veggies and vegetables.
2- Medium Intensity days: These days typically have an endurance run in them and will require a little bit more out of your body. Fueling up appropriately here would include larger amounts of carbohydrates.
3- High-intensity days: During those days you need to maximize your carbohydrate intake in order to cope with the vast calorie needs of your body during the intense workouts.
Based on that, you can create a table which has every day of the week and a number below it. For instance, Monday can be 1, Tuesday can be 1 or 2, Wednesday can be 1 again, Thursday can be a 3, and so on. That will allow you to quickly adjust to a different workout weekly workout schedule by simply having 3 nutrition approaches to your three main kinds of days. You can include more kinds like 0 or 4 if you have a vastly diverse training schedule. After you are done doing that, you can start making each of the meal plans diverse. For instance, you can have 10 variations for the “1-days” and choose based on what you feel like eating on that day. Having a journal to keep a track of all that is extremely helpful.
A daily meal plan example
If you’re running every day you might enjoy the benefit of having a similar meal plan for every day of the week, even for the days you occasionally take off. Here, I will give you an example of a meal plan for a day in which you are running. Off-days can be easily considered as cheat days, especially if you are an active runner. Here’s is what a typical training day of mine looks like:
- My absolutely mandatory coffee with almond milk
- Scrambled eggs with chopped peppers, onions, carrots, and cheese
- A bowl of yogurt with honey and banana
- Large-ish salad with mixed greens
- Chicken breasts with veggies
- Chocolate for dessert
After lunch, I typically wait for 2 hours before I get into my pre-workout snack and go out running.
- Muffins/chocolate cereal/sports energy bars/some fruit (depends on my mood)
- Grilled or baked veggies
- Beef burger (depends on how intense my workout was)
- Ice cream or popcorn as a post-meal snack
After a workout, I typically gauge how hungry I am and how many calories I’ve used for the run. After very long runs, I typically have a post-workout snack or a full-on meal consisting primarily of carbs and proteins. Also, as you can see, my diet isn’t strictly clean especially on workout days. I always try to find a balance between what I need and what I want and I almost never let myself crave something without having it. The key to a successful diet is to be content with it and not be miserable with what you’re eating.
Incorporating veggies meal idea
As I mentioned earlier, including at least 1 vegetable dish per day is a must if you are running frequently. Here is an idea of how you can incorporate a lot of vegetables in your daily servings:
- Add some peppers and onion into your scrambled eggs in the morning
- Have a big salad for lunch (can also contain eggs, meat, or something else that will add more calories)
- A fruit bowl for the afternoon sugar craving
- Have some rice and cucumbers alongside your chicken breasts for dinner
That should cover all of your nutrition needs, especially the veggie ones. Vitamin supplements can’t typically take care of your increased body needs so having a vitamin-rich source like veggies incorporated deep into your diet is never a bad idea.
Ultimately, your meal plan should match your running plan. Creating a running plan is equally complex and important and that is why I’ve dedicated a whole article on the topic. Click here if you want to learn more on the subject!
Top 6 foods for active runners
While there are multiple diet ideas and meal plans you can follow, there are some foods that will always be a solid choice for a quick snack or to be put in any of your meals. These are:
Bananas will always be the best high-carb easily digestible fruit that can boost your afternoon sugar needs. It also contains a good amount of potassium (roughly 300-450mg) and magnesium. If you’re a long-distance runner, then you know how important your potassium storages are especially on a very warm day. When you sweat you lose a lot of minerals through your skin. One of the main ones that you have to supplement in order to counter that are sodium, chloride, potassium, and magnesium. Most energy bars are made with that in mind, although a banana will cover most grounds fairly good as well.
The yogurt has some of the most natural carbs to protein ratios from all the foods you can think of. It is a great source of clean carbs and also of essential amino acids which are crucial for our muscle endurance and performance. It has been proven over the years that a bowl of yogurt after a workout significantly speeds up your muscle’s regeneration and strengthens your joints and bones. It also has an immune system boosting capabilities and is also beneficial for your gut biome.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that oats made the list. Oatmeal is one of the best breakfasts you can have on a day that will have a long-distance run in it. They will supply your body with easily digestible carbs and fiber that will keep your gastrointestinal tract healthy throughout the day. They are also low on their glycemic index meaning they won’t spike your blood sugar levels causing you to feel sleepy on the drop-down.
Potatoes, just like bananas, are a wonderful source of carbohydrates and potassium. For that reason, they easily make their way into any runner’s daily diet. They aren’t that rich in nutrients, however, making them ideal for a post-run dish but not so much for a pre-workout meal. Potatoes are rich in vitamins as well, stocking up your vitamin A after only a few small/medium potatoes.
Pasta dishes are one of the best ways to fill up your glycogen stores. Those very same glycogen stores across your body will keep you fueled up on a long-distance run. They serve as a secondary source of fuel for your muscles when you’re doing short-distance high-intensity runs, however, so try not going all-in on that pasta dish if you have 4×600 yards on the same day.
You are probably grinning very hard right now due to the fact that you saw the word “chocolate” in a top 6 runner’s foods list. And yes, you read that right – dark chocolate is an excellent sweet addition to your workout diet. It helps lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, while also helps reduce inflammation in your body. Those qualities make it an ideal post-workout snack that will speed up your body’s healing process.
The 90/10 Diet – Is it good enough?
The 90/10 diet plan (or mindset) is more of a strategy that combines everything we’ve discussed so far. The idea that sticking to your predetermined diet 100% of the time is unrealistic and in some cases even unhealthy. Runners, in particular, have high energy demands and are among the group of people that can afford the loosest diets since they will most likely always need more fuel from more sources. The 90/10 strategy revolves around the idea that you can stick to your menu 90% of the time and have those sweet 10% to you whenever you feel like it. Whether it is an ice cream cup at the evening or some chocolate chip cookies in the afternoon, nobody is going to judge you if you reach for those sugary delights.
In reality, the more you run, the looser you can be with what you eat. Still, there is a line between those two principles which you should try balancing on. Find out how often should you run by going to my detailed article on the topic!
A good part of healthy eating for runners consists of following a few simple rules. Always try to eat a little more, work with your hunger, stock up on healthy foods, don’t shy away from cheating on your diet, and experiment as much as you can to see which is the best formula for you. Once you start figuring out your body’s needs for your precise running plan, you will start to form your own personal meal plan for your training days!