How many runners have heard this said while expressing our guilt before noshing a cupcake, slice of pizza, or a carton of French fries: “Yeah, but you run like, all the time.” It’s true that I have used that fact as a reason to indulge more than I should, and in some ways, running is a “get out of jail free” card. But—and at the risk of sounding like a total buzzkill—being a runner means that the value of good nutrition is a lot higher for us.
You wouldn’t drive a car across the country without getting a tune-up first, would you? Or getting one after you get to your destination? Running can be viewed in the same way: for all the destruction that you do on your muscles, bones, and nervous system, getting the proper nutrition through what you eat is part of what keeps you going.
Why Your Fuel Matters
It’s taken me a very long time to realize this, to be honest. But as I wrote in my first blog post for the Cherry Blossom 10-Mile Run, eating properly to fuel my running goals is one of my biggest goals for 2017 and that’s because I spent years thinking that all my running was a license to eat whatever I wanted without consequence.
Sure, eating alone can’t keep you from injuries, but it can certainly help with preventable injuries. Think of it this way: when you run, you get tired, and you need to refuel when you’re done. If you eat something that lacks nutritional value, your body doesn’t have what it needs to re-build you and give you more energy to go for another run. That residual exhaustion carries over into the next day and, because you didn’t fuel properly, maybe your form suffers a little bit. You push a little more, thinking you’re just having an “off” day. That causes new stress on your body to adapt, so now there’s more residual stress for your system to handle. Over time, this might become too much and your body will issue a negative reaction of some kind. It’s not an overnight process, and it’s certainly not the result of a single indulgence. But the truth is, nutrition is a vital part of being a runner. You need good nutrition to keep going.
How I Fuel My Runs
I promise, eating right is not as boring as it sounds. I’ve personally found it comforting knowing that there are food sources on this planet that were created for the sole purpose of providing nourishment. And, even though I am not a registered dietitian and I absolutely do not consider myself to be a “foodie,” I have tried a few fun ingredients that make eating healthy seem like an adventure.
The good news is that eating healthy is not only fun but kind of easy once you get the hang of it. Here are some guidelines I follow when building a runner’s nutritional plan:
- Know your ratios.
- Have a couple of go-to recipes with room for variety.
- Vary those go-to recipes to avoid boredom while sticking to what works.
Know Your Ratios
In every meal and within no more than 60 minutes after a run, I aim to eat something that has roughly 20-35% fat, 10-35% protein (the leaner the better), and 55-65% complex carbohydrates.
- Fats are kind of complicated since there are different types with different health impacts, but I try to focus on unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats), like vegetable oils as well as nuts, seeds, and fish. These are generally considered to be GOOD FATS.
- Proteins are the building blocks of our muscles and provide amino acids that enable many of our body’s chemical reactions. Different sources of protein (plant vs. animal) do not have the same amounts of essential amino acids that our bodies need, so if you are a plant-fueled runner, you may need to ensure that you are getting enough essential amino acids.
- Carbohydrates can be a runner’s best friend–hello, carbo-loading–but I try to opt for complex carbohydrates since there is very little nutritional value in simple carbohydrates. Some of my favorite complex carbohydrates include greens, whole grains, starches like potatoes and sweet potatoes, and beans and legumes.
Repertoire Of Go-To Recipes
Since I started paying a little more attention to the nutritional value of foods, I find the science aspect of food to be very interesting. But when we are hungry, we don’t seem to care about all this food science. We just want to eat something, and we want to eat it now. Therefore, knowing how to make a few recipes that have room for variety will help you get the replenishment you need when you need it.
- Smoothies: Smoothies can be a perfect post-run meal. They are easy to make, you can throw one together using literally any kind of fruit you have, you can add some green leaves for an extra nutritional kick, and you can easily add protein and fat to round out the whole picture. It can be hard to nail down a ratio of ingredients, so here’s my favorite post-run smoothie recipe:
Strawberry Banana Smoothie
1½ cups of milk of your choosing (I like coconut-almond milk)
½ cup Greek yogurt (a protein source)
2 cups of sliced strawberries, 1 sliced banana (carbohydrates)
1 tablespoon of flax seed oil, almond oil, pistachio oil, or walnut oil (fat)
1 handful of baby spinach leaves (iron and Vitamin K)
For an extra treat, freeze the fruit before your run so your smoothie
is a cold and refreshing treat as well as a nourishing one!
- Omelets: Eggs, especially eggs that have extra omega-3’s, are a perfect source of protein that are incredibly versatile. Here’s one of my favorite omelet recipes. Chop the veggies for your omelet before your run so you’re not tempted to eat something unhealthy while you’re cooking it!
Spinach, Mushroom, and Swiss Cheese Omelet
1 large handful of chopped spinach
¼ cup diced onion
¼ cups of diced cremini mushrooms
sprinkle of Swiss cheese plus
salt and pepper to taste (I add lots of seasoning)
I cook my omelet in avocado oil to make it taste that much better.
- Porridge: I love a good hearty porridge after a cold winter run. This is a great option for vegetarian runners, but it’s also easy to add some animal protein by using dairy. The grains you can use in this recipe are plentiful, too. No reason to just use oats!
Berry Nut Porridge
½ cup of grain of your choosing
(steel cut oats, rolled oats, quinoa, and farro are my favorites)
1-½ cups of water (or milk of your choice)
1 tablespoon maple syrup or honey
½ teaspoon of vanilla extract
1 tablespoon of nuts
1/3 cup berries
cinnamon and nutmeg to taste
Bring the grain, milk, maple syrup, and vanilla extract to a boil,
then reduce heat to a simmer for 15 minutes.
Stir in nuts and berries.
Add a little more milk to attain desired consistency.
top with Greek yogurt to punch up the protein content
Suggested berry/nut combinations:
cherries/almonds; blueberries/pecans; peaches/walnuts; strawberries/pistachios
A Few of My Favorite Things
Every runner has their favorite go-to snacks in between meals. Here are some of mine:
- Sprouted watermelon seeds: Watermelon is awesome, but watermelon seeds are probably more awesome. Per ounce, they have 10 grams of proteins like arginine, tryptophan, glutamic acid, and lysine, magnesium, B vitamins, and iron.
- Maple water: During the spring, maple trees drink up water from the soil that is then tapped out when sap from the trees is collected to make maple syrup. It’s high in manganese, calcium, and iron and, with its very subtle maple flavor, it’s such a refreshing drink after a long run.
- Dark beer: Man, I love a good dark beer. It’s higher in calories, but the nutritional and antioxidant value is higher than light beer. I like to indulge after a long weekend run.
- Turmeric: Lately, turmeric has caught on because of its anti-inflammatory properties. I tried some recently in a “golden milk” recipe, and it was fabulous. I highly recommend using it with coconut milk.
- Dark chocolate with peanut butter: Sometimes, you just gotta indulge. My favorite thing to do, and I don’t care if it’s weird, is to dip a square of dark chocolate into a jar of natural peanut butter. Dark chocolate has awesome antioxidant properties, and natural peanut butter is a great way to get some healthy fats.