A runner’s or triathlete’s nutrition is often the limiting factor stopping them from shaving 10 to 20 seconds from their minute per mile speed or overcoming a distance plateau.
Although training is obviously important, there’s a good chance you’ve already dedicated a lot of time to this aspect of your plan. However, when it comes to nutrition, it may be likely that you aren’t optimizing your nutrition as well as you could.
By improving your nutrition profile—including proteins, healthy fats, good carbs, and micronutrients—you will see noticeable changes in your energy, recovery capacities, general health, and your performance.
Remember, although carbs are clearly key to maximize glycogen stores and avoid running out of energy, all the other macro and micronutrients have a key role. Focusing on the following foods and food groups will give you a bullet-proof nutrition plan to take your performance to the next level.
Carbs are key for athletes, especially runners or endurance athletes who perform more than 90 minutes of exercise per day. They provide the main fuel source within the body, known as glucose. They are stored within your cells, including muscles, where they are ready to be utilized for energy during exercise. When these stores are depleted, our blood sugar levels drop and cause a rapid and sharp decline in performance, also known as ‘bonking’.
Enlisting good sources of carbs can help keep you on track during your training sessions. Try adding the following foods to your plan for their health and performance benefits.
Quinoa is a unique carb source in that it provides all the benefits of basic carbs, such as rice and pasta, but contains more micronutrients, fiber, and even a small amount of protein.
It has a similar texture and appearance to rice or couscous but is now becoming a popular alternative due to its comprehensive nutrient profile. It’s easy to cook in large batches, so you have plenty on-hand as you need it throughout the week.
No food list for runners or endurance athletes would be complete without bananas. This go-to energy source provides fast-digesting carbs and is a perfect mix of glucose and fructose, two different carb sources which increase glycogen replenishment rates. While it’s the most sugar and calorie dense fruit around, it’s also very easily digested, so it can provide a burst of energy without causing bloating or digestive issues—a great benefit pre-run.
Interestingly, the molecular structure of bananas changes as they ripen. When green, they rank low on the glycemic index (GI), meaning they won’t spike blood sugar levels. Additionally, they also offer more fiber and resistant starch at this stage of ripeness. For weight loss, this is the perfect time to consume them.
However, for runners and athletes, they are best eaten when fully ripe, when they’re soft and yellow. This increases their GI ranking, which means they are digested more quickly and provide a less complex form of carbs, with less fiber and stress on your digestive system.
In addition to the carbs and energy, bananas are rich in minerals, particularly potassium, a key electrolyte which can reduce muscle cramps. Try consuming a banana post workout, with a meal or as a snack with a protein shake to replenish your glycogen stores and fuel your recovery.
Berries such as strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries are a superfood packed full of nutrients.
While they don’t provide enough carbs to be regarded as an energy source, they do provide an insurance policy for any hard-working runner or athlete. Due to all their nutrients, including polyphenols, antioxidants, and micronutrients such as vitamin C, they can boost your immune system, reduce oxidative stress, reduce cell and muscle damage, and help you stay healthy year round.
Aim to consume two portions of berries per day, ideally from different sources (i.e., strawberries and blueberries) as they all have different health properties and nutrients.
4. Healthy Whole Grains
Whole grains should be a staple for most runners, especially those racking up high daily mileage.
Whole grains provide a great source of complex carbs, helping to keep glycogen levels topped up. They also contain important nutrients such as fiber and micronutrients such as iron, potassium, and manganese.
If you’re training heavily, struggle with energy or weight maintenance, or often ‘hit the wall’ during a race, try increasing your daily whole grain intake especially around training sessions. The best sources include:
- Brown or wild rice
- Whole grain oats
- Whole wheat bread
- Plain popcorn
- Whole grain pasta
Protein is an essential macronutrient for many athletes, but is often ignored or not optimized by runners or endurance athletes for the fear of becoming bulky or adding muscle.
Sadly, this myth could be hindering your performance and nutrition plan. The myth about becoming bulky is linked to bodybuilders and a high protein intake; however, there are a lot of factors which contribute to muscle growth, such as, the training stimulus, hormone profiles, and a very calculated meal plan to support such growth.
For a runner, a high protein diet would not add a significant amount of muscle mass, but it would provide benefits for recovery and cellular health.
If you currently aren’t eating a higher-than-average protein intake, adding protein will help support your body tissues, especially muscle and connective tissue. This can reduce soreness, improve recovery, and reduce the risk of injury.
When adding protein to your diet, the following sources should be part of your grocery list.
1. Oily Fish
Oily fish is the perfect protein source for runners as it contains high-quality amino acids along with healthy fats and minerals.
Oily fish sources include salmon and mackerel. They provide around 30 grams of high-quality protein per 5-ounce serving, which will stimulate muscle protein synthesis and aid in recovery. They’re also rich in Omega 3 fats, one of the healthiest fats, with anti-disease and health-promoting properties.
All types of unprocessed meats can be a perfect addition for a runner or endurance athlete.
Many people avoid red meat or fattier meat options in an attempt to lose body fat or lower their risk of heart disease, but these two factors are myths. Eating a balanced diet with the right ratio of healthy fats is beneficial to your health and necessary for fat loss. For a runner, the extra calories and nutrients from red meat can be very beneficial to help you meet your daily caloric needs and a wide variety of micronutrients and amino acids—both critical for your performance.
Along with red meat, white and lean meats should be included in your day. Don’t feel limited to the basics such as chicken, turkey, and beef, though. Other sources such as buffalo, venison, and pork can provide variety to your meals and a comprehensive nutrient profile.
Another superfood, eggs provide a perfect mix of healthy fats, protein, and vital micronutrients.
Eggs should be a staple for all athletes, as they’re cheap to buy and quick to prep. For a complete meal, combine eggs with whole grain bread. Try to consume a minimum of three whole eggs per meal, ideally four or five, to maximize your protein intake and hit the minimum threshold to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
The healthy fats in eggs also have hormone boosting properties. This is particularly important for runners and endurance athletes, as they tend to have lower hormone levels due to their lengthy, daily training regimes.
Prepare your eggs however you like, just be sure to include the yolks, which is where many of the nutrients are found.
Another common mistake in the running and endurance world is the avoidance of fat, thinking it has negative health effects, or that it will add body fat.
Again, this is certainly not the case; in fact, incorporating healthy fats can help an athlete optimize their health, performance, recovery, and even help them stay lean. Fat sources are calorie dense, making it easier for long-distance runners to reach their calorie requirements per day, which many tend to fall short on if they aren’t closely tracking.
Here are some of the best healthy fat sources to stock up on.
Avocados are one of the healthiest foods available with an incredible nutritional profile.
Not only do they add great taste to a meal, but they also provide a perfect blend of healthy fats, fiber, and minerals. They are also calorie-dense, helping a runner meet their daily energy demands without adding a lot of volume to be digested.
Avocados are a perfect addition to a protein source, especially a lean meat or fish which lacks the healthy fats.
Although it may sound odd, avocados also mix very well into homemade smoothies which can be a great go-to snack or breakfast for runners. When combined with some fruit and protein they give a creamy texture and no obvious taste.
For an easy, nutrient-rich smoothie, simply blend the following ingredients together:
- 1 banana
- 1 scoop Re-Kaged whey protein powder
- 12 oz. unsweetened almond milk
- ½ medium-sized avocado
- 1 handful berries
- 1 tsp honey
2. Nuts & Nut Butter
All types of nuts are a perfect snack to add calories and a good mix of all three macronutrients (protein, carbs and fat), along with a handful of key minerals.
They are primarily a fat source, providing a mixture of different fats such as poly and saturated fats. Some nuts, such as walnuts, provide a good amount of Omega 3 fats as well.
It’s a great idea to keep a bag of nuts with you as a snack - they can be combined with a serving of meat or a protein shake for a more complete meal. However, due to their high-fat content, be mindful of how many you snack on!
Nut butter is another favorite of many athletes and runners. Along with being a delicious treat, it’s also very calorie dense and can be mixed into smoothies, yogurts, added to whole grain bread, or mixed into oatmeal. Opt for natural varieties to avoid the added sugar of the “classic” versions. For variety, try different nut butters such as peanut, almond, or cashew.
3.Dark Chocolate or Cocoa
That’s right—chocolate! Dark chocolate is an antioxidant-rich superfood. To reap all the benefits of dark chocolate, it should contain 85% or 90% cocoa, which removes most of the unwanted sugar.
Dark chocolate and cocoa have plenty of research supporting their label as a superfood. It’s been found to help lower blood pressure, unhealthy LDL cholesterol, and even improve blood sugar levels.
Because of the incredibly high antioxidant content it can also reduce oxidative stress and help with recovery. Finally, it’s a natural source of caffeine, so it could even boost performance if eaten prior to a run.
You can use this as a snack, or as a treat after a meal when you want to satisfy your sweet tooth. However, it is calorie-dense, so practice moderation. Aim for two to four squares per sitting to get plenty of calories and all the benefits.
Now you have a breakdown of some key foods which have an amazing nutrient profile and can help all runners and athletes optimize their dietary intake.
Of course, there are many other healthy foods not found on this list, which you should still consume. As always, a mix of whole foods throughout the week is best to get all the different nutrients and unique benefits they provide.
Try building each meal around a healthy protein, fat, and carbohydrate source, incorporating those on this list. Doing so four to five times per day in adequate amounts will quickly optimize your recovery, performance and health!