Runner's Diet Mistakes
by Kristen Wolfe Bieler
Runner's World Online
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Most runners think their diets are pretty
healthy. But when we asked 35 runners to keep a food journal for a week, we
uncovered 10 bad habits--and they might be sabotaging your running,
If you're reading this, chances are you're a runner. And if you're
a runner, chances are you've got at least one quirky eating habit. Whether it
be a harmless holiday craving (a compulsion to sample every pumpkin pie you
encounter between Thanksgiving and Christmas) or a more serious nutritional
pitfall (a 12-bar-a-day energy bar addiction), runners tend to be more inclined
toward food fetishes than sedentary folks and even many other types of athletes
because weight and energy levels play such a huge role in running. "Disordered
eating and excessive running often go together," says Suzanne Girard Eberle,
R.D., a sports dietitian and author of Endurance Sports Nutrition.
In pursuit of a perfect diet that will produce optimal running performance,
many runners forget about the need for balance and variety in their eating.
"Some runners even develop a fear of a particular food or food group," says
Susan McQuillan, R.D., the author of Breaking the Bonds of Food
Addiction. Such restrictive eating patterns can wreak havoc on your running
goals--they'll slow you down, tire you out, and even make you sick.
determine the most common nutrition mistakes made by runners, we asked Karen
Reznik Dolins, Ed.D., a nutritionist at Columbia University and Altheus, a
performance enhancement center in Rye, New York, to analyze the diets of 35
runners from the New York Flyers, a Manhattan running club. Though this was a
survey and not a scientific study (we took the runners' words on what they
ate), Dolins found 10 ways the runners cheated themselves nutritionally. Read
on, and find out what they did wrong. You may even recognize yourself.
You eat very few calories all
day long, then you gorge at dinner and late into the night.
little throughout the day and loading up at night is similar to filling up your
gas tank after you've arrived at your destination," says Dolins. Yet it's a
common pattern for a good number of runners. For many, it's an oversight; the
absence of an eating plan throughout the day leaves them starving by late
afternoon, resulting in an evening binge.
Such out-of-whack calorie
distribution can have a serious impact on your running performance. Afternoon
runners who eat this way end up exercising on fumes. Early-morning runners are
also at a disadvantage since proper recovery depends on refueling with calories
at breakfast and lunch.
Change your ways:
To sustain energy
and blood-sugar levels all day long, eat a balanced meal with a mix of carbs,
protein, and fats every three to five hours.
Plan two small snacks
each day (a handful of nuts or some cheese and crackers) so that you're never
ravenous come mealtime.
Plan your running around your meals (or your
meals around your running). That means fueling up an hour or two before heading
out the door and refueling within an hour of finishing.
The Sports-Bar Junkie
You eat so many energy bars, your definition of the four
food groups is Clif, Luna, PowerBar, and Ironman.
Loathe to consume a
single unmeasured, un-portion-controlled morsel, lots of runners rely too
heavily on energy bars. "Runners looking to stay on top of their caloric intake
think these are a healthy bet for calculating food intake," says Dolins. While
she agrees that bars are a convenient way to get calories and carbs, being
overly dependent on them will most likely mean that you are missing out on the
benefits of whole foods. "When processed foods displace natural foods in your
diet," says McQuillan, "you sacrifice fiber, carotenoids, and other
health-protective phytochemicals found in fruits, veggies, and whole grains."
And while you're cheating yourself of all the good stuff whole foods
have to offer, you could also be overdosing on certain nutrients since most
energy bars come highly fortified. For example, an Ironman Bar provides 50
percent of the Daily Value of zinc. Eat several, and you could potentially
cause a mineral imbalance.
Change your ways:
Don't think of
energy bars as meal-replacements because they are not meant to provide a
complete range of nutrients. They work best as an occasional snack before or
after a workout.
When choosing an energy bar, look for one made with
whole foods (fruit, rolled oats, nuts). Clif Bars and Boulder Bars fall in this
If, in a pinch, you are forced to make a meal out of an
energy bar, eat at least one other real food to round out the nutrients--a
piece of fresh fruit, a cup of yogurt, or a piece of string cheese.
You justify binge drinking
as the reward for a good run or race.
According to a study in
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, serious recreational
runners drink more alcohol than their sedentary counterparts--and the group we
surveyed was no exception. But no matter how much you run, the guidelines are
clear: The health benefits of alcohol are reaped from one to two drinks a day.
More than that can be detrimental, particularly to runners who need to pay
extra attention to hydration. And don't think you can save up your weekly
allowance for Saturday night. "We know from research that it's much healthier
to have one drink per day versus seven drinks on the weekend," says Eberle.
Change your ways:
Choose alcoholic beverages that are diluted
for less impact. Instead of a glass of wine, drink a wine spritzer.
Drink a glass of water or plain seltzer in between each drink to stretch
the alcohol out over the course of a night.
After a run or a race,
make your first drink a big glass of water. Have that beer
You eat whatever you want because
you believe running will keep you fit and trim.
Sure, there are
runners who live blissfully ignorant of their nutritional blunders, but then
there is the Junk-Food Fiend. Painfully aware of his poor food choices, but
unable or unwilling to change, he has convinced himself that he can get away
with eating anything and everything. "It's true that distance runners need a
lot of extra energy to fuel their exercise," says McQuillan. And if your diet
is otherwise healthy, she says, go ahead and eat some cookies or a bag of
chips--even every day. But even high-mileage runners can't exist on junk food
alone, since vending machine fare will never provide all the important
nutrients needed to properly fuel runs and promote recovery.
a bad junk-food habit can be incredibly difficult, says McQuillan, who studies
such addictions. "Once you develop the habit you may start to eat the same food
at the same time every day or under the same circumstances," she says. "Certain
foods are then used to 'punctuate' an event. So if you eat a chocolate bar
after every run, you won't feel your daily run is complete unless you end it
with chocolate. That's a tough connection to break."
Change your ways:
Strike a balance between the foods you need and the foods you want.
Build each snack and meal around at least one real food group and enjoy junk
food at the end of a meal.
Substitute something healthier for the junk
food you crave. If you want chocolate, try some strawberries dipped in
chocolate syrup. For salt cravings, try cheese or something crispy like veggies
dipped in tangy salad dressing.
Never eat junk food on an empty
stomach. It almost guarantees a binge.
The Fat Phobe
You believe fat will make you fat, so you shun it in every
For every Junk-Food Fiend, there's at least one Fat Phobe.
Science and countless studies have proven that fat is our friend, but many
runners still see it as enemy number one in their battle to stay thin. Good
fats lower cholesterol, aid vitamin absorption, assist digestion, and regulate
the metabolism. And since the body will start to call on fat once its
carbohydrate stores are empty, dietary fat is of particular importance to
long-distance runners. "There is no scientific evidence that shows that
consuming a daily diet with less than 20 percent of total calories from fat
improves running performance," says Eberle. "Yet consuming too little fat has
been proven to increase the risk of injury and suppress your immune system."
Change your ways:
Know the difference between the fats that
are good for you (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and omega-3s) and the ones
that can harm your health (saturated and trans fats).
Don't go crazy
with percentages. Aim to consume about a half gram of healthy fats per pound of
body weight per day.
Add good fats to the naturally low-fat foods you
already eat--use flavorful olive oil on top of your salad greens, smear peanut
butter on apples or celery for a snack, and stir-fry your veggies in peanut
You think you run better on an
empty stomach because it gives you that lean, mean feeling.
numbers of runners head out the door every day without fueling up properly,
even though science has clearly shown that a prerun meal or snack will boost
energy levels and improve performance. Some claim they can't run with food in
their stomachs. Others are morning runners who don't want to wake at an even
ungodlier hour to give themselves time to digest. But you don't need to eat a
lot of food to reap the energy benefits. "A slice of toast, a piece of fruit,
or a cup of yogurt will help you train harder and perform better," says Dolins.
Change your ways:
Afternoon and evening runners should eat a
snack with 60 to 100 grams of carbohydrate about two hours before exercise.
This is as simple as having a banana and a bagel or two ounces of dried fruit
and two cups of Gatorade.
Morning runners who are turned off by solid
foods in the early hours can get their carbs via liquids such as breakfast
drinks, soy and yogurt drinks, and sports drinks.
Your body will
quickly get used to running with a small amount of food in your stomach, so
practice with different high-carb options to see what works best for
You believe protein is power,
so you inhale it in place of carbs.
Since runners need more protein
than most sedentary people (in some cases one and a half to two times the
recommended daily allowance), it was encouraging to find that few of the
runners we surveyed were protein-deficient. However, we came across quite a few
protein abusers in the mix. Twenty percent of muscle tissue is made up of
protein, and while protein is essential for muscle recovery, a relatively
modest amount is needed for that rebuilding process. And consuming more protein
won't build additional muscle or increase strength.
excessive protein intake can damage the liver and kidneys, the biggest problem
for runners is that protein is often consumed at the expense of other
much-needed nutrients. "A lot of runners just need to refocus on carbohydrates
as the primary fuel for working muscles," says Dolins.
Try to keep your daily protein intake to about 10 to 15 percent
of your total calories.
Time your protein so that it can help you
recover from a workout quickly by consuming a postrun snack with a carb-protein
ratio of 4-to-1 (think a turkey sandwich or cereal with milk).
lean sources of protein to avoid additional fat calories. Good choices include
chicken or turkey breast, canned tuna packed in water, or pork
You believe that if vitamins and
minerals are good for you, taking more of them is even better.
the Protein Pounder, the Supplement Abuser is convinced that you can't get too
much of a good thing. But vitamin/mineral supplements of any kind will only
improve performance in those individuals who are deficient, and few of us
actually are. In fact, runners who eat lots of fortified foods such as
breakfast cereals and energy bars and also supplement with vitamins and
minerals are prone to overload. Mega-dosing could create a vitamin/mineral
imbalance, which can lead to health problems. Too much zinc, for example, has
been shown to elevate cholesterol levels, and excess storage of iron in the
body can cause liver damage.
Change your ways:
they're called supplements: They should simply supplement an already healthy
diet of whole foods.
If you pick the right multivitamin, you may not
need any other supplements. Look for a multi with 100 to 200 percent of the
Daily Value for water-soluble vitamins (the eight B vitamins and vitamin C), no
more that 100 percent of the Daily Value for the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and
K, and 100 percent of the Daily Value for the trace minerals iron, zinc,
copper, selenium, and manganese.
On days when you know you'll be
eating lots of highly fortified foods, consider skipping your multivitamin.
You typically don't drink
much of anything throughout the day--except your morning coffee.
Nutritionists, coaches, and medical professionals have long preached the
performance benefits of being well hydrated, yet many runners still operate
more like camels--they let long stretches of the day go by without drinking any
fluids. If you're an afternoon or evening runner who starts the day off with
some coffee, then drinks little else, you're bound to head out for your run in
a dehydrated state. "The value of exercising when fully hydrated cannot be
overstated," says Dolins. "Dehydration impairs the body's ability to rid itself
of the excess heat generated by working muscles. The same exercise intensity
cannot be maintained when dehydrated."
Change your ways:
hour or two before you run, hydrate with 16 ounces of sports drink to top off
your fluid tank and take in energizing carbs.
When you are doing high
mileage, be mindful of your urine output. You should need to go to the bathroom
at least every three hours, and your urine color should be pale yellow.
To determine your sweat rate, weigh yourself naked. Then do a hard run and
reweigh yourself. Every pound you lose equals 16 ounces of fluid. So if you
lose one pound on a 40-minute run, you need to drink about 16 ounces every 40
You burn many more
calories than you eat.
There are two types of runners who fall into
this camp. The over-trained, over-worked athlete who dips too deeply into
energy stores during high-mileage training and starts losing weight
unintentionally. Then there's the individual who intentionally uses running to
lose weight by cutting calories and increasing mileage simultaneously. As our
sample population illustrated, many more runners fall into the latter category.
Boosting mileage while dramatically cutting calories is a simple, yet
dangerous, equation. "Depriving your body of the fuel it needs to carry on its
normal daily business as well as the added calories it needs to perform
physical activity forces your body into a state of cannibalism, where it is
actually breaking down muscle for fuel," says Dolins. "This is obviously not
good in the long term for your health or your running performance."
Change your ways:
If weight management is a concern, make
healthier food choices and eat small meals throughout the day to keep your
metabolism revved. Regardless, no active woman should eat fewer than 1,500
calories a day, and an active man should not take in less than 1,800 calories a
Increase your calories by a couple hundred two days before a
race, on race day, and the day after, to maximize performance and recovery.
Make those calories high-quality and high-carb.
Don't think of food as
calories, think of it as fuel. You shouldn't be running so you can eat--you
should be eating so you can run.
Food Diary Fiascoes
Three logs from three runners--making three different
Well over half of this male runner's daily calories were
eaten after 7 p.m.
9:15 a.m. - One roll with cream cheese
12:40 p.m. - Tuna, lettuce, tomato, mustard; Barbeque chips
2 p.m. -
Handful of Gummi Bears
6 p.m. - Ran 7 miles
7:40 p.m. - One eggroll;
Noodles with peanut butter (3 servings); Moo Shoo chicken (2 servings)
p.m. - Fruit punch; Raw cake batter
This male runner took in too
many junk-food calories.
7:45 a.m. - One cup orange juice; One cup
granola with 1% milk
11:15 a.m. - Banana; Chocolate-chip scone
p.m. - 3/4 cup chocolate-covered almonds
1:30 p.m. -
Strawberry-banana-blueberry smoothie; 1/4 cup chocolate-covered almonds
2:15 p.m. - 1/3 cup chocolate-covered almonds
5:15 p.m. - 1/3 cup
5:50 p.m. - Turkey meatloaf; Mashed potatoes;
6:15 p.m. - Chocolate/nut/mint ice cream
11:00 p.m. -
This female runner ate fewer than 1,500
calories per day.
9:30 a.m. - 55 minutes of cross-training
10:30 a.m. - One cup Crystal Light lemonade
12 p.m. - One fat-free
vegan oatmeal-raisin cookie
1 p.m. - One tomato
3 p.m. - Four cups of
pretzels; 20-ounce diet root beer
6 p.m. - Two stuffed red peppers (corn,
orzo, tomato, onion)
9 p.m. - 1/4 cup whipped cream
9:30 p.m. - One bag
94% fat-free popcorn