Running nutrition: what do you eat?
Whenever I meet a new person and they want to talk about being a professional distance runner, there are always a few key questions I anticipate being asked.
- What’s the fastest mile you’ve ever run?
- What’s the farthest you’ve ever run?
- What do you eat?
When food gets brought up, I always wonder if people intuitively identify nutrition as a key pillar to being a healthy, happy athlete… or if they are just curious as to how exactly runners tend to stay pretty lean. Whatever the motivation behind someone’s curiosity, it’s an important topic to cover.
The simple answer I always tend to give (to the disappointment of most) is that there’s no simple answer. Like most worthwhile things in life, there isn’t an easy button, you have to be disciplined enough to research what it means to eat well and invest in your own health.
Developing a diet that works best for you, a diet that suits your body’s individual needs, takes trial and error and a willingness to ask questions. I’ll be honest, at 24 years old I’m still regularly working to fine-tune my diet to meet my biggest goals as an athlete. It’s an ever-evolving practice!
That being said, there are some basic nutritional guidelines to learn and hold on to tightly… how you implement them into your life just needs to be tailored to you.
Developing Healthy Habits
If our lives are sculpted by our choices, our nutritional choices are no anomaly. You have to develop the habit of eating well and caring for your body the same way you discipline yourself to get enough sleep at night, take care of things on your to-do list, and go to the gym to knock out workouts. The more you practice something and engrain it into your everyday life, the more automatic decision-making becomes, good or bad.
Growing up in the Midwest on a farm, in a family of eight, my mom and dad made it a priority to keep us active and (probably more importantly) well fed. My dad was a dairy farmer most of his life and one of his favorite phrases to this day is,
“I’d rather have high grocery bills than high doctor bills.”
Consequently, my childhood is riddled with memories of weekly trips to buy food with my parents; they’d saddle up at least one grocery cart (sometimes two) and prepare to spend a good chunk of money to feed six kids.
Choose This, Not That
A trip to the grocery store includes a series of really important choices; my parents taught me early on that you have to pick and choose wisely what you decide to put on your shelves at home.
The produce aisle has always been one of my favorite places in stores because that’s where my mom and dad would give us free reign to throw almost any fruit or vegetable we wanted in the cart. I took that freedom seriously and our fridge was typically filled with lots of colorful food.
They would ALWAYS bring home at least two gallons of whole milk. We ate a lot of cheese, yogurt, eggs, and whole grain breads, breakfast cereals, and pasta (runner fuel), and our dinners included plenty of protein from chicken, pork, beef or fish.
Boxed snacks, processed foods, sugary treats, soda, and junk food were NOT allowed to go home without direct approval from one of my parents. Most of the time the only treat that would end up making the cut was a carton of ice cream, for a small post-dinner dessert.
Four out of the six children in my family went on to run track at division one universities. I am almost certain that would not have been possible had my mom and dad not taught us from an early age to “eat the rainbow” and fuel well. That includes learning when to say “yes” and “no” to certain foods.
You can’t go wrong with fresh produce, foods and ingredients. Sources of protein from dairy, meat, beans, eggs and healthy and wholesome carbohydrates are all great places to turn for proper nutrition.
A general rule of thumb: if something comes in a box, contains ingredients you can’t pronounce, or seems to be swimming in sugar or grease… proceed with caution, it might be best to consume in moderation, if at all.
Everything Starts With Self Care
I could sit here and type up a list of examples of healthy recipes and ingredients until my fingers fall off, but reaching your physical and nutritional goals doesn’t just begin in the refrigerator, it begins with an intrinsic choice to care for yourself and a belief that your body deserves to be treated well.
We make our choices based on our opinions of ourselves and nothing derails or discourages us quite like comparing where we are to where other people are.
Creating a personal vision for success and trusting that your body will never look or be exactly like someone else’s isn’t just healthy… it’s necessary.
Self-acceptance and learning to recognize what actions you need to take to be at your happiest and healthiest is always a good first step. Then, you have to actively choose, every day, to be kind to yourself and reach for the things that will make your body healthy and strong.
Always keep in mind that learning to love your body isn’t a matter of beating yourself down and restricting, it’s actually a mindset that revolves around replacing the bad with the good. It’s filling your mind and body with healthy things in abundance and having the self-discipline to say no to junk. Consistently making positive choices is what leads people to feel energized and powerful on a regular basis.
When it comes to nutrition, it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to lose those pesky 10 pounds, run a personal best in a race, or pursuing an Olympic medal… the choices you make day in and day out are going to get you there. Love where you are in the process and choose the right amount and the right kind of fuel every day.