How to Eat Like an Elite Runner
Arguably as important as speed work, tempo runs, long runs and endurance miles are to an elite runner’s performance is their nutrition. And that includes their fueling strategy not just in the critical days and hours leading up to big races, but all of the time, throughout the race season. Elite athletes fuel themselves to train hard. And they train hard to race well. Therefore, they focus on nutrition and hydration even just during “practice,” because they are often trying to simulate the real thing during various parts of their training schedule.
Not only do elite runners want to be sure they have a “tried and true” fueling plan that they can rely on, but the last thing a runner wants to do is play around with new fueling strategies just before a big race, and risk unforeseen GI distress or some other negative reaction. Much like you and your running buddies, elite runners and their sports dietitians and nutritionists base intake, calorie, and fueling needs largely off of how intense their training plan is, how many miles they are logging each week, and what their strength and cross training regimen looks like.
Carbs for Every Runner
The pre-race Pasta Dinner also is not just for us “regular runners.” Elites focus on getting in carbohydrate-rich foods to build up their glycogen stores so their bodies have an easily accessible source of energy to burn. This is especially important for long-distance runners like marathoners and ultramarathoners. In those last miles, the body needs to have glycogen stored so that they are not totally depleted of energy and can get through last 10k of a marathon. A lack of carbohydrates will result in fatigue and a faster “bonk,” or “hitting the wall.”
But elite runners are also not just sitting around eating gobs of pasta noodles, bagels, and bowls of cereal. Elites focus on nutrient-dense sources of carbs. This is extremely important because, in order for the body to function at the high level an elite’s body is demanded to, it needs a lot of nutrients. Vitamins, minerals, macronutrients, and quality calories are what help keep an elite’s body primed and able to endure such strenuous circumstances.
Calories & Race Weight
In general, leaner bodies are faster, because the less excess weight a body is carrying, the faster it can run. Therefore, while it is super important that runners get in enough calories, which is definitely still a lot higher than the Average Joe’s caloric needs, they look to avoid weight gain, especially in the weeks leading up to a race when they are trying to get to or maintain their a race weight that works best for them. Therefore, focusing on nutrient-dense carbs like whole grain sources like brown rice and quinoa, as well as fruits and vegetables like bananas and sweet potatoes, will ensure they get the right amount of calories, vitamins, and minerals. However, it is important to note that elite athletes monitor their body weight regularly, and if they see that they are dropping weight, they will increase their caloric intake.
Fats & Proteins
Aside from carbs, elite athletes understand the science behind all macronutrients: carbs, of course, but also fats and proteins. All three are needed in appropriate measurements for a runner’s success. While carbs are the body’s first (and favorite) source of energy, incorporating enough fats into your diet helps a runner stay satiated and full for longer, helps regulate crucial body systems (i.e. the digestive system, circulatory system, brain functioning, and hormonal systems). Without enough fats, runners may find that some of their important body systems are not operating properly or have shut down altogether.
This is especially true for female runners and athletes. Restricted their caloric intake too much and not getting the proper amount of macronutrients to regulate their reproductive cycle can result in what is known as “the female triad” in which a female will lose her period, and lose vital bone density and strength.
And then there’s protein, which many people associate with bodybuilders. But protein can serve runners in the same way! Elite runners need muscle to propel them forward, and protein will build it up as well as help speed up recovery between intense training periods. Plus, along with fats, protein can help keep runners full.
Not Just What They Eat but When
Another important component of an elite athlete’s fueling strategy is the timing of their meals and snacks. These athletes know when and how to optimally fuel themselves so that their bodies can most efficiently metabolize and use energy from the food they have consumed. They work with dietitians to know how many calories they need to be eating before and after a workout to first, properly fuel the workout itself and then, secondly, to help them recover well, build muscle and strength, and come back rested, fueled, and ready for their next workout.
Elite athletes eat consistently throughout the day, as well. They start with a breakfast mainly of carbs and protein to fuel their first workout, followed by a post workout protein-packed snack, and then a more balanced snack of fats and carbs later on. Lunch is usually a well-balanced mix of all three macronutrients, followed by a simple carb snack to fuel an afternoon workout, a post-workout protein snack and then another well-rounded meal at supper time. And for some athletes, yes, even dessert.