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, too.
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.
To 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.
1) The Nighttime Feeder: You eat very few calories all day long, then you gorge at dinner and late into the night.
“Eating 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.
2) 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 category. 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.
3) The Train-Hard-Party-Harder Personality: 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 later.
4) The Junk-Food Fiend: 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.
Breaking 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.
5) The Fat Phobe: You believe fat will make you fat, so you shun it in every form.
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 oil.
6) Running on Empty: You think you run better on an empty stomach because it gives you that lean, mean feeling.
Large 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.
7) The Protein Pounder: 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.
While extremely 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.
Change your ways:
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). Pick lean sources of protein to avoid additional fat calories. Good choices include chicken or turkey breast, canned tuna packed in water, or pork tenderloin.
8) The Supplement Abuser: You believe that if vitamins and minerals are good for you, taking more of them is even better.
Like 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:
Remember that 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.
9) The Chronically Dehydrated: 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:
An 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 minutes.
10) The Calorie-Deprived: 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 day. 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 mistakes
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)
9 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
1:00 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 chocolate-covered almonds
5:50 p.m. – Turkey meatloaf; Mashed potatoes; Sweetcorn
6:15 p.m. – Chocolate/nut/mint ice cream
11:00 p.m. – Chocolate-covered cookie
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