Coach’s Thoughts #4


Nutrition and the Distance Runner


For the last seven months, I have been living the cliché: “you are what you eat.” As a result of my change in diet, I am sleeping better, feeling better, performing better and genuinely living every aspect of life better. I stopped solely preaching nutrition, and started to live it. Simply put, a proper, well-balanced diet will ultimately lead to higher performances with your runs.


            Ask any nutritionist and they will tell you that there are three key factors that attribute to optimal athletic performance: genetics, training and nutrition. However, many of my “running buddies” fail to acknowledge the benefit of a balanced diet. We often times ‘kid’ around and say, “We select our races by the size of the post-race party.” (By the way, the post race party is defined by the amount of beer, cheeseburgers, hotdogs and other fattening foods we can consume in an hour after the race.) I was one of the biggest consumers of these products for many years. At the same time, I wondered why my weight was gradually approaching an eighth of a ton, and how I had repeated injuries? Fast forward seven months and forty pounds later, I am here to share my success story and the benefits of a proper, well balanced diet. The key word is “balance” – I still definitely enjoy a cold beer and a delicious cheeseburger, but in moderation.


            What are the rewards of “high performance” nutrition?  Research has shown that one can train at a higher intensity; delay fatigue; recover faster after working out; and perform much better overall! “High performance” nutrition is nothing more than slight changes to the “healthy eating pyramid” that you learned in elementary school. Remember: grains, fruits and vegetables, meats, fish and dairy…since carbohydrates (carbs) are the primary fuel for the body, each meal should contain the following estimated calories from the three fuel sources: 60% carbohydrates (fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, beans/nuts, high fiber, 100% whole grains), 20% protein and 20% fats (whole milk, ice cream, fatty meats like bacon and hamburgers, most salad dressings, etc.). One of the reasons for this distribution is that carbs take only one hour to digest, while protein takes two hours and fats take a whopping four hours.  What does this mean to a runner? A couple whole grain pancakes, a bagel, or a banana will provide you with the energy that you need for your race, and they will also digest quicker while in your digestive system.


            Athletes who spend time in the weight room will likely increase their percentages of calories to protein enriched foods (lean meats, halibut/trout/tuna, egg yolks, cheese, milk, peanut butter, etc.).  Proteins are primarily used for the repair of damaged muscles, increase metabolism, and maintenance of the body. You’re probably wondering, “How many grams of protein should an athlete consume in a day?”  An easy calculation that I found was: take your body weight and divide it by two – this calculation equals the amount of grams of protein you need per day.


            Now that I have offered some fundamentals on nutrition, let’s review the guidelines for choosing the best pre-event meal. Most importantly, choose items that you enjoy. Choose foods rich in carbohydrates, moderate in protein, and low in fat. Try to avoid sugary foods (empty calories) right before you exercise. Since it is easier on your body, softer foods leave your stomach faster than solids, and always eat familiar foods before competition. Finally, drink plenty of fluids before competition to avoid dehydration.


            If one’s competing in a race 5k or higher in distance, hydration is essential to your overall performance. Your body is approximately 60% water, and everyone has heard that you should consume at least eight cups of water per day. I have always wondered, “Does a 200 lb athlete need more water than a 150 lb athlete?” The answer is definitely YES – in fact another calculation that you should remember is that you should take your body weight, divide it by two, and that number is the amount of ounces of water you should have per day. (So a 200 lb man should be drinking approximately 100 ounces or 12.5 cups of water per day.) How does water deprivation affect running? Actually, by not drinking enough water your performance will decrease, it’ll disrupt your electrolyte balance, decreased your plasma volume, decreased cardiac output, increased heart rate, increased body temperature and increased the risk of heat illness. Conclusion: drink plenty of fluids! Two hours before your race you should drink 16 ounces of water, five to ten minutes before your race eight ounces, and during a run you should drink eight ounces of water for every 20 minutes of running. After your run, you should drink two cups of liquids for every pound you lost during your run. Fluid replacement beverages such as Gatorade should only be used if your run lasts over 90 minutes.


            In summary, proper nutrition is critical for a long distance runner. Yet at one extreme, I have found that some athletes have become obsessed with their diet, and they have lost all sense of balance and social acceptance. (You know the friend that doesn’t want to eat over your house, because you do not have any skim milk or fat free yogurt.) The key to all diet changes is to make slight changes that will not disrupt your life too much, or deny yourself the pleasures of your favorite foods. Simply cut back and have one scoop of rocky road ice cream instead of three. Generally speaking, there are three food categories that athletes should try to avoid altogether: fried, fast and processed foods. Remember, eat a variety of high-carbohydrate, moderate protein, low-fat foods; drink enough fluids to avoid dehydration, and take supplements only when necessary. If you make these minor changes to diet, one’s life will improve…what do you have to lose?