Running and Nutrition: How to Eat to Run Faster
Today people are fairly bombarded with messages about what should and should not be in their diet. Especially as a runner, I have seen my fair share of very nice people get very overly preoccupied with what they eat or do not eat. Often what starts as something very well-meaning takes on a life of its own, or otherwise bothers or interrupts the person’s life more than it needs to. Thus, in an effort to hopefully help other runners, here is how you actually eat to run faster!
#1. Nutrition only helps you to become a better, stronger, more focused, more powerful and healthy athlete if you do not worry about it. You have a finite amount of mental energy to spend on anything in your day—don’t spend more than your fair share on what you eat. Good nutrition can be very smart, but it only helps your performance it you don’t worry so much about it.
Time spent worrying about food is time you could have spent doing other things useful to your life as an athlete and as a human being. Many more things are better worth your thought during the day than your macros (I actually don’t know what those are and I don’t want to know…I get the idea that it’s complicated!) or how many calories are in your sandwich wrap.
Here is how you actually eat to run faster: DO NOT WORRY SO MUCH ABOUT IT. Beyond eating some fruits and vegetables every day—note that I say “some” which doesn’t mean the entire produce section in one sitting—and being sure to get enough iron in your diet, and having adequate protein, you should just eat whatever the heck you want and actually ENJOY.
#2. Remember that your mind is just as special as your body. Yes, your body is a machine, and you should feed yourself well, but what you eat also feeds your MIND.
Thus, if you absolutely love Swedish Fish/potato chips/pickles straight from the jar/egg yolks/pudding cake, enjoy, my friend, enjoy!
All foods are fair game to eat as long as you actually enjoy them. You know why? As soon as you cut something off from yourself, part of you will still want it, and then you will never feel “full” or “satisfied” because you’ve gone the whole day (or week, etc.) without enjoying a certain thing that you actually really like. Don’t let that fretting part of your brain become active during eating. If you like something, have it. I like cookies and pretty much all baked goods containing chocolate, so I eat those EVERY SINGLE DAY.
If your mind is upset and internally yelling at you for doing X, or not having Y when you actually really want Y, this is something that absolutely long-term will detract from your performance and the strength of your mind. Willpower is NOT something you should have to exercise in terms of your diet. You are not going to be a better runner because you have cut out all dessert from your life. You have probably read about some elite athlete or celebrity saying that they have one square of dark chocolate every day as their dessert. (I’ve got no one in mind in particular here—I know I’ve read of this of many people over time!) Maybe these athletes just aren’t that into dessert, and if so, that’s fine! But I know that wouldn’t work for me. (Side note: dark chocolate is high in iron, and for one semester of grad school, I really went to town on the dark chocolate bars and was having at least half of one of those Endangered Species ones every day….and I swear it helped me run faster!)
Remember that YOU are allowed to have personal preferences when it comes to food. Just because everyone else is doing or eating something or not doing something or not eating something, that doesn’t mean you have to follow suit. I like chocolate. I also like hamburgers. I do not like ham salad, cereal with milk, mustard, or mashed potatoes. I also do not like salad dressing. (This last one hardly anyone understands, but I simply do not like wet, slimy lettuce!! I met a fellow grad student at Notre Dame who also did not like salad dressing and it was like “yes! You UNDERSTAND!! You are my long lost sister!!”) If you love tiramisu, for the love of the sun coming up, have some tiramisu. If you really really despise beets, don’t eat beets. Don’t let anyone else boss you around or make you feel bad about what you eat. Lord knows there are plenty of other things in this life to feel bad about, that you don’t need food to become one of them.
#3. Your food does not actually matter as much as you think it does in terms of performance. It is just one component of your training which includes your workouts (in this umbrella term “workouts”, I mean both strenuous and recovery efforts), your sleep, and your overall daily lifestyle.
When I was in high school I ate whatever the heck I wanted. I ate hardly any vegetables except cucumbers because they were the only ones I thought tasted good. Every day for lunch, I would have white pizza, a blue Powerade (or sometimes a carton of iced tea), and three chocolate chip cookies, and I turned out JUST FINE and RAN FAST. As one of four children with a father often traveling for work, we all often ate pizza for dinner from many of the different and wonderful pizza places around Pittsburgh. It was actually a running joke amongst us that X, Y, or Z pizza place had no idea that they were part of our “rotation” and probably thought that they were the only place that the Mazur children frequented for pizza! I really just ate whatever I liked and when I was hungry. Without even being aware that I was doing so, I just naturally listened to my body and gave it what it needed. I didn’t have any particular emotional relationship with food—food was just food, and nothing made me feel bad about myself for eating it.
I remember once when I was younger reading my grandma’s copy of Red Book (because if you left it around, I would certainly read it, even if it was something like the back of a cereal box or an appliance manual), and being rather stunned that adult women would enjoy reading this material, 95% of which seemed to center itself around weight loss! “Didn’t these readers have something better to think about?” thought 12-year old book-reading Ann. Answer: yes! But, the magazine—and honestly, sometimes society at large!— surely wouldn’t have you think so.
#4. The current fads are usually wrong. Your own body is smarter than they are.
Back in the mid-2000s, you heard a lot of talk about white bread being the enemy. At this point, I was in college, and I often got what I would honestly now consider to be a pretty boring Subway sandwich for lunch: white bread and turkey, no vegetables (I told you I was very anti-vegetable pre-college! Some vegetables actually are a good idea.). An older girl on my team commented on my “unhealthy” sandwich and told me that at least I could get it on wheat!! This eventually led to me cutting ALL white bread and white bread products out of my diet and replacing every white thing with the most fibrous wheat/multigrain bread my body could handle. Because you know, if I wanted to run faster, of course I was going to try to eat healthily! This, in short, was a bad idea. Multi-grain and whole wheat flour block your body from absorbing iron, which is really important to get as a runner (see this blog post for advice on iron absorption!), and I already know I’m genetically predisposed to be low in my iron levels. Around this same time, I was also popping those calcium chews like tic tacs because I was scared of the stress fractures I saw others getting--though this had never been a problem for me!! Calcium of course, also blocks iron absorption too. In short, I was accidentally hurting my performance while thinking I was doing something helpful. Weirdly enough, whenever I was low on iron, I would crave this one particular cereal in the dining hall which I otherwise did not find particularly tasty (and which I had without milk, of course) that I later discovered was heavily coated in reduced iron! In sum, listen to your body, not the current fads or a well-meaning older teammate! They may end up making your diet inadvertently lopsided in some way.
Right now, for instance, sugar appears to be a common enemy, but sugar can honestly be helpful after a long endurance effort. Trust your body and listen to it. Don’t let anyone else or anything interfere with your instincts and intuition here.
Side note related to fads/others versus trusting yourself: never listen to those dumb magazine articles that cover what celebrities eat in a day. 1200 calories/day is never a good idea for a grown adult. Additionally, do not do what your teammates or others around you do if that does not work for YOU. I do not keep a food diary or exact calorie counts, but I know I rarely have under 2500 or so calories/day, and it’s nearly always in the 2500-3000 calorie range. I’m only putting this out there because I feel like too often I read about women having under 2000 calories/day when training hard and this sets a really negative example for impressionable younger women and girls who may read about those diets. Training hard, firstly, requires energy from calories in the first place. My advice would be to not fret about your calories/day—trust your body, eat well (both healthily and what you like), and you are going to be not just fine, but on your way to a stronger self.
Food is just ONE piece of the puzzle that helps make you an athlete. The others are your workouts, your sleep, and the rest of your life (yes, that definitely counts!). Life is in the end, all too short to worry about things that you shouldn’t worry about, and that take your valuable time and attention away from you actually living your life.
In sum: do yoga, run faster—also, eat what you enjoy, run faster too.