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One of the most important factors for a successful and fulfilling cross country season is nailing down and honoring your nutritional needs. You won’t be able to run very far or fast without enough of the right nutrients, and it won’t be any fun if you aren’t enjoying what you eat!
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of contradicting and fallacious information floating around out there about how distance runners should and shouldn’t fuel to run fast. We talked to registered dietician and distance runner Sarah Schlichter, author behind the nutrition blog Bucket List Tummy and co-host of the Nail Your Nutrition podcast, to get the facts straight about the best way to eat and nourish your body during the cross country season.
One of the most common struggles for athletes, cross country runners in particular, is learning to honor and acknowledge hunger.
“Many runners undermine the energy they need day in and day out, regardless if it was a hard workout day or long run day or a rest day,” Schlitcher explains.
To properly honor hunger cues, Schlichter says to nix any “food rules” you may have picked up and learn to tune into what your body needs, whether it’s something sweet or an extra sandwich. “It’s important to realize there are no ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods — there is just food,” she says. “Some provide more nutrients, and some provide more comfort, enjoyment, etc.”
Sometimes you may need to eat when you don’t feel hunger. “For example,” Schlichter says, “After a workout or long run when hunger may be suppressed.” You might add an after-dinner snack to meet energy needs, or even a planned snack before afternoon classes or meetings that may run long and prevent you from eating every 2-3 hours.
Keeping healthy snacks on hand will help you not only be prepared to eat when you’re hungry, but ensure that you get a balance of nutrients.
Eat a variety of nutrients
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Food is so much more than just a macronutrient! It’s pleasure, satisfaction, nostalgia, emotions and more. Looking at food as just macros seems way too dogmatic. What would it take to see food as something to look forward to? A plate of satisfaction? A breakfast with friends, rather than a “keto” meal? The words we use matter! They impact the thoughts we have. Eating foods with ALL of these macronutrients is good for our bodies (and necessary). Consider this your reminder!
Do your best to eat foods that contain a mixture of protein, fat, and carbohydrates to get a balanced ratio of those macronutrients throughout the day. Carbohydrates are strictly used as an energy source for the human body, so the more active you are the more you need to consume. Protein is necessary for muscle growth and recovery, and fat plays a vital role in the body assisting with development, regulating our hormones, maintaining cell membranes and serving as an energy reserve.
There is no magic ratio of these nutrients that meets the needs of every runner. It varies depending on factors like training volume and base metabolism. Try to incorporate foods with each macronutrient into your diet and listen to what your body tells you it may need more of.
Before a race
“The meal the night before a race should be balanced with all macronutrients, but should especially have sufficient carbohydrates to preload the muscles for racing the next day,” says Schlichter. You should ideally eat ample amounts of carbohydrates throughout the week as well, so the pre-race meal may not look much different than your typical meal. You shouldn’t need to carbo-load for a 5K.
Schlichter lists some good carbohydrate options:
- Sweet and white potatoes
On race day, don’t eat anything too close to the start — the timing varies with each runner, but few can handle eating closer than an hour before a hard effort. You may also need to be cautious about what types of food you eat throughout the day before racing or hard workouts.
“Some people may feel better with less fiber, so depending on the person and his/her GI tolerance, you may want to limit excess fiber,” Schlichter says “Some good carbohydrate-rich pre-race snack options include toast with a little bit of peanut butter and fruit, a glass of juice, some oatmeal, or energy bites.”
And, the cardinal rule: “Don’t eat anything new before a race!” she emphasizes.
Post-race and post-workout fueling
After a race or challenging workout, aim to eat a mixture of protein and carbohydrates to nourish your body.
“The protein helps rebuild and repair the muscle that is broken down during exercise, while the carbohydrates help replenish the glycogen stores that are used,” says Schlichter. “Post exercise, the muscles are really receptive to taking in glucose and being repaired which is why appropriate fueling after exercise is key.”
Some good options Schlichter recommends for after a race or workout include:
- yogurt with fruit
- chocolate milk
- A sandwich
“Failing to recover properly can jeopardize future workouts, but also lead to cravings and overeating later on,” she points out.
What about supplements?
Over the past few decades, supplements have become extremely trendy within the running community. The debate as to whether they are worthwhile has been polarizing. According to Schlicher, this is something that needs to be determined on a case by case basis.
“Some general nutrients to be aware of include calcium, iron and Vitamin B12,” says Schlichter. “Certain groups, such as females, and those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, for example, may need more of specific nutrients and may need to hone in more on gaps in their diet.”
What should be avoided?
While it’s sometimes recommended to avoid foods high in processed sugar, excess caffeine, and alcohol, Schlichter says that this is a pretty individualized question. Beyond ensuring you keep your diet varied and balanced, with no single food type in excess, there aren’t any universally accepted rules.
“All kinds of food can fit into a ‘healthy’ diet and lifestyle for a runner,” she explains. “If a runner experiences adverse symptoms or extra bloating from certain foods, he or she may want to reduce it before runs or races to avoid or limit GI upset. Similarly, if someone is sensitive to excess sugar or other ingredients, he or she may want to reduce intake. Of course, any allergens and food sensitivities should be avoided.”
Males and females have different needs
Male and female athletes have different nutritional needs, Schlichter points out, highlighting why it is so essential to get personalized nutrition advice from a trained professional like a dietitian or nutritionist rather than implementing blanket advice from a blog or social media account.
“Males and females also have different hormones that may determine or impact nutrition needs, says Schlichter. “Many people know that females are at a higher risk of low iron due to menstruation. However, fewer understand that females who experience amenorrhea, or a lack of a period, have a higher rate of stress features, injuries and more, making nutrients, like calcium and Vitamin D, very important.”
The most important nutrition advice applies to all runners, however, regardless of sex: Make sure, Schlichter says, that you’re “eating enough calories to support hormones, proper growth, and muscle repair and recovery.”
Avoid these common pitfalls
Some of the most common pitfalls Schlichter sees in her practice include not being adequately hydrated, eating too much fiber before a run, not eating enough before a run, and under fueling.
“Much of this can be avoided by planning ahead and ensuring consistent snacks and meals (sometimes, even if you’re not hungry), and avoiding high fat and high fiber foods around exercise, says Schlichter, who created a whole self-paced fueling course that talks about all aspects of proper fueling, something she says is a deeply misunderstood and under appreciated aspect of optimal running performance.
Distance running has a dark, deeply entrenched history with disordered eating, so it bears repeating that lighter does not mean faster, and there isn’t a static ideal “racing weight.” A human being is not a mechanical vehicle, and over-focusing on body composition and weight tends to foster unhealthy eating habits, anxiety, depression, increased risk of injury, and hormonal disruptions.
“Right now especially, there is a big focus on the dangers of under-fueling and relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S),” says Schlichter. “Not only does it affect energy levels and performance, but an energy deficiency increases the risk of injury, and also negatively affects other parts of health, including the cardiovascular system, GI system, sleep, and even mental health. Many athletes who are consciously under-eating are constantly thinking about food, and may be experiencing anxiety and depression as well. There are many trickle down effects on the whole body from consciously under-fueling to meet the ‘thin ideal’ or a certain body type.”
Remember: Food is more than fuel
Finally, always remember that food is more than simply fuel for running. It’s something that should be enjoyed and bonded over. Overly fixating on making “perfect” and clean food choices is a disordered eating habit that Schlichter says can adversely impact a runner’s performance, leaving him or her under-fueled and stressed out about food.
“Excess stress can exacerbate GI symptoms and can impact sleep, which then impacts performance,” she says. “Food is definitely more than fuel. We eat for many reasons, one of which being we are hungry and need ‘fuel.’ However, we also eat for other reasons, like socialization, nostalgia, feeling sad/angry/happy, or even just because we want to taste something. Looking at food as only fuel takes away all of the enjoyment, pleasure and satisfaction that comes along with mealtime.”
Ultimately, having a healthy relationship with food is inextricably tied to having a healthy relationship with running and for sustained, long term progress in the sport.
Sarah Schlichter is a Registered Dietitian with a Master’s in Public Health. She’s currently working on my certification to become a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). Schlichter co-hosts the Nail Your Nutrition podcast in which she discusses endurance fueling from a non-diet perspective.