Do we really need special diets in order to increase our performance?

Do runners need a special diet? There are many influential figures in the sport who believe we do. They just can’t agree on what that special diet is. Some say it’s vegetarian, others say it’s Paleo and still others say it’s gluten-free, low-carb or something else.

What’s interesting is that very few professional runners are on special diets. To understand why, all we have to do is consider how people become elite runners. Let’s look at an example.

Molly Huddle grew up in Elmira, N.Y., on what she describes as “the typical American diet” of cereal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch and meat and potatoes for dinner. This diet fueled Huddle to a fourth-place finish at the Foot Locker High School Cross Country Championship and a national high school record for 2 miles (10:01).

In college, Huddle ate like a typical college athlete. Her dietary mainstays were cereal and milk and bagels and peanut butter. Conscious of the need to consume vegetables, she ate salads “occasionally” in order to check that box. During her four years at the University of Notre Dame, this diet fueled Huddle to nine All-America selections and a runner-up finish in the 2006 NCAA Championships 5000 meters.

Since turning professional, Huddle has increased the overall quality of her diet. No longer will she eat half a box of cereal for dinner. But her diet remains recognizably normal for a 21st-century American. She usually eats whole-grain pancakes for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and meat with vegetables and a salad for dinner. This diet has fueled Huddle to nine national championships and two American records at 5000 meters.

Huddle’s story is not the least bit unusual. Nearly all runners who are blessed with world-class talent grow up on a diet that is typical for their culture. This is as true in other countries as it is in the United States. In 2004, Vincent Onywera spent two weeks studying the diet of elite Kenyan runners. His conclusion, as he said in an NPR interview, was that “they eat food eaten by ordinary Kenyans.”

The other thing that nearly all runners with world-class talent do in their youth—besides eat a normal diet—is experience immediate success in competition. This experience teaches them that it is possible to perform at the highest level on a normal diet. No special diet is needed.

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Runners like us who lack world-class talent don’t have this experience, so it is a lot easier to convince us that a special diet is needed. Since we don’t win races or break records, we cannot rule out the possibility that diet is somehow holding us back. So when diet gurus approach us and say that a grain-free, meat-free or other special diet is essential to maximum endurance performance, we are inclined to believe it might be true.

But it’s not true, and elite runners are living proof of it. At the professional level, the sport of running is so ultra-competitive that it is impossible for athletes with any amount of talent to succeed with inferior methods of training or nourishment. The high-quality versions of culturally normal diets that almost all elite runners maintain are clearly sufficient and perhaps optimal to support the highest level of performance. Therefore, the most sensible diet for non-elite runners who want to perform their best is one that emulates those of the professionals.

But wait a minute: Kenyan runners eat tons of ugali (cornmeal porridge), whereas American runners eat none. And Japanese runners eat lots of fish while Ethiopian runners are more partial to teff. In short, elite runners in different places eat different foods, so it doesn’t seem possible to copy their diet generally.

Eating like an elite does not mean eating the specific foods that any particular group of elite runners eat. Rather, it means emulating their key dietary habits. There are five salient dietary habits that are shared by elite runners everywhere. It is these universal best practices you’ll want to copy. Let’s take a look at them.

1. Eat Everything

There are six basic categories of natural, whole foods in the human diet: vegetables (including legumes), fruit, nuts and seeds, unprocessed meat and fish, whole grains and dairy. Most elite runners include all of these foods in their diet. For example, in a typical day, two-time U.S. Olympian Shannon Rowbury eats a sprouted wheat English muffin (whole grain) with chunky almond butter (nuts and seeds) and honey, plus half a banana (fruit) and coffee with milk (dairy) for breakfast; an egg (which I count as an unprocessed meat), mixed vegetable (vegetable) and cheese (dairy) scramble for lunch; and broiled salmon (fish), quinoa (whole grain), and tossed salad (vegetable) for dinner. All six categories are covered.

It’s easy to understand why elite runners eat everything when you look at what happens to runners who are persuaded to eliminate one or more of these food groups. Runners who don’t eat meat are much more likely to develop iron-deficiency anemia, while runners who eliminate grains tend to develop chronic fatigue, and runners who eliminate other foods experience still other problems.

Except in cases of allergy or intolerance, eliminating any of the six basic types of natural, whole foods from the diet is more likely to hurt than help performance.

2. Eat Quality

In addition to the six categories of natural, whole foods, there are four basic categories of low-quality foods: refined grains, sweets, processed meats and fried foods. Elite athletes tend to keep their consumption of these foods to a minimum.

“I try to cut out fried foods almost completely when I’m in the peak of my season,” says 2014 U.S. indoor 3000m champion Gabriele Grunewald, who also chooses whole grains over refined grains at every opportunity, eats more fish and poultry than red and processed meats and doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth.

While a “normal” diet is sufficient to support the highest level of running performance, an “anything goes” diet is not. This is why many runners with world-class talent are required to increase their overall diet quality when they leave college and turn professional. They find that the culturally normal diet that allowed them to win in school is not good enough to make them competitive on the world stage.

Again, Molly Huddle is a case in point. In high school and college, she performed very well but did not win a single national title. Upon turning professional, she traded her typical American diet for a high-quality version of the typical American diet and became one of the best American-born runners of all time, capable of routinely thumping the top runners from Kenya and Ethiopia.

The lesson is simple: While becoming the best runner you can be does not require a special diet, it does require a high-quality diet.

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3. Eat Carbs

While many recreational runners and non-runners cower in fear of carbohydrates, elite runners do not. Quite the opposite, in fact. Amy Hastings, winner of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials 10,000 meters, is typical in this regard. Carbohydrate is the main energy source in just about everything Hastings consumes in a typical day, from the English muffin sandwich she includes in her breakfast to the energy gels and sports drink she takes in before and during workouts to the orange she eats as an afternoon snack to the Texmati rice and sautéed vegetables that appear on her dinner plate.

Elite runners weren’t always such carbo-guzzlers. From the 1910s through the 1940s, the best runners in the world came from Finland, where the traditional diet is high in fat. But in the 1950s, the Finns were left behind by runners from British Commonwealth nations and from the United States, where somewhat less fat and more carbs are eaten. Then, in the late 1960s, research by Gunvar Ahlborg of Sweden demonstrated a clear connection between habitual carbohydrate intake and endurance performance. This discovery led elite runners around the world to consciously increase their carb intake, and another performance revolution ensued. The last man to set a marathon world record before the carbo-loading revolution (Morio Shigematsu of Japan) ran a 2:12:00. The first man to set a marathon world after the revolution (Derek Clayton of Australia) brought the mark down to 2:08:33.

In the 1980s, the sport was taken over by runners from East Africa, who remain the world’s best. The diet of elite runners from Kenya and Ethiopia is extremely high in carbohydrate, averaging 77 percent of total calories.

Is it a coincidence that the performance level of the world’s best runners has risen in tandem with their carbohydrate intake over the last 80 or 90 years? Science would suggest not. Numerous studies have demonstrated that when hard-training endurance athletes reduce their carb intake, the same amount of work produces greater physiological stress, while anaerobic capacity, aerobic capacity, and time-trial performance plummet, even when plenty of time is allowed to adapt to the low-carb diet.

Recreational runners should also prioritize carbs in their diet, but they need to scale their intake to their level of training. A 30-miles-a-week runner does not need the 10 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight that the 130-miles-a-week elite runner requires. Instead, start at a baseline of 3 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight and increase your carb intake by 1 g/kg/day for ever 20 miles you run in a week. Get all of those carbs from high-quality food sources, except during prolonged workouts, when it’s OK to use sports drinks and other ergogenic aids.

4. Eat Plenty

Elite runners tend to be more focused on making sure they eat enough than on avoiding eating too much. Many of them acquire this perspective the hard way. Stephanie Rothstein Bruce, a 1:11 half marathoner, revealed recently on her blog that she stopped menstruating in college after cutting calories too drastically in an effort to lose weight. When she added healthy calories back to her diet, she got her period back, her running improved and she did not gain weight. Ever since then, she has lived by the axiom, “Eat more than you burn.”

It is interesting to note that eating disorders are a virtual epidemic among college runners yet are almost unheard of at the elite level. Why? Because a runner can’t perform at the elite level (nor can any runner run her best) if she’s not eating enough!

Of course, the real goal for runners with respect to quantity of food intake is to eat neither too much nor too little. But it’s best to err on the side of eating too much. If you eat a bit too much, you will store excess body fat. On the other hand, if you chronically eat even slightly too little, the bottom will eventually fall out of your training and health.

The problem of eating too much is also easier to correct than is the error of slightly overeating. So start out by eating enough to ensure your training is well fueled. If you are gaining weight or (more likely) failing to lose the excess body fat you already have, decrease your food intake in small increments until you begin to slowly lose body fat and move toward your optimal racing weight.

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5. Eat Individually

Each person has a unique combination of dietary history, preferences, habits and needs. Most special diets ignore this fact. They say, in effect, “We don’t care what you’ve been eating up to this point. There’s only one right way to eat, and we’ve got it. So start over.”

Elite runners are living proof that one-size-fits-all diets are neither necessary nor optimal. While nearly all elite runners eat everything, eat quality, eat carbs, and eat plenty, within these parameters they exercise a great deal of individual choice. Chinese elite runners such as Xhu Xiaolin eat like Chinese. Brazilian elite runners such as Marilson Dos Santos eat like Brazilians. Runners with celiac disease, such as the now-retired Amy Yoder Begley, don’t eat wheat. Runners with a sweet tooth, including Kara Goucher, allow themselves to indulge in sugary treats once a day or so.

You get the idea. If you’re like most non-elite runners, your current diet could use some improvement. But you don’t have to start over. You just need to add in any natural, whole food types that are missing, raise the overall quality of your diet, perhaps eat more carbs, and ensure that you’re eating enough overall to support your training (but no more). Everything else is a matter of personal choice and individual need.

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About The Author:

Matt Fitzgerald is the author of numerous books, including 80-20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster By Training Slower. He is also a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. To learn more about Matt visit www.mattfitzgerald.org.