Nutrition is a frequent topic among conversations between runners, but that is, in part, because it plays such a large role in our lives and training. You need to take care of yourself if you want to feel and race great, therefore choosing the right foods for fueling and recovery are super important.
I suppose it would be nice if there was a specific and full-proof plan that everyone could follow, but unfortunately that’s not the case. We are individuals with different needs and situations, thus methods and types of nutrition for fueling and recovery will be different for everyone.
There are so many articles and blog posts about runners who’ve had great success with high-fat, low-carb diets these days, it’s easy to believe that approach is the secret key to ultrarunning success and belt buckles beyond your wildest dreams. But, really, the majority of successful and healthy ultrarunners still eat fairly traditional diets. This article, then, is, in part, an unscientific exercise in social norming-–checking assumptions about what all the cool-kid runners are doing. Not everybody is adding butter and coconut oil to their coffee. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Some of my best friends adulterate their coffee with butter.) We also want to discuss how food choices that work well in training and racing might change throughout the year and over time–both in kind and amount. Certainly family preferences, priorities, cooking skills, cravings, and time constraints come into play along with individual physiology and metabolism, too. For Gina, Pam, and I, eating to fuel performance is important, but eating is, and should be, more than just about fueling. So here’s a look behind the curtain at our choices. We’d love to hear about what drives your decisions and about your successes and failures with different diet regimens.
I live in Boulder, Colorado, and nothing is cheap here. I personally try to eat all organic, hormone-free, grass-fed foods, but the price of those items is usually over my budget. So, I’ve decided to only buy these organic, hormone-free, grass-fed foods when they are on sale. By limiting my selection to sale items only, you can imagine that meals get pretty creative. Although I sometimes splurge on things that aren’t on sale so that I can make a coherent meal, I secretly love only buying the on-sale items because it helps introduce me to some foods I wouldn’t have tried before.
When walking through the grocery store and planning my meals, I always consider what to make and what I’ll need based on my workout schedule for the week. It can be a bit of brain buster at times, but I’m a planner and enjoy creating a schedule.
An average day for me looks like this:
Breakfast— Coffee with cream and a little sugar, one piece of bread with trail butter, honey, and cinnamon.
Lunch— Big salad (usually a pre-made organic mix), whatever leftover protein is in the fridge from the previous night (normally chicken breast), tortilla chips, and most likely Hidden Valley Ranch dressing. (I know, far from organic, but we all have our vices.)
Snack— Some sort of ‘earth muffin’-brand granola bar or a kiwi.
Dinner— A glass of Pinot Noir or a beer, pork chops marinated in sauce made from whatever fruit I found on sale, zucchini with some olive oil, salt and pepper, and a sweet potato (or other root veggie that was on sale), all grilled. And finally, I’ll usually give into my sweet tooth and indulge in a piece of fudge-y chocolate cake (not organic) and if Justin makes it, I steal a few handfuls of movie-theater-style popcorn.
I was vegetarian and vegan for a good long while–mostly because it forced me to incorporate more vegetables and less processed food. And then I had kids and started running a lot more and it became harder and harder for me to make time to prepare healthy vegan meals.(Eg. This bag of popcorn with pea protein powder and a soy latte will do for breakfast.) So I switched back to being an omnivore who abstained from sugar. I’ve experimented with the “Paleo” diet because a lot of my coaching clients have questions about it and I wanted some personal experience to ground my research. I also experimented with a low-carb, high-fat diet because I’ve had such trouble with my stomach during 100-mile races. That’s been helpful, but I don’t like eating a different dinner than my family, and none of them have any patience with low-carb eating.
So I really only limit my carb intake a month before an important race. Certainly that lessens the impact of the approach, but it keeps my family happy–and I can’t run if they’re not behind me.
This food log catalogs my intake right after Marathon des Sables–a 257-kilometer, seven-day stage race through the Sahara Desert. You carry your gear and food in a pack on your back, eating on average 2,300 calories a day. (If you want a primer on how diet is merely one piece of the performance puzzle, look at the fast times of the top male and female marathon performances during Stage 5 at MdS after six days of calorie deficits, more than 150 miles of running in the prior five days, high heat, and carrying a pack.) In any event, I feel like this log does a nice job of illustrating a high-carb, high-fat, high-sodium, high-calorie diet–an approach that works well when you’ve been semi-starved in the desert and are looking to have some fun and gain some weight.
Breakfast— Latte; coffee; espresso (There was a free machine at the hotel with pretty buttons.); bread smeared with butter, fried in butter, and topped with butter balls; two hard-boiled eggs, and one pile of very black and salty olives.
At home in San Antonio, Texas, I’m a breakfast-tacos girl: three scrambled eggs in corn tortillas. And only two cups of coffee with some heavy whipping cream.
Lunch— One pizza covered in cheeses (The silverware pictured is just for show. Also, I would have sprinkled the whole thing with salt but the waiter never came back.) and one weak beer.
At home, if I’m not eating my two year old’s leftovers, refusals, or floor droppings, I usually make a smoothie with yogurt, blueberries, a banana, baby spinach, carrots, and a bit of protein powder.
Snack— A cupful of salty almonds sprinkled with salt.
Dinner— Chicken tagine with lots of olives and a roll of bread with butter.
At home, the kids get two vegetables with dinner–and so do I. And there’s pretty much always a big salad dressed with olive oil, red-wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. (Best salad dressing out there.)
Dessert— One large plateful of crispy filo dough smothered in almond milk and honey. (I snarfed it too quickly to take a picture.)
I don’t have dessert at home. I have no willpower once I start eating sugar. One donut equals six donuts. One Jelly Belly equals 197 Jelly Bellies. So I abstain (for the most part.)
If you take three ultrarunners, you can pretty much guarantee one of them is going to have some special dietary plan. In this group it’s me. I don’t do it year round, but when I am in ‘serious-training mode,’ I basically follow a carb back-loading program, in other words, reserving carbs for the end of the day. I first started doing this in 2013 when I was training for Western States and I was searching for an alternative to high-fat, low-carb eating. At the time I was interested in the ‘fat-burning’ accentuation from periods of carb restriction. Nowadays, I feel like the biggest benefit to me is helping me avoid junk-food binging, while still feeling like I can eat whatever treats I want. I am the classic example of ‘carb addiction’ and I am the type of person who could eat half a sleeve of Girl Scout cookies before I even started to think maybe I should stop. Meb Keflezighi has said that he has one fun-sized Snickers for a treat after a long run; if I had a bag of fun-sized Snickers in my house, I’d eat eight… minimum! Having some guidelines allows me to stay a lot closer to race weight and nutrition ideals than I would if left to my own cravings.
For breakfast and lunch, I eat meals that would be pretty standard for high-fat, low-carb diet regimens. At dinner, I incorporate carbs, aiming for roughly 100, 150, or 200 grams, depending on how hard the next morning’s workout is. But I am not strict about the source–the carbs are for fuel, not for vitamins and nutrients, so this is where I can keep my treats!
I have a huge vegetable garden and try to eat what’s available in the garden, but it gets tougher out of season, and of course, things like avocados and tropical fruits will never grow in Oregon. Right now I only have asparagus, kale, mache, and carrots in the garden, and frozen cubed squash and canned tomatoes put up from last year, so most of my stuff is coming from the market at this time of the year. We do keep chickens, so eggs are a staple. I spend a couple hours Sunday evening cooking big batches of veggies, boiling eggs, and cooking some extra meat so that I can pack my own breakfasts and lunches for the work week.
Here’s a look at my day of eating:
Breakfast— Two scrambled eggs, two cups of cooked kale, salsa, and half an avocado.
Lunch— Big salad with lettuce, tomatoes, black olives, turkey meat, and chipotle aioli (basically mayo and a little chipotle juice).
Dinner— Taco salad containing lettuce, ground beef with taco seasoning, and sauteed peppers. Normally I’d have a cup of rice for some carbs, but I knew my husband Mac made chocolate-chip cookies.
Dessert— Three cookies!
We are all different with our nutrition habits and methods, but the main theme we share is the focus of eating to fuel our bodies with energy, or fueling for recovery. None of us are perfect, and we each have our guilty pleasures, but at the end of the day we are on the right track and keep a mindful practice of caring for our bodies.
Many articles these days include insight into an athlete’s nutritional choices. When someone has great success at a race, I think it is a normal response to want to emulate what that person did to achieve that result, both in training and in their dietary choices. We’ve offered a peek into our own eating habits to offer a few more ‘data points’ for how ultrarunners eat and to highlight the variety of styles amongst runners trying to perform at their best.
Call for Comments
- What drives your decisions about what food to eat?
- How would you describe your diet?
- Has a particular food regimen or strategy enhanced your running performances?
- What diet strategies do you think most ultrarunners follow?