Social Norming For Breakfast: Food And Fueling Choices

From Gina:
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.

From Liza:
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.

From Gina:
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.

From Liza:
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.

Breakfast

A Morroccan breakfast specialty, fried bread. All photos: Liza Howard

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.

Olives

When in Morocco (and sodium-deprived): olives for breakfast.

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.

Pizza

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.

Beer

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.)

Chicken Tagine

A tagine–another Moroccan specialty referring to that clay pot used to cook many foods–cooked with chicken and olives.

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.)

From Pam:
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!

From Gina:
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.

From Pam:
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?
Trail Sisters

is a group of three women, each with unique opinions, ideas, and attitudes toward all things trail and ultrarunning. Pam Smith is a mom, physician, and lover of running who lives in Oregon. Liza Howard is a mom and 100-mile specialist from Texas. Gina Lucrezi is a Colorado-based short-distance speedster exploring the realms of ultrarunning.

There are 29 comments

  1. Angela

    Good topic. I can pick some similarities to each of you. Pam, your meals sound delicious! Gina, seems like not much food for an endurance athlete. Of course, I eat way too much, so I’m certain I could learn from your sample menu. Liza, eating food droppings and leftovers…me, too!! I just feel terrible throwing away food that my kids don’t eat. Mac n cheese gets me EVERYTIME!

    Thanks for the insight! I wonder if endurance athletes have some kind of gene that allows them to have much more willpower than the rest of us.

    1. Liza

      Angela, if there is, I missed out. (Dangit!) The more I’ve run though, the more I’ve become aware of how certain foods affect how I feel — and the easier it’s become to avoid the foods that don’t make me feel good during runs. Sugar during the day really makes me feel tired and sluggish — so I do my best to avoid it when I’m not actually running.

      1. Gina Lucrezi

        Hey Angela!
        My metabolism isn’t super fast…unfortunately! Thus, I don’t need to put as much in. There have been times in the past where I’ve put in tons of calories, and all that happened was the addition of a few extra (and unwanted) lbs. So…for me, I don’t need to put in as much as some others. Thanks for taking the time to read our post :)

        1. Angela

          My apologies, Gina, for being judgie. After reading my comment and others, I can see how I was, at least, questioning the amount of food intake. I’m grateful for the discussion. After having plateau’d in the weight loss, even with increased running volume, I can see now where the correction needs to be made. I’ve begun logging food with an app, just today, and wow! The calorie count is already high and it’s only 1:30PM. eep! This article is much appreciated, ALL!

  2. Callie

    Pam- so many similarities here, except that I am totally deprived of a garden space and therefore spend way too much on organic produce, but it’s worth it. I’m sure it’s been a topic of conversation before, but we (Joe and I) practice carb “back loading” as well, (only at the end of the day). I find it helps keep me on track all day, and has eliminated my mid afternoon sugar cravings. I love what you said about what kinds of carbs- I used to think “I should have the quinoa, not the cookies” but then I’d end up having both! I have to say I don’t miss the quinoa, and can maintain the training weight I want without feeling restrictive in my diet. When training I go for beer/chocolate/chips (not usually all 3, but sometimes!) in the evening, but the 2 weeks before Sonoma eliminated all but beer, and dropped to race weight so easily without changing anything else in my diet (high fat, low carb all day)- something I really used to struggle with pre HFLC. I swear the secret is eggs+veggie+butter+cheese of some kind for breakfast and heavy cream in my coffee- so satisfying and full for hours versus the old Greek yogurt and oatmeal that would leave me hungry by mid morning. I’m really enjoying these articles, keep it up!

    1. Pam

      Callie – so right on about not feeling hungry at 10:30 and 3:30 any more. I use a lot mayonnaise based sauces (aioli for the culinary types) for the added fat to keep things rich and satisfying, and I’d say I eat some nut butter off a spoon at the end of meals at least three times a week! Last night all my carbs came from a box of Dots! But like you said, if I tried to only eat rice or quinoa, I’d still end up eating the junk food too! After 4 weeks of adhering to this, I am back down to my 2013 WS race weight without feeling like I have given up everything good that I like to eat!

  3. Barry Young

    I’d be curious to know how many calories people are eating on an average (training) day. Standard advice for someone running 80-100 miles a week would be 2,500 to 4,000 calories per day but some of these diets sound a bit lighter than that.

    1. Liza

      Barry, I’m guessing you’re not referring to my post-MdS butter-ball and olive diet in your comment. I run more like 60-70 weekly, and, at 5ish feet and not very muscled, I’d guess I probably average somewhere in the range you described.

    2. Amy

      I’ve got to agree with Barry, here. I read this and thought, 1) I eat at least twice as much food each day, and 2) Gina, 1 piece of bread for breakfast and no snack before lunch–I’ve got to assume you never run before noon? I know everyone is different, but are you all describing meals while in heavy training mode?

      1. Gina Lucrezi

        Hey Amy!

        I’m not a bigger eater before runs…and my metabolism isn’t super fast. I usually run around 10-10:30 and by the time I’m done, it’s lunch time. I’m also not a super high mileage runner…I top out at around 70ish miles. When I’m at that point in training, I do eat more calories.

    3. Olga King

      I, too, was bewildered how little these daily intakes, especially Gina’s, have. For the quick math, hardly reaching 2,000, if that, which is more of a regular person’s calorie suggestion. What gives? Any time I dip under 2,000 (and at this point I don’t even run over 40 mph, though I do weight train quite a lot), I starve and underperform.

      1. Liza

        Olga, I’ll figure out the calorie count for the post-MdS meal described, but I guarantee it’s not little. Breakfast alone was close to 900 calories with all the butter — which, of course, isn’t what I normally eat — just after desert starvation races. As far as my daily diet — it averages around 2000-2500 calories of food depending on whether and how much I’m running + 320 recovery drink if running + 180ish calories/hour of running. I’m 5ft and 98 pounds, and my diet reflects that. Chris Russell would need more. So would the average 70kg male.

      2. Gina Lucrezi

        Hey Olga!

        Not sure if you read Sage’s comment below…but he is spot on with the gender/weight/height and metabolism comment. My metabolism is pretty slow. I actually get jealous of the people who can eat 4000+ calories! I’ve tried it before, thinking I was under eating…but all that happened was some unwanted lbs. So, for me, I just don’t need as much as some other runners. I also am not a high mileage person…I top out at about 70ish miles during peak training. When I am putting in high mileage, I will consume more calories than what’s mentioned in the post.

        1. Pam

          Olga- Looking this over, I realize I did omit a half avocado for dinner (I have a pic to prove it!) and I cook with generous oil (eggs, kale, peppers) – usually a full tablespoon. I added my calories for the day and it came to 1960 – pretty close to that 2,000 mark. It definitely depends on what I ran that day. I am not a calorie counter, but since I am training for a track race, I am consciously trying to avoid the extra helpings, snacks and other such things because I don’t want to be carrying any extra weight. Now that I am over 40, weight doesn’t just melt off when I start running high mileage.

    4. SageCanaday

      I’m obviously not an RD, but took some nutrition classes at Cornell (so take my advice with a grain of salt…pun intended).

      I believe this is a factor of gender, height/weight, genetic metabolism and exercise/revved up metabolism. So all very different variables at play!

      I’ve clocked myself at around 4000 calories/day running on 100 miles a week. (Mind you that’s on a vegetarian diet as well). In my food log “what I eat in a day” videos people don’t think I eat very much though. I consider myself to have a fairly slow metabolism and therefore am not eating 4500+. But I do drink an Avery IPA nearly every night.

      In looking at Gina’s example I’d say there is a huge variation in what kind of calorie count that is…Mind you a pack of Trail Butter is around 700-800 calories alone (the big ones, which I usually eat as a snack). How much she puts on one piece of bread can cary that calorie count by quite a bit.

      Also keep in mind fat is 9kcal/g (compared to 4kcal/g for carbs/protein). High calorie density per volume. You don’t need to eat very many fried things or globs of butter to hit 2000 calories at all in terms of volume. The other thing I see with high fat, low carb diets is people are initially thrilled because they start shedding pounds fairly quickly…but generally it is a quick water weight loss (from lack of carbs). Not all carbs are created equal though and obviously refined sugar and highly processed foods should be minimized.

      1. Liza

        Good points about the amount of calorie variation possible in the food logs, Sage. We weren’t specific with exact amounts, which could definitely give the impression that our calories counts are smaller than they actually are. For the record, I am not recommending the post-MdS diet to anyone. It was an indulgence after a lot of calorie deprivation. And certainly, there are healthier ways to replace calories, but the feasting was perfect for mental recovery. Thanks so much for your comment. :)

      2. Barry Young

        I guess I was wondering if I was seeing any evidence here of what I’ve observed in other runners where the drive to “eat healthily” all the time results in a tendency to not consume enough actual energy. I see people doing long tempo runs and then recovering with a salad which basically consists of some leaves and maybe a piece of chicken breast. It’s definitely more prevalent among female runners, although admittedly yes, body size and gender obviously affect individual requirements.

        Of course, everyone is different and it’s probably not possible to be competitive at the top level and optimally healthy, so pick one.

  4. Cara M

    What a great discussion. I think Sage makes some very valid points, I am a nutritionist and RD. There is room for huge variations within what everyone is describing as meals. You add some extra olive oil, butter, or cheese a few times a day or extra servings of something like quinoa and the caloric content goes up quite a bit. I really think using an online tool, there are free online ones I can suggest, to track your food even if only once or twice is a great idea. To give yourself an idea of how many calories, carbs, fiber, etc. you are taking in can be a real help. In general I eat quite a lot for my size but even knowing what I do about food and nutrition and having the ability to eyeball an analysis of what Im eating if needed, sometimes I need to see what it is Im taking in when I get busy and am training. Other than that I just enjoy food and dont think about it much. Once this winter I was feeling a bit tired after a higher volume week or two of skiing and running so I tracked my intakes for 2-3 days and realized I was low on protein and carbs, if only because I was busy with life, not intentionally. I have eaten mostly a plant based diet for 25+ years so while it often seems like Im eating a lot its sometimes not as calorically dense as it is nutritiously dense. While I use sometimes use tracking as an education tool for weight loss clients and clients that need to monitor carb servings for disease prevention, its also a great tool for an athlete. Not for them to get obsessive over and not for someone with ED issues, but just to use a few times to get an idea. Ive worked with many athletes who are getting much less or much more than what they need without knowing it and this is often a great way to educate on maximizing their performance through nutrition. I will say there is no definitive definition of low carb so I often see wildly varying interpretations, some thinking 50g a day is low while others feel 200-250g a day is low. Whether 100-200g is low would depend on if the person was an athlete, size, shape, perhaps age and their general health and medical history. Just a suggestion

    1. Liza

      Thanks so much for your comment, Cara. I use the free myfitnesspal app to keep tabs on protein and carbs intake like you describe. Meredith Terranova recommended that to me a long time ago and I remember being very surprised between my perceptions of my intake and the actual values.

      1. Pam

        I’ve tracked food a couple of times, but mostly I find it onerous and it actually makes me a bit anxious about what I am eating. Instead, if I am ever feeling like I am having a really off workout, I make sure to eat some extra carbs that day and it usually does the trick. I will also say that I always eat when I am hungry, so if my body is saying it needs more food, I eat it!

  5. Stephen Goetz

    I bring a cooler with pre-run and post-run food when I drive to the park or gym. In it I have foods like apples, salads with about 10 dif. veggies (no dressing!), carrots, celery, coconut water. Basically stuff you can munch on while driving. The salad is a bit tricky in a car but it’s easier than eating Taco Bell.

    Guaranteed that I will be hungry before I get home, so it’s better to be in control of my diet and eat what’s with me, than stop at a convenient drive-thru.

    I spend a ton of $$$ at Whole Foods on organic veggies and other food. I tell myself it’s cheaper than meds. I eat a lot of good fats for satiation purposes. Avocados, olives and nuts. And my post run usually has some meat like wild caught salmon, free range chicken or bison.

    I ditched the fast food, processed foods, the “nutrition” bars and even alcohol. Yes serious measures, but I am no longer overweight, or have high cholesterol or high blood pressure.

    I tell people: “The Secret is Salad”,
    and “You Can Pay Now, Or Pay Later”

  6. Braided

    I find these articles so interesting, thank you!

    One thing that struck me is that though Liza, Pam, and Gina do not follow the trendy (and probably effective for some) HFLC diet, there is a clear emphasis on fat in their example menus.

    Not even 10 years ago, most runners I knew (including myself) ate extremely high-refined carb, low fat diets. I remember putting jelly on my daily breakfast bagel because cream cheese had too much fat. I ate about 2500 calories a day (running 40-50 miles a week) but my endurance past a 10K was nil and I had excess weight and high blood sugar from all the refined carbs (though I did eat my veggies, too).

    So I did some research. I now eat about 2000 calories on an average day — about 60% fat, 20% protein, 20% carb. I run 60-70 miles a week, and I can run a 5 hour 50k taking in about 400 calories total. I don’t think I could do that eating high-carb.

    1. Pam

      I find the more fat I eat, the more satisfied I feel at a meal. It definitely keeps me from binging. I don’t stop myself from eating more food when I am hungry, but there is no point where I “need” six cookies at a time. Low fat diets really make me crave sugary foods!

  7. Liza

    Nice observation, Braided. :) I remember those low fat days, well. Skim milk, low fat ice cream, low fat granola bars. Don’t eat too many eggs. Three cheers for heavy whipping cream in coffee. :)

  8. Eric Ahern

    I was lucky enough to be living in France when I started getting into running, and the concept of low fat wasn’t even close to my radar. I recall the shock on my parents’ faces when they visited and observed the quantities of butter and jam that I would slather on my baguette at breakfast. It was part of the culture, and felt like what my body needed for recovery from long days surfing, biking and running. Lunch and dinner were always big affairs (one or two hours, minimum) with salad, roasted chicken or other meat, tons of veggies from the market, and more bread and butter, plus cheese and wine. Dark chocolate for dessert. Now I discover that that way of eating isn’t too far removed from HFLC (except the baguettes and jam). A huge variety, focus on quality whole foods, prepared from scratch. I consider myself lucky that I didn’t read any diet advice in Runner’s World ten years ago, and rather followed the traditional nutrition wisdom of where I was living. It gave me much a more balanced approach that I still follow. I maintain my race weight by eating by feel and savoring food for its nutrition AND taste.

    As an interesting aside, junk food in France comes with warning labels about the ill effects of snacking between meals. They’ve made it a national priority to preserve the traditional, sensible eating culture.

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