As an elite competitor, this is a question I receive often. Because professional and elite runners have toned, strong, and efficient bodies, the misconception is often that they limit their diet and never have indulgent meals. The truth is, the best elite runners practice “everything in moderation” while keeping clear intentions to fuel their bodies whenever hungry with nutrient-dense wholesome foods. Here are some tips I learned in my experiences as a pro runner, which are applicable even if you aren’t running 90+ miles per week.
As an elite competitor, I prioritize having main sources of energy, micro and macro nutrients, and recovery foods in my diet. This means getting a large amount of protein, healthy fats, and a variety of fruits and vegetables at each and every meal before adding empty calories. In high training periods, the overall amount of food I take in increases even more but I try to keep these ratios consistent. I always try to prioritize getting in all the crucial nutritional elements FIRST before going straight to a comfort food item. I always aim to take in a high variety of vegetables, fruits, grain types, and protein sources as well. Some of my favorite meals include veggie and rice bowls with a filling sauce such as one that’s cashew based or coconut milk based (think like a curry), pasta dishes with plenty of grilled veggies and meat in the sauce, and filling tacos with a generous helping of guacamole!
This is not to say that I, and other elite athletes, never have a dessert, alcoholic drinks, or “junk food.” Most runners I know enjoy salty chips, homemade brownies, and the occasional beer just as much as the next person. If I find that I’m hungry a couple hours after eating dinner, instead of having a bag of chips, I might opt for an apple with peanut butter, and then just a handful or two of chips. I’ve also found that moving up a sweet treat like cookies or dessert to my mid afternoon snack helps me avoid the adverse sleeping effects that can happen when you have the sugar close to bedtime.
Know Your Body
Over the years, I have tried various diet accommodations to see what increases my performance or makes me feel more energized. I’ve tried limited dairy intake, cut out gluten, reduced carbs, took out red meat, ate red meat every day, and so on. If something seemed to make a substantial positive impact, I kept going with it. If I felt no different, or even worse, I did not persist. One time, I changed my usual pre-workout breakfast to being purely fats-based in an attempt to follow some of the principles of the keto diet. My coach had suggested this may help me burn primarily fats for energy (over simple carbs) and set me up for success in the marathon distance. Unfortunately, after trying it for 6 weeks, what I was experiencing was increased fatigue in workouts, needing to stop and snack after just 1-2 hours of training, and no increases in workout performance. Because I was in season, we decided to scrap this idea and move back to my regular breakfast routine and instead tweak what nutrition I would take in on race day. I felt better instantly and realized that in the stage of life I was in, that diet change didn’t make sense for me at that moment.
Get Scientific Data
Most elites are also receiving consistent blood work where they can check to see how diet might be impacting important biomarkers such as iron levels, thyroid function, cortisol amounts, and Vitamin D retention. I was no different. When my iron levels were continually plummeting despite high amounts of supplementation, it was a clue that I was having side effects of a gluten intolerance. By cutting gluten, my iron levels were able to remain at a more optimal level. These relationships will vary from person to person and there is not one diet that equals better performance across the board. Talk to your doctor about receiving blood tests if you feel like something isn’t working, or better yet, seek out a consult with an integrative nutritionist. Don’t be afraid to try different diets and experiment for a few weeks to see if you feel any changes. If you’re feeling okay, then no reason to stress.
By keeping variety, intention, and priorities within my diet, I ran some of my best PRs. The only thing I’ve noticed to be very strict and common amongst the elites is that they all adhere to consistent eating throughout the day, and will not stand for a missed meal!