When it comes to athletic performance, it’s no secret that nutrition plays a pivotal part in your path toward success. Feeling sluggish? Tired? Exhausted? Even angry? It’s likely in some ways down to a lack of proper nutrition. As runners, we need to be constantly reassuring our bodies with the proper care, and that includes eating the right foods. Sweets and “junk” are fine here and there, and in fact, research suggests that it’s best to consume these foods (if you are going to) post-run. But you don’t need me to tell you that your food choices play a massive role in your ability to run as far or as fast, with the right level of awareness and alertness pre-run.
So with that, today I want to share my best tips to eating a healthy, balanced diet, and the best foods to eat when training for an ultra.
MAKE HEALTHY EATING FUN
If you’re a high-level athlete, chances are healthy eating is already fun for you, and a regular part of your training regimen. But based on the stigma you get from your healthy eating choices, you probably feel as though society constantly screams at you that healthy eating is simply less fun. But there are ways to ensure that healthy eating is fun for you, and the best way to do that is along the same line of what I talked about in making running an adventure, and a form of exploratory fun for you.
I like to explore one new recipe a week, try new ingredients or foods, and set aside some time each week to bake some whole-wheat bread. I mix up my shopping list and rarely eat the same foods every week, ensuring that I’m hitting nutrients from a variety of different sources. Today I tried making sauerkraut for the first time, which I paired with my whole-wheat bread recipe, and all that came with it (eggs, avocado, tomato, low-fat cheese). Making food an adventure for you will only allow it to become part of the fun.
But I recognize that not all of us have the time to spend hours on meal prep or even on the act of eating, and that is why it’s important to always have a wide-ranging selection of fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, nuts/seeds and beans/legumes that you enjoy on hand. There are some foods that I always like to have on hand like bananas, green tea and peanut butter, which are unequivocally the three greatest foods of all time. Spinach, broccoli, potatoes, olive oil, whole grains, and whole-wheat flour are also always around the house here, and often go nicely together in a lot of different dishes. But I’ll mix up some of my other favourite healthy food choices, ensuring there’s never any vitamins or minerals missing in my diet.
As a runner, this becomes particularly imperative. An imbalance or lack of a critical nutrient can throw the whole game-plan up in the air.
If you’re not much of a chef but have the money to invest in your diet, I would highly recommend trying one of these relatively new meal kit systems like Hello Fresh or Chef’s Plate, and actively scan for dishes that look both healthy and enjoyable for you. They will often incorporate white grain items or more sugar than you might have put in had you made the recipe yourself, but everything comes in a grocery bag for you to cook – meaning you can take out any ingredients you don’t want to use in the dish. I would personally use Hello Fresh more often if the prices weren’t so expensive, as I think it’s a great way to try different dishes from around the world and genuinely make healthy eating a priority.
This would be one more way to make healthy eating fun for you, as you select the recipes that look the tastiest to you, and then try your hand at making them. It could even become an easy social activity with you and your family.
Cookbooks like the ‘Runner’s World Cookbook’ could also be useful in inspiring healthy food choices and giving you tips on how to eat in preparation for running long. Personally I like this book as it gives a nice breakdown of different foods and meals that are beneficial pre-run, as opposed to post-run. But cookbooks in general are another great way to inspire new recipe choices, and make healthy eating fun.
As an elite runner of many a year, here are two key vitamins/minerals I ensure are always part of my diet (beyond the obvious like carbs and protein), which simultaneously help to check off many different boxes.
If you’re a high-level performance athlete, chances are, your iron stores are low. That’s just the nature of the business, and it can be hard for high-level runners to constantly be ensuring they’re getting enough iron in their diets. This becomes even more of a task for vegans and vegetarians, with red meat cut out of the diet.
Foods rich in iron include:
- Red meat
- Spinach and other leafy greens
- Lentils, legumes and beans
- Nuts and seeds
- Dark chocolate
- White meat & fish
Iron is essential to transporting oxygen to the tissues and muscles. This means that if we’re not getting enough in our diet, our energy levels and performances will suffer.
As someone who lives with a varicocele, I’ve become well-versed in bioflavonoids (Vitamin P) and ensuring that I’m taking the right foods rich in this essential class of metabolites.
Bioflavonoids ensure that your blood is circulating around the body efficiently, are essential for cardiovascular health, and have healing properties that reduce swelling, bruising and blood pooling – i.e. aiding in the recovery process. These foods include….
- Fresh fruit – particularly citrus, berries and tree fruits (grapefruits, oranges, lemons, limes, blackberries, strawberries, etc.)
- Fresh vegetables – particularly red and green (broccoli, rutabaga, kale, onions, spinach, etc.)
- Herbs and spices (cayenne, cinnamon, thyme, oregano, parsley, etc.)
- Tea (green, black and rooibos)
- Seeds and nuts (buckwheat, pistachios, peanuts, etc.)
If there’s one thing we know about ultra running as opposed to other types of running – it is that it is mentally and physically taxing on the body. Ensuring you have bioflavonoids in your diet will keep not only your heart healthy, but your mind and body as well.
I also wanted to present Vitamin P as part of my list as someone who has seen a complete revamp in my cardiovascular functioning and pain reduction since taking a keen eye toward my bioflavonoid intake. These are all healthy foods across the board, that will help to meet other nutritional needs along the way, and simultaneously help to reduce the risk of stress.
This will undoubtedly be a topic of a future article as I go along, but there are a triad of essential nutrients you need to be hitting post-run, within an hour of the time you finish your exercise. This includes a mix of carbohydrates, fat and protein.
These are the three macronutrients that govern how our bodies regulate, and so I cringe at anyone following a no-carb or low-carb diet. When you get the right carbohydrates, your body will reap the rewards. In fact, nutrition experts suggest that carbohydrates should make up between 45-60% of your diet, followed by fat at 25-40%, and protein at 5 to 25%. To cut carbs out completely would be crazy.
Post-run, eating meals that are high in all three is your best bet. This is where the phenomena surrounding chocolate milk gained prominence, as a great source of all three categories. Little do people know that milk is the exact same and offers less sugar. But that’s a story for another time. Here are some of my favourite meals to have post-run that meet all three categories:
- Peanut butter and banana on whole-wheat bread/pita
- Whole-wheat pasta with olive oil, broccoli, and potatoes
- Fruit and vegetable smoothies
- Protein fruit pancakes
- Egg, spinach, bean burritos
- Avocado wraps, usually with pork or turkey
Again, post-run nutrition is all about finding foods that you enjoy, that you can quickly whip up without worrying about your energy sources depleting all the more. It’s also important to stay away from sugary drinks or junk that won’t help you in your recovery process – even if this is scientifically the best time to consume them.
Post-run I also love to always have a pot of green tea brewing, and drink plenty of water. If you’re not using the washroom about once every hour to two hours post-run, you’re not drinking enough water.
The essential part of any diet is to ensure a balance is met. I could have included fifteen different nutrients and their benefits above, in place of Iron and Vitamin P. So it’s important to eat a variety of different foods across the food groups that work to create balance in your diet and meet all your nutritional needs. Vitamin B12 for example helps to break down the fats and proteins that you eat. Vitamin C helps to support iron in the body. Calcium helps to build strong and healthy bones. Sodium helps to maintain a proper hydration and electrolyte balance in your system. Potassium helps to maintain proper muscle function. If you balance out your diet with a variety of different food sources and try different foods high in each nutrient, you will simultaneously check several boxes at once, and work toward a healthier lifestyle. This is not only essential for your running performance, but for your ability to function effectively as a human being – from a boost in mood to a boost in sleep to better eyesight to better recovery processes to you name it!
So when selecting any special diets for running related purposes, always ensure this balance is met, and that you’re considering your intake a variety of different vitamins and minerals. Importantly, make it fun for you by trying different recipes and ingredients, and ensuring that you have healthy foods that you enjoy always kicking around.
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