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Five Common Nutrition Myths among Runners

By Coach Peyton Hoyal
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As a runner or fitness enthusiast, there are several physical traits that represent your lifestyle - a lean body, good muscle tone, and overall well-being. Running, lifting weights, cycling, swimming, etc. all help aid in these pursuits, but nutrition is extremely important to make one's fitness goals a reality.

However, nutrition is a touchy subject for many people who exercise regularly. It is perhaps the biggest question mark when planning one's fitness training due to a host of myths, trends, and conflicting advice from experts in health science.  Use the below guide to avoid five of the most common myths about running nutrition, and become an expert yourself the next time you hear one of these comments from a friend or training partner.

Myth #1- “I am a runner, so I can eat whatever I want, when I want it”!

This is perhaps the most common nutrition misconception among runners. Running does burn a large amount of calories per mile (exact amount depends on body size and fitness level), but this does not justify over-eating at every meal. Runners do need more calories than inactive people, but these calories need to be of a very high quality to run at one's best and live a healthy lifestyle. Break through this long-held runners' nutrition myth with these tips.

  • Time Your Treats- Runners are known for having a sweet tooth, but this doesn't have to be a nutritional pitfall if you manage it correctly. The body is most receptive to high-glycemic foods like ice cream, cookies, white breads, etc. immediately after exercise, so if you have to indulge in these foods regularly, try to make sure you are getting the most out of them by having them right after running or working-out when you can use the sugar to restock glycogen stores and prepare for your next training session.
  • Eat Your Fruits and Veggies- Many runners like to have a burger, French fries, pizza, or other guilty pleasures on occasion, which is fine in moderation. However, try to counterbalance these indulgences by eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables each day to keep cholesterol, blood pressure, and physical stress in check. For runners, fruits and vegetables are especially important to counteract the stress of exercise. The anti-oxidants found in plant foods can help reverse muscle damage, raise blood pH, and help you metabolize foods that aren't as good for you.
  • Don't Drink Too Much- Most people would rather eat their daily calories than drink them, so it is important to keep extra calories from liquids in check if you are trying to lose or maintain your weight. Replace your soda with sparkling mineral water, fruit juice with whole fruit, flavored coffee beverages with green tea, and a beer with an antioxidant rich glass of red wine to reduce your daily intake by 500-800 calories.

Myth #2- “I didn't run or exercise much today, so therefore I have to diet”.

Runners need to eat equally well on their recovery days to support lean muscle mass, heal little injuries sustained while training, and restock glycogen stores for the next day's work-out. The body has no sense of the “24hr day”( for those who count calories in a strict time window), but rather it is subject to changes in metabolism, life stress, and regular exercise.   For this reason, it is better to calculate one's daily average calorie needs rather than going by a rigorous “calories in versus calories out” schedule each day. This can be less stressful and more beneficial to runners looking to maximize their exercise time and improve well-being through good nutrition.

For instance, a 150lb runner might need around 2400 calories per day to maintain his or her weight with light daily exercise (work, chores, walking the dog, etc.). If the runner runs 25 miles per week and lift weights on occasion, then he or she would need to add approximately 300-500 calories each day whether running or not. This will ensure more constant energy levels from day to day, and keep the runner primed for exercise and daily activities.

Myth #3- “Dietary fat goes straight to your waistline, and is bad for runners”.

Cutting out healthy fat in a runner's diet is like forgetting to change the oil in your car for a year- muscles start to tighten, connective tissues stick together, joints begin to ache, and your immune system takes a nose dive. A recent study by the University of Buffalo determined that in a group of well-trained runners, the only variable that was a definite factor between those who were injured and those who were not after a trial period of heavy training was the amount of fat in their diet.

However, like calories, not all fats are equal. As a runner, you want to fuel your body with the highest quality sources of nutrients available. With fats, runners should eat a variety of all-natural, healthy lipids found primarily in non-animal sources to avoid too much “bad” cholesterol. Some great sources of healthy fats to eat each day include avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, almonds, and cold-water fish such as salmon.

The Injury-Proof Runner's Tropical Guacamole Dip

Mix the below ingredients in a large mixing bowl, and blend to desired texture. The coconut oil adds a bit more healthy fat, and lends a tropical essence to this guacamole dip. Enjoy after a run with all-natural tortilla chips, or eat as an addition to your favorite dinner dish.

1-2 Large Avocados (peeled, cored, and mashed into a paste), 1 Tbsp.  Coconut Oil (liquefied), 2 Tbsp. Plain Greek Yogurt, Whole-Kernel Sweet Corn (drained) to taste, Diced tomato to taste, Fresh cilantro to taste, Salt and pepper to taste, Jalapeno to taste

Myth #4- “All of my running friends seem to be going ‘gluten free', or ‘vegan'. Would this make me a faster and/or healthier runner”?

This can be a troubling question for many runners, especially when professionals like Ryan Hall seem to be following some “special running diet.” Many runners are led to believe that if something works for one person, it must be a universal truth. Like training techniques, nutrition is as individual as one's fingerprints. Everyone digests, metabolizes, and tolerates foods differently, so it is key to remember that when planning your diet. Before altering your nutrition plan for weight loss or performance, consider the advantages and disadvantages of a gluten-free and a vegetarian diet described below.

Gluten-Free Diet

Pros- Gluten is a protein found in certain wheat grains that has been widely reported in recent years as not being part of humanity's original diet. For runners who suffer from celiac disease or have gluten sensitivity, eating a gluten free diet will eliminate symptoms which will in turn improve their health and running performance. For all other runners, there are many reports that have cited the advantages of a gluten-free diet including a decrease in inflammation and injuries but the scientific studies are still inconclusive about the full benefits.

Foods containing gluten like pasta, bread, and baked goods contain more calories than foods such as fruits and vegetables. A runner could reduce their daily calorie consumption by adhering to a gluten-free diet, and could perhaps aid digestion in the process. Grains take a while to process in the stomach, and cause GI distress for many runners.

Cons- Eliminating gluten in the diet would most likely drop one's daily carbohydrate intake by a great deal, which could hinder running performance. If you decide to go gluten-free, you would need to make an effort to replace gluten-containing foods with rice, potatoes, and other non-gluten carbohydrates.

Vegetarian or Vegan Diet

Pros- Adhering to a vegetarian or vegan diet is a great way for runners to lose weight. This diet will help cut calories from meat, fish, and/or dairy, and potentially aid in overall well-being. Many primitive cultures live on a primarily vegetarian diet due to the availability (or lack thereof) of certain foods. A vegan or vegetarian diet can help reduce cholesterol, body fat, and potentially prevent certain diseases.

Cons- With the above in mind, why wouldn't everyone choose a vegetarian diet? Well, such diets can be lacking in vital minerals like calcium, iron, and zinc that are very important to runners. Perhaps the best diet for those with no food allergies would be described as “a vegetarian diet, plus selected meat and dairy.”  This basically means that you would get the majority of your nutrition from fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods, and then add moderate portions of selected meat, fish, eggs etc. to fill in the gaps. This will ensure that you reap all the benefits of a vegan diet, with none of the potential draw-backs such as iron-deficiency anemia, too little protein to support your exercise routine, and a slower metabolism due to inadequate calorie consumption.

Myth #5- “I just had a great long run! Now I need to fast for a few hours to get the maximum benefit out of the run and meet my weight loss goals”.

Wrong! Even if you are trying to lose weight through diet and a running program, it is essential that you eat well following long and/or hard training. As mentioned in myth number one, plan your largest meal or snack of the day after running to restock glycogen stores, preserve lean muscle, and boost your metabolism throughout the day. If you run first thing in the morning, then breakfast should be your largest meal of the day, and then you could taper-down your meals and snacks to meet your calorie goals as needed. Don't fall into this common trap of under-eating after exercise.

The myths about running nutrition are quite commonplace, but that doesn't mean you have to fall into these nutrition traps.  Keep the above advice in mind and you will be able to run longer and stronger for years to come while enjoying the many pleasures of good food.

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