Running is hard! Who’s with me?
Sure, running is awesome. It gives you a sense of freedom you haven’t felt since you were a kid, chasing your friends around the neighborhood and playing in the mud (if you were that lucky). It’s one of the best form of therapy. It’s an amazing exercise program that will help you shed weight, tone legs, strengthen bones and increase cardio and lung capacity. Training gives you a purpose and racing a sense of accomplishment that very few things can top! You simply can’t buy running with money and words. You can’t fake it. It’s all hard earned work.
But running is hard. It takes a toll on your body, and if you ever trained for a marathon, you know that – heck, it takes a tremendous toll on your mind. Running takes time, energy and some equipment that, let’s all be honest, isn’t as cheap as advertised. Keeping up with your routine and maintaining the body strong is a task on it’s own.
Luckily, a good diet helps immensely!
I have read tons of articles with the same title as this one before, some with valuable advice and some with a typical, fitness mag undertone to it. PB&J sandwiches are great and make regular appearances on race finish lines, but there is much more to athlete nutrition than carbs and more carbs. I have round up a few ingredients and preparations that make a must on my runner diet list.
1. Pink Himalayan Salt
When you become a runner, you soon realize that regular rules do not apply to you anymore. While regular mortals avoid sodium and carbs as much as possible, runners fuel up with them like crazy! Those fancy gels, chews, fizzesses and powders are filled with sodium for hydration and/or simple and complex carbs for energy. Electrolytes, that are added to any before and during products for nutrition, and usually made with a combination of three minerals, namely sodium, potassium and magnesium. That is correct – sodium is a mineral. It exists for a reason and is not all BAD as it’s made out to be. I actually know hard core runners who carry salt packets on runs as their main (and often only) nutrition supplement.
Not all salt is made equal. Regular table salt is devoid of most of it’s nutritional value. Pink Himalayan salt is much more nutritious, and more natural – not made in a lab. The smell itself is amazingly different – you notice once you drop the regular salt out of your diet. If you are not a fan or can’t get it, Mediterranean sea salt is better than table salt. Another great one is Celtic salt, and if you really want to get funky – try Black salt. It’s a staple in Indian diets, and carries a strong sulfur smell to it, which is great for vegans craving eggs (I’m joking, but not really).
When to add sodium to your diet? In order to treat or avoid dehydration. A simple formula is – check your pee. As clear as possible is the goal, the yellower the more dehydrated you are. Before, during, and after long, hot and humid, or difficult terrain runs.
2. Complex Carbs
Simple carbs are digested quickly, are low in fiber and high is sugar (sugar is a carb) and give you quick energy. Once that energy is burned out, however, you might crash. The gels we eat during races are easily digestible simple carbs that give us just enough energy for those extra miles without packing on too many calories.
Complex carbs come from carb sources that are processed as little as possible. Fruits and veggies are carb based to various extends, but most common carb sources come from grains. While white flour (and white bread, pasta, pastries) are simple carbs, the more wholesome the grain is, the more complex the carb. They might take longer to digest, and the fiber they pack is not great to carry in your belly on a long run, but they are the best choice for everyday nutrition and recovery meals.
Formula: swap white for brown in everything. From whole wheat or multi grain, to brown rice (including in GF preparations like pasta or wraps), the options today are endless. Experiment with wholesome grains as well to step away from traditional pasta dinners.
Options: Dates (great to take on runs instead of gels), other dried fruits like figs and mango, Integral basmati rice, Ezekiel bread. Raw oats (they look like rice grains), barley, whole wheat cous-cous. Gluten Free options: quinoa, amaranth.
3. Healthy Fats
According to Ayurveda, any healthy and natural, unprocessed food sources of Kapha quality are great lubricants for joints and bones. Kapha is anything heavy, moist, and is a combination of water and earth elements. Fats fall under this category.
Not all fats are created equal – this is more true than for any other food category. My favorite sources are Avocado, Coconut Oil and Nut butters. Avocado is a fruit so in my mind, basically harmless. Add it to a dry salad to create a balanced meal.
Coconut oil is a queen of ingredients – from skin, to hair, to even teeth, you can use it tropically or digest it. I highly recommend getting Organic and Extra Virgin, and eat it as raw as possible.
Nut butters are a whole new world in themselves. From raw nuts, to sweet balls, to nut butters, I am definitely nuts about nuts! If PB is your one and only, get a high quality one – raw, organic, no added sugars, salts or oils. I love PB2 – it’s a powdered version that takes most of the fat out of it, which means I can eat more since I do eat too much nuts already.
4. Probiotic Foods
There are four main categories of raw foods – raw fresh foods, sprouted, dehydrated and fermented. The latter pack in specific nutrients and healthy bacteria to heal the gut. Is gut health important for runners, you ask? Well, let me answer like this. Have you ever been in a port-a-potty line? Have you ever felt the excruciating call of nature mid-race? How about running cramps? I rest my case.
I love sauerkraut! I am aware it’s a an acquired taste, but being from the norther part of Croatia that has experienced a lot of German and Austrian influence, I grew up eating it. Kimchi is like an asian version of it.
Yogurts are another great choice, and for us vegans there are many options today. Almond, Coconut, Soy yogurts are all made with healthy fermenting bacteria just like the good ol’ Greek Yogurt.
Kombucha is super healthy too. Honestly, I do not like it. But if you do, go for it!
Duh! Eat your fruits. I had a few conversations in my life where people tried to convince me fruits are bad for you. Yeah, move on buddy. That argument ain’t gonna fly with me. The best one was when a Vegan (yes, VEGAN) told me that! I was outraged for days. Mind you, though this may sound very critical, he did not look that healthy to me. But enough of my gossiping.
We all know bananas are runner’s buddies, and vitamin C in oranges is great for exercize recovery. But it’s time to expand your repertoire. Fruit is full of nutrients, sweet and juicy, counts as carb-loading, and best of all, is mainly eaten in it’s full raw glory! Pineapples, Mango add a tropical flare to your diet. Frozen raspberries, strawberries and mixed berries for those morning smoothies. Apples and pears are loaded with fiber to keep you full and bowel movements regular.
Grandma was right – soup is the best food ever. Specially in these cold months, a healthy soup filled with veggies, lentils and beans for vegan protein pack, or just clear veggie broths filled with that sodium we mentioned earlier.Soup gives you energy without weighting you down because it’s easily digested, specially creamy soups and blends.
This is a great recovery meal for me – filling, healthy and there are tons of options and flavors to keep you busy every night of the week. If you are a raw vegan, well there is raw soup as well! Chilled Cucumber Dill, or creamy zucchini, investigate your options and find that soup kick that works best. Most importantly, don’t be a baby and say ‘I just don’t like soup’! It’s healthy so clean your plate (grandma style advice).
7. Coconut Water
Coconut water get’s it own category as one of the best foods/drinks in the world. It’s not without it’s controversy, however. Just like fruit, coconut water has been blamed to pack too much sugar and therefore isn’t optimal for weight loss. Physical trainers from the gym usually sell that story, and I guess this advice has it’s weight in certain situations. But for a runner or triathlete, this is the best Natural (read:not bought in a running store) electrolyte drink. From my personal experience, training in Florida was brutal most of the year, and I used to get dehydration headaches all too often, specially after races. I really saw a difference after I started drinking cool coconut water right after long training. If you can afford raw coconut water, by all means please reward yourself that experience as often as possible.
8. Edamame, beans and lentils
Even if you are not vegan, you can benefit from some plant-based protein sources. I always build my case on the fact that meat is hard to digest and takes a very long time. And if you want to run or exercise often (there are people that sweat even twice daily), having a light guy as opposed to a belly that weights you down is a plus! You can see a pattern here, runners should take care of their bellies even more than regular people, specially as the race day approaches.
Although plant protein also takes longer to digest as opposed to carbs, and is also pretty calorie dense, it is a great addition to your daily diet. You can go light on foods you find harder to digest a day or two before a big race, but for every day training there’s no need to stay clear.
Edamame is such a fun cocktail food – you can serve it at dinner parties as appetizer, snack on it while watching TV, or order it at any asian restaurant when dining out.
Red lentils are probably my favorite, not because of the taste as much as the fact that they cook in 15 minutes – by far faster than any other legume.
9. Powdered supplements
I am not big on supplementing when you can get the real deal in your diet, but there are a few foods I enjoy in my diet regularly. Raw protein powders are great if you feel the need for more protein in your diet or want to ‘bulk up’. Green powders filled with wheat grass, barley grass and more balance the pH of the blood because of their high alkaline properties. Spirulina and chlorella are algae that fall under that all-popular superfoods category.
All in all, there are good supplements and bad ones. Compare the ingredients, look at the nutrition label and check protein if that’s your goal, sugar content, and vitamins. Go for organic and trusted brands, as opposed to the huge packages you find at gym smoothie shops and Vitamin Shoppe. I love Amazing Grass for their green powders, Garden of Life for protein, and I get my Spirulina at a farmers market.
10. Nutrition bars
You didn’t see that one coming, now did you? Yes, it’s tried and maybe true, but if you have ever driven out of the city for a run on the weekend and got stranded starving, I bet you grabbed a bar or alternatively wished you had one handy.
If you are a very clean eater with time on your hands, making your own nutrition bars is by far the best way to go! Larabar, one of my favorites because it’s raw, vegan, gluten free and unprocessed, is made on a base of dates with nuts or other dried fruit. That is a breeze to recreate at home, and of course they do not have to be in bar form – make sweet balls instead! Making granola bars with oats or protein bars with your favorite nut butter and protein powder is fun, you get to experiment with flavors and control all the ingredients and sugar content.
If you are a busy runner and want a store-bough solution, besides aforementioned Larabars, I recommend Luna bars (a bar for women!) and Cliff. Rawvolution, 18 Rabbits, Amazing Grass and Vega make raw or high raw, organic and delicious solutions at a tad higher price.
Why 10 best foods for runners? Clearly these are healthy food options for anyone. But as runners (or triathletes, or cross-fitters) push their bodies to perform, so the body needs appropriate fuel to keep going and stay healthy. Proper nutrition won’t only score you more training hours or a PR at your next race. It will also aid in recovery from difficult workouts so you can get out there sooner, and aid in injury management and prevention. Running form and proper shoes may help your pronation or knee issues, but food is what gives the body tools and supplies to repair muscle tissue, tendons and ligaments, and creates the quality of blood. Eat well for long life and long miles!