A healthy diet is essential for anyone’s health, but for runners and athletes, the right diet can be the difference between peak performance and falling flat.
If you want to maximize performance — if you don’t, let’s work on that competitive spirit — these foods should reside in your pantry or refrigerator. Incorporate some, or better yet all, of these performance enhancers into your weekly grubbing and you’ll likely see changes for the better. How about a personal record on the physical fitness test?
Bananas are high in potassium and magnesium; essential minerals for healthy muscles. They are also a low-fiber source of carbohydrates that feel light in your stomach. The banana is one of my pre-race must haves, and I love to throw frozen bananas in my smoothies to both thicken and boost them with vitamins C and B6.
Oatmeal helps prevent spikes in blood sugar, providing an even and consistent energy boost that will sustain you through a long run. Because oats are carbohydrate rich and easy on the stomach, they’re a great pre-run meal if you tend to have a fussy belly. Also, those who avoid gluten altogether will find a good friend in oatmeal.
Broccoli is always in my weekly meal-prep line up. The vegetable is fibrous and filling, packs vitamin C and potassium, and is rich in phytochemicals, which are plant chemicals with disease preventive properties. I steam or blanch a week’s worth, leave it plain, and then cook with it in different ways as the week goes on.
Lean beef is high in iron, a mineral important for runners, especially women who lose the mineral in their monthly cycle. Lean beef is also a great source of high-quality protein. For many, beef is hard on the digestive system and can cause a “system backup.” Aim for two servings a week. Mmmm filet.
Whole grains and whole-wheat pasta provide ample amounts of low-glycemic carbohydrates, or in other words, fuel. High-fiber content promotes the feeling of satiety and helps maintain digestive health. A serving of whole grains at dinner will feed your body through the night so you wake up feeling restored. Pop a quick-digesting carb, like a banana, and you are ready to hit the pavement.
Eggs are a great source of protein, fat, and an often overlooked B vitamin called choline that aids the neurotransmitters in the brain. Runners and other endurance athletes are often deficient in this nutrient linked to reducing inflammation.
Berries contain antioxidants, vitamin C and potassium; all things that help the body repair itself after intense workouts. Combined with the fact that I think of berries as a yummy high-fiber dessert, you can’t really go wrong adding them to your oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies, or just munching on them as a snack.
Greek yogurt keeps your gut in shape by providing healthy bacterias to aid in digestion and keep the bad bacteria at bay. It’s loaded with protein and calcium, making it a great post-workout choice to repair worn-out muscles. Scoop Greek yogurt into your favorite smoothie to up the creaminess factor.
Almonds, and many other nuts, pack “the good fats.” Almonds are particularly high in vitamin E, known for its immunity boosting qualities. I recommend not eating these right before a run as the fat slows digestion, taking away from the immediate energy boost a pre-workout snack is meant to provide. But post run, almonds on Greek yogurt or almond butter with an apple are great choices.
Sweet potatoes are a tasty source of low glycemic carbohydrates, potassium, and antioxidants. My trick: Score a bunch of sweet potatoes and wrap tightly in aluminum foil. Let them bake at 400 degrees for an hour, shut off the oven, and let them sit for another hour. By the time you unwrap, they will be incredibly tender and super sweet; great to curb a sweet tooth. Throw them on your plate, puree into a soup, or add to your protein smoothie. I eat the skins too, as they are high in fiber and taste great.
Wild salmon is loaded with high-quality protein, but it’s the heart-healthy fat it provides for the win. Salmon’s omega-3 polyunsaturated fats contribute to more elastic blood vessels allowing the heart to pump more blood with each contraction, and aid in the fight against inflammation, which all rigorous exercise results in on some level.
Leafy greens like kale are so hot right now, and with good reason. Most greens, especially the dark ones, provide low-calorie calcium, iron and vitamins A and C, not to mention fiber. Kale gets an honorable mention for runners because of its anti-inflammatory properties, high-folate content, promoting circulation and high antioxidant and vitamin A, B6, C and K content. Go green machine!
Chocolate milk has the optimal 4-to-1, carb-to-protein ratio for recovery. Simple carbohydrates digest quickly, within 20 to 30 minutes. That’s the window of time post-run that your body is most receptive to restoring glycogen. And, if you’re not lactose intolerant, you can indulge your inner kid.
Some foods should be avoided before a big run. Foods high in fiber can cause gastrointestinal distress or diarrhea, a total race buzz kill. The same goes for high-fat items like bacon, cheese, or fried foods. These digest slowly and tend to sit heavily in your stomach, giving a weighed down feeling. If you’re a regular coffee or caffeine drinker, you should be okay before a big run, but be warned that for many people, caffeine combined with race day jitters can cause major stomach issues. Super spicy food can also come back to haunt you come morning.
I remember a very specific San Diego half marathon from my Navy days. The night before, my friend and I ordered late night jalapeño poppers. They were very spicy. She skipped the race completely and I suffered the whole time. Never again. Learn from my mistakes.