I’ve gotten pretty good at consistently eating a solid diet that successfully augments my training, and I’d like to share some of my keys to success with you.
The standard disclaimers:
This is based on my experience, a truckload of trial and error over years and years, on habits that have consistently produced positive results for me.
Who am I to say any of this works? Well, I am an experienced distance runner…
- who wasn’t an experienced runner 4 years ago
- who has lost 30 lbs in those 4 years to achieve an average healthy weight (5’10”, 164 lbs and falling)
- who (while no Adonis or Achilles) is in decent shape and good health at what is soon to be age 40
- who runs 30-50 miles a week during training
- who pretty much doesn’t get injured or burn out anymore
- who runs basically every day, with my typical run being about 4-6 miles.
Your mileage may vary:
The more experienced you are, and the more volume of training that you do than I do, the more fruitfully you can dismiss and blow off any of this advice.
The less experienced you are and the less you work out, the more likely this advice (however imperfect) can help you.
Take or dismiss it at your own leisure or risk. I am fairly sure none of this general advice will hurt you if you generally follow it… any more than anyone else’s general advice.
Blah blah blah see a doctor before beginning any training program or making any changes blah blah blah. We’re adults.
My keys to a successful running diet:
Aim to eat a maintenance amount of calories during training.
Even if you could afford to lose a few pounds, you’re better off trying to finish even (calories eaten close to or equal to calories burned) than to run a calorie deficit during a training cycle.
Unlike most sedentary people or strength trainers, you actually need those calories. You burn way more calories on a run than people do in the gym. You actually do have a use for carbohydrates, not to mention fat, as your body utilizes that energy on runs. And with all that work, you need all the protein you can get afterward to help rebuild your damaged muscles.
It’s okay to fall short on calories some days, especially if you’re trying to cut fat. If you’re not training for a race, you’re free to run a healthy deficit (500-1000 calories max below your burn per day). But ALWAYS get enough protein. Always make sure you get your needed vitamins and nutrients. Everything else can fall short.
It’s okay to eat at a surplus some days. If possible, try to do so before or during long and intense workout days.
Eat more protein than you think you need.
Eat protein like an entry level bodybuilder: Consume each day at least 1 gram of protein for every 1 lb of total lean body mass (2.2g per kilogram), when actively training.
If not training for an events, a good benchmark is 1 gram of protein for every pound (or 2.2g/kg) equal to 75% of your bodyweight.
There are conflicting opinions on the recommended amount, but 1 gram per pound of lean body mass falls in the middle of most modern recommendations, and makes sense for an endurance athlete who obviously isn’t trying to get swole (extra muscle mass slows you down!), but does need to maintain muscle tissue during training. This is the level at which I’ve found the most consistent, sustainable satisfaction and results.
It’s definitely okay to go over that protein benchmark during and after intense training. The myth that excess protein damages your kidneys has long since been proven false.
Try to get all of your protein from whole food (e.g. meat, legumes). Avoid leaning on protein shakes, unless you find it very hard to prepare or port protein-rich meals during a typical day… or you are vegetarian/vegan. Even then, stick to a max of one protein shake per day. One item that is not a myth is that protein shakes not only lack various key nutrients present in protein rich whole foods…. but excess protein shakes can cause gas and other intestinal problems.
Eat more carbohydrates when needed. Otherwise take it easy on them.
Carbs are best ingested en masse before hard workouts, and immediately after the hardest workouts. Having them in your bloodstream helps you during workouts, and the glycogen lost from hard workouts can be more quickly replenished during meals eaten within 2 hours of a workout.
Eating a bunch of carbs the day or two before a monster workout or a marathon can be helpful for topping off your glycogen stores, but the classic pasta binge before a marathon is a bit overrated. If you’ve tapered your training and been eating a solid diet leading up to the race, you’re probably fine: The decreased exercise combined with your normal diet has probably topped off your glycogen tank for you.
How much? I generally don’t try too hard to count, but adding enough to get within 500 calories of your daily burn has been a fine general benchmark.
Meanwhile, on rest days you should eat far fewer carbs and more natural fat. If I wasn’t training for a marathon I might even do a keto or primal style low-carb diet. Granted, that’s extreme, and just sticking to green vegetables and fruit for carbs on such a day is probably fine.
Eat Clean fat:
I’m talking about fat naturally occurring in whole foods (meat, avocados, some nuts). I only cook with virgin coconut oil or pure olive oil.
Fat is necessary for effective organ function. Also, providing fat for your body during busy days discourages your body from storing fat or converting carbohydrates to fat. Recommendation: Whatever fat comes with your daily whole-food-based protein is probably enough. That’s probably more than the RDA, but it’s not something crazy like 200g either. Typically I’ll finish a 3000 calorie day having consumed about 90-120g of fat.
Eat a minimum of processed food.
This has been preached to death. But I even add in “healthy” processed food like protein bars, or anything in a box really. The extra sodium and other additives lead to water retention, making your heavier and slowing you down.
I’m not opposed to some pizza or a bag of chips here and there. But it’s always bookended by clean, whole food.
Drink water, 100% juice, and milk.
Coffee and tea are fine (but if you add sugar you better be planning to run that day).
Don’t even touch a sports drink unless you’re actively in a long run or a speedwork session.
Gatorade is specifically engineered for use during exercise. You’re not supposed to drink it otherwise. It literally is sugar and salt water.
Eat potassium rich foods and make sure you get enough potassium almost every day.
Your heart and your muscles need potassium to function. Yet most people don’t get close to enough (typically 4000-4500 mg per day). A lack of potassium undermines intense activity, and can be dangerous in some situations.
Bananas. Avocados. Potatoes. Natural cuts of meat. Fruit and vegetables. 4500mg is the RDA benchmark for a reason. Most people fall well short of this.
Don’t supplement: Seek to eat foods that provide it. MUCH better this way, plus you get other needed nutrients.
Take a suitable multivitamin.
You can get all your needed vitamins with a perfect diet, but your best effort will probably come nowhere close to getting them all. Take a multivitamin. Even if you piss a lot of it out, your body will utilize much of it and cover whatever gaps your diet has left.
Recommended: Get a reliable brand that recommends taking 3 pills a day, and just take one with a meal. This way on a tough day you can take 2-3, but you minimize the risk of overdose.
My mother was a mark for Source of Life, a brand specializing in whole food based multivitamins. They’re fine but they’re pricey. Don’t sink to getting a flaky mainstream brand like Centrum, but I’ve found 365’s multis at Whole Foods to be reliable and affordable.
That said, there are some key vitamins a multi tends not to provide that you should supplement separately.
Take a Calcium Magnesium citrate combo supplement, as well as the MK 7 form of Vitamin K2.
Magnesium helps you sleep (which itself is super important for training) and regulates various hormone functions. Most people don’t get enough magnesium. A lack of it can facilitate burnout. Most multivitamins don’t include magnesium in their blends. Take it after dinner.
Calcium is more well known for fortifying bones, and while milk/cheese can be a reliable source of calcium, I don’t consume a ton of either so I make sure to supplement. Since calcium and magnesium go well together they are often sold as a combo vitamin. Calcium citrate is better absorbed than the more common calcium carbonate, and magnesium citrate is better absorbed than magnesium oxide. So a Cal-Mag Citrate supplement is the way to go.
But! Calcium can be harmfully absorbed by the arteries instead of your bones… without the presence of Vitamin K. Most multis provide it but don’t readily supply in an absorbent form. So if available I’d recommend taking a Vitamin K2 supplement in the MK 7 form.
Take a Fish oil supplement, if you aren’t eating wild caught salmon.
Omega 3’s in fish oil reduces overall inflammation and promotes good heart health. If you eat farmed salmon it won’t have as much omega 3 as wild caught salmon.
Salmon is pricey and I find it easier to just take a supplement. Whole Foods sometimes has salmon oil, which I prefer to take. But honestly you can take just about any fish oil supplement and as long as it doesn’t contain soy products you’re probably good.
Most brands ask you take 3-6 pills a day. Just take one after dinner.
If you’re frequently under stress and it’s not easily within your control, take ashwagandha or SAMe.
Ashwagandha is an herb that has all sorts of alleged health benefits, but the one known benefit I’ve experienced is that it helps buffer you against stress. I find a bit of the edge comes off the day when I’m taking it.
My mother was big on SAMe, a supplement originally used to help treat joint pain and similar issues but was later found to have positive effects on depression and stress. You cna call it a super version of ashwagandha if you’d like, as I’ve found it does have even stronger stress-relieving effects on my mental state than ashwagandha. And it also does have a positive effect on joint health and relieving inflammation. SAMe however is a lot more expensive than ashwagandha.
Recommendation: Whichever one you decide to take, just take one pill per day max. And cycle your usage: 8 weeks on max, then 4 weeks off.
A good time to take it is during the latter stages of training for a goal race, and then to stop using it for a while once the race is done. This controls cortisol, helps manage mood, and like magnesium helps you sleep better.
If you’re going to eat junk food, eat protein rich junk food.
I’m not against pizza or hamburgers or any of that.
Surround those meals with super clean meals or intermittent fasting, plus plenty of water. Definitely work out those days, and/or the following day, to ensure you burn those junk calories ASAP.
The Andy Morgan Night Out Rule For Drinking:
Andy Morgan is this guy. He’s a bodybuilder who has perfected a combination of training, intermittent fasting, and proper nutrition into an approach he calls Ripped Body.
The rule: If you’re going to go out and have a night of drinking alcohol, get in all your needed protein for the day BEFORE you head out for the night.
Consider anything good you eat during the night to be a bonus, though if you do eat during a night out you’re probably going to eat junk.
Yes, you’ll probably overeat for the day. This is not a big deal. Make a point to go for a run and eat perfectly clean the next day if it bothers you.
Also (this is not his rule, but mine): Before you go to bed that night, drink 16 oz of water. And you should be drinking water throughout the night of drinking as well.
Should you let yourself go after a race?
The only races after which it’s okay to let your good eating habits completely go for a little while are marathons or longer, where you plan to take some time off. But get back on the wagon no later than a week later. Any race that’s shorter, and you really should just treat it as a hard workout: Keep eating well, keep training.
This approach has worked very well for me, and I think it can work well for others. I realize the advice scratches the surface, and I invite you the reader to do research on any of this if you so desire.
But I follow this approach 80-99% of the time (sure, I deviate and go off the wagon like anyone… but these are also strong habits that make it easy to go back to and stick to them). It has helped me maintain a high volume of running and to stay healthy, without the use of any sort of artificially performance enhancing substances.