Weight loss and weight management are undoubtedly the most widely covered topics among health and fitness circles. Look at the magazine rack at your neighborhood grocery store each month, and you'll find dozens of articles about how best to lose, maintain and even (albeit rare) gain weight the "correct" way. Diets of every sort, all claiming great success, are the emphasis of these articles, but this often leaves even the most discerning reader confused about how to approach food. Even more confusing is the fact that a lot of this advice doesn't take into account the nutritional needs of runners—particularly distance runners.
This article focuses on the nutritional demands of runners and how runners can lose and/or maintain weight safely. We sorted through much of the most recent research conducted by the most notable experts in performance-based sports, and provide simple, easily applied nutritional advice for runners—much of it a shift from the arcane view of the "eat-less-get-lighter-run-faster" model preached for decades.
How to Regulate Your Daily Caloric Intake
Dr. Dan Benardot, one of the foremost experts in the world of sports nutrition, a professor of nutrition and the director of the Laboratory for Elite Athlete Performance at Georgia State University, has consulted with a wide range of Olympic governing bodies about nutrition. He provided the nutritional and hydration strategy for the U.S. marathoners at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, where the U.S. team won silver and bronze medals. Benardot's book, Advanced Sports Nutrition second edition, has become a must-read for coaches and athletes looking to boost performance and recovery. We caught up with Benardot as he prepared to leave for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Benardot promotes a strategy of eating where your caloric intake is evenly distributed throughout the day, as opposed to the model made popular by many fitness magazines of calories consumed versus calories burned. According to Benardot, the common American diet of little to no breakfast, a large mid-day meal and a monstrous evening supper doesn't serve competitive athletes or the general public well. Why? The reasons are numerous:
1. Cortisol: Released by the adrenal glands, cortisol—known as the stress hormone—is released in response to fear or stress. Linked to heart disease and increased cholesterol levels, cortisol is also released during prolonged periods without caloric intake, which can place stress on the body. One of the direct effects of these elevated levels of cortisol is the breaking down of bone and lean muscle mass. "The body's reaction to an inadequate caloric intake," says Benardot, "is to lower the tissue that needs calories the most, which is lean mass." In short, long periods without any caloric intake will increase the body's fat mass and lower lean muscle mass. It's worth noting that this is one of the reasons individuals with eating disorders appear soft rather than lean.