Amy Yoder-Begley won her first state track title in the 3200 meters as a sophomore at East Noble High School in Kendallville, Indiana, in 1994. Two years later, she could barely run at all. "I had no energy," recalls the now- 30-year-old who represented the United States in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Marathon. "I had stomach aches, anemia, hypothyroidism, severe GI problems and dehydration during running and osteopenia."
She was shuttled back and forth to doctors for months before she received a definitive diagnosis of celiac disease, an intestinal autoimmune disorder that is triggered by gluten, a protein in cereal grains. Gluten-containing foods were removed from Yoder-Begley's diet, and "within three weeks all of my symptoms went away," she says.
Fortunately, most runners never encounter diet-related problems as serious as Yoder-Begley's battle with celiac disease. But every runner faces diet-related limitations of some kind, whether it's poor recovery due to inadequate post-workout nutrition or difficulty reaching an ideal weight for peak performance due to excessive sugar consumption.
But the good news: The right dietary practices can help you in a number of ways, from enhancing your performance in workouts and increasing endurance to reducing your risk of injury and boosting your all-around health.
Top pro runners such as Yoder-Begley, Tera Moody, Jen Rhines and Jamie Donaldson have achieved high success in the sport thanks in part to following specific nutrition strategies that are most beneficial for female runners. In fact, each of them reports paying a price in the form of compromised performance, slower recovery and other problems when she strays from the simple plan. Want to know their secrets? Here's the formula that works for them--one that will work for you, too.
Secret 1: Focus on Quality
"I aim for five a day," says Tera Moody, who finished fifth in the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials Marathon. A resident of Boulder, Colorado, Moody, 27, hits the mark by eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. "I do notice a difference when I eat more fruits and vegetables," she says. "I have more energy and feel better running."
Nutritionists rank foods on a continuum of nutrient density, or the variety and concentration of nutrients per calorie. Fresh fruits and vegetables are the most nutrient dense foods, while sweets and processed baked goods are among the least. Research has shown that individuals who eat the most nutrient-dense foods tend to be leaner and healthier, which, of course, supports running performance as well.
Even some meats are more nutrient-dense than others. Free- range and grass-fed animals produce meat with less saturated fat, more omega-3 fat, more protein and higher concentrations of certain vitamins and minerals. Because of that, "the only red meat I eat is buffalo," says Yoder-Begley. Unlike most beef, buffalo meat comes from animals that are able to move about freely and eat their natural diet.
Secret 2: Seek Variety
Jamie Donaldson, an ultramarathon runner whose laurels include victory at the 2008 Badwater Ultramarathon, loves bread, but she makes a daily effort to complement her consumption of grain-based foods with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and quality protein sources such as chicken and yogurt.
"Back in college I practically lived on bagels," she says, "but when I started ultrarunning, I forced myself to be a lot more balanced because I knew it would help me."
The term "balanced diet" is often used as a synonym for "healthy diet," and with good reason. Different foods offer different nutrition profiles. No one food provides every nutrient your body needs, and many natural foods provide nutrients that few or no other foods provide. This is especially true of plant foods, which contain dozens of useful "phytonutrients" that help the body in many ways. So, the best way to ensure that your body gets enough of each nutrient is to eat a wide variety of foods.