Research has shown that individuals with more varied diets are healthier and live longer than those who eat monotonously. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that within a population of 59,000 women, those who had the greatest variety of healthy foods in their diets were 40 percent less likely to die over a five-and-a-half-year period.
Need more incentive to balance your meals? Consider that the muscle soreness you experience the day after a run is caused in part by free radical damage to muscle cell DNA. In a recent study, researchers from the Colorado State University divided 106 women into two groups and placed them on different diets.
Both groups consumed eight to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, but one group ate 18 different varieties of fruits and vegetables while the other ate only five varieties. Blood tests taken after two weeks revealed that only the wide-variety group exhibited a reduction of DNA damage caused by free radicals.
Secret 3: Be a Grazer
The pro runners who shared their dietary habits with us eat five times a day, on average. "In general I don't eat huge meals," says Moody. "I try to eat throughout the day to keep my energy up." Most important, "I always eat something before I run and right after," she says, noting that she recovers from runs much faster when she takes in carbs and protein immediately after finishing a workout.
Eating smaller meals and snacks throughout the day (or "grazing") instead of a few large meals has been shown to help athletes control their weight. A Japanese study found that boxers placed on a six-meal-a-day, weight-control diet lowered their body-fat percentage significantly more than boxers who ate exactly the same number of calories in just two meals.
Grazing is beneficial to runners because it matches the supply of energy (i.e. calories) with the body's needs throughout the day. There is evidence that even small caloric deficits within a single day may alter metabolism in ways that have negative effects on body composition.
A study involving elite female gymnasts and distance runners found a strong inverse relationship between body fat and the number and size of energy deficits throughout the day (periods when the body's caloric needs exceed the calorie supply available from food). The athletes who did the best job of matching their calorie intake with their caloric needs were leaner than those who tended to fall behind.
Secret 4: Indulge Occasionally
There isn't a runner on earth who doesn't like some type of sweets or high-fat foods (or both), and elite runners are no exceptions. Three of the four we interviewed report making some effort to limit their consumption of such foods, but not to the point of eliminating them entirely from their diets. Three-time Olympian Jen Rhines does not place any restrictions on her diet, but not because she is an unrepentant junk-food junky.
Rather, she says, "I don't crave a lot of junk food," and it's probably because she allows herself regular small treats. A couple of cookies or a piece of chocolate with a mug of green tea before her afternoon run usually does the trick.
Donaldson, however, has a different approach. "I have a horrible sweet tooth so I try to avoid high-sugar and high-fat junk food (desserts, chocolate, candy, chips and soda)," she says. "I try to be pretty strict during training, but after a big race, it's a different story. I allow myself a free week when I can eat anything I want."
Be Supplement Savvy
Most supplements on the market offer more hype than benefit to female athletes. But there are some that support general health or address specific health issues that elite runners consider worthwhile. All four of the women in this story take a multivitamin to ensure that they meet their minimum daily requirements of the essential vitamins and minerals. Jen Rhines and Amy Yoder-Begley take fish oil, which provides benefits to the cardiovascular and nervous systems. And Jamie Donaldson and Tera Moody take calcium and vitamin C to prevent osteopenia and anemia, two common problems for women, which Moody has also battled.