If you ate better, would you run better? Nutrition and diet can make a significant impact on athletic performance. However, there are exceptions--there are plenty of examples of runners who perform well, despite a poor diet.
Consider the case of Anthony "Fam" Famiglietti, who is currently one of the better middle-distance runners in America. Fam is a 2004 Olympian and three-time national champion who had his best year in 2006, improving his personal best times in three events. His diet is also very unhealthy. In an interview on the New York Road Runners website, Famiglietti described his diet as "all junk". A segment about his eating habits entitled "Worst Diet Ever" is included in Fam's self-produced DVD Run Like Hell .
The notion that Famiglietti might run even better if he changed his diet is not plausible. Thus, he is living proof that at least some runners can reach the highest level of the sport without eating by the book, or anything close to by the book.
However, every runner can't get away with every bad nutrition habit. For most runners, a large variety of common nutrition errors result in consequences ranging from weight gain to injuries to poor performance. In other words, forgetting about Anthony Famiglietti, you might very well run better if you eat better.
In consideration of exceptional cases like that of Anthony Famiglietti and the more common cases of runners whose poor diets hold them back, my dietary advice to runners is this: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And if it is broke, fix it.
That is to say, if you are happy with your performance in workouts and races, your body weight, composition and your overall health, then continue to eat the way you're eating (unless you feel like improving your diet just for kicks). But if you are experiencing any kind of problem with your running that may have a dietary cause, then do your best to identify and address the cause.
Applying my dietary advice for runners is a two-step process. Step one is monitoring. Step two is fixing.
There are three types of monitoring you can do to help determine whether something "broke" needs fixing. The first is maintaining a detailed training log. Recording the details of your workouts will enable you to objectively assess your fitness level and your body's response to training. If your workout performances stagnate or decline without any apparent training-related cause (such as increasing your workload too quickly), then there could be a dietary issue at the root of it.
A second type of monitoring you should do is regular body composition assessment. Buy a body-fat scale that uses bioelectrical impedance to estimate body-fat percentage. These devices work just like bathroom scales (you step on them and get an instant readout), and they also measure body-weight. They don't cost any more than regular body-weight scales, and they are widely available at department stores, pharmacies and sporting goods stores.
Use one of these devices to measure your body-weight and body-fat percentage once a week. Look out for any increase in body-fat percentage, whether it's coupled with body-weight gain, steady body-weight or even body-fat loss.
An increase in body-fat percentage coupled with an increase in body-weight means you're putting on fat. An increase in body-fat percentage coupled with a decrease in body-weight means you're losing muscle. Fat gain results from consuming too many calories, and muscle loss results from consuming too few calories and/or not enough protein.
The third type of monitoring is keeping a food log in which you record information about everything you eat and drink during the day. Record the type of food or fluid, the approximate amount and when you consume it. You don't have to do this all the time. (It's a bit of a pain in the butt.) Start doing it whenever you suspect that something in your diet might be causing a problem with your running or health. Your food log will help you identify the specific cause by revealing patterns in your diet that are otherwise invisible.
The fixing part of the two-step process is more complex. There are dozens of different types of dietary deficiencies, excesses and other errors that may produce symptoms such as general fatigue, poor workout performance, slow recovery and frequent injuries. The following table provides some basic and general information about common problems and their possible nutritional causes.
Use this table to develop and test hunches about a possible nutrition-related problem that's affecting your running. Your first hunch might not lead to a solution. Keep trying. If you run out of ideas, consult a certified sports nutritionist or your physician.
|Problem||Possible Nutritional Cause(s)||Explanation|
|Muscle cramps during workouts/races||Inadequate sports drink consumption during workouts/races||Dehydration and electrolyte depletion may increase the risk of exercise-associated muscle cramps in susceptible athletes|
|Poor workout performance||Inadequate calorie consumption||Failure to consume enough total calories each day may leave your muscles with suboptimal levels of glycogen and triglycerides -- their main fuels for workouts|
|Inadequate carbohydrate consumption||Athletes need to consume at least 4 grams of carbs per pound of body weight daily to support moderate training and up to 10 grams/pound to support very heavy training|
|Difficulty shedding excess body fat||Excessive fat consumption||Fat contributes 9 calories per gram, compared to 4 calories per gram for carbs and protein; limit your fat intake to less than 40 percent of total calories -- and ideally less than 30 percent|
|Excessive carbohydrate consumption||Carbohydrate, and especially high glycemic carbs such as soft drinks and pastries, readily convert to fat in the body when consumed in excess|
|Meals too large and infrequent||More calories are stored as fat when meals are large and infrequent; eat breakfast and every 4 hours thereafter throughout the day|
|Slow recovery after workouts||Inadequate post-workout nutrition||Consuming water, carbs and protein in the first hour after exercise is critical to fast muscle repair and refueling|
|Failure to consume a carbohydrate-protein sports drink during workouts||Research shows that consuming a carbohydrate-protein sports drink (Accelerade) during a workout drastically accelerates post-workout muscle recovery and enhances performance in the next workout|
|Frequent soft-tissue injuries||Inadequate protein consumption||Athletes need extra protein in their diet to heal tissue damage incurred during workouts; consume 0.6-0.8 grams of protein per pound of body-weight a day|
|Frequent bone injuries||Calcium deficiency||Adequate calcium intake is needed for bone maintenance and bone remodeling in response to exercise stress; consume 3-4 servings of calcium-rich, low-fat dairy products a day|
|Not enough fruits and vegetables||Failure to consume enough base-forming foods (as opposed to acid-forming foods) pulls calcium out of the bones; most fruits and vegetables are base-forming|
|Excessive consumption of soft drinks||Soft drinks contain large amounts of phosphorous, which pulls calcium from the bones|
|General fatigue||Iron deficiency||10-13 percent of American women are iron-deficient; endurance training tends to lower iron levels further; the resulting "sports anemia" is a common cause of chronic fatigue in endurance athletes. Have a doctor check your iron level|
|Not eating frequently enough (especially skipping breakfast)||To maintain optimal energy levels throughout the day, you should eat every 2-3 hours from the time you wake up|
|Excessive sugar consumption||High-sugar foods and beverages tend to result in short energy "rushes" followed by energy "crashes"|
|Trouble sleeping||Excessive caffeine consumption||Caffeine consumption can cause poor sleep in some people, even when consumed early in the day. Try a "caffeine fast" for one week and see if it helps|
|Alcohol||Alcohol impairs sleep quality|
|Frequent colds and/or flu||Glutamine deficiency||Glutamine is an important immune system fuel that is chronically lowered in many endurance athletes; dairy protein is a good source of glutamine|
|Inadequate carbohydrate consumption during and after workouts||Carbohydrate depletion during workouts suppresses the immune system. Consuming a sports drink during and after workouts reduces this effect|
|Excessive post-exercise muscle soreness||Inadequate consumption of fruits and vegetables||Post-workout muscle soreness is caused in part by free radicals produced during and after exercise; fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants that reduce free radical damage|
|Failure to consume a carbohydrate-protein sports drink during workouts||Research has shown that the addition of protein to a sports drink (Accelerade) drastically reduces muscle damage incurred during exercise and post-exercise muscle soreness|
|Gastrointestinal discomfort during workouts/races||Over-fueling during workouts/races||The intestine typically cannot absorb more than 1 liter of fluid and 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour during exercise; trying to consume more may cause GI distress|
|Poor fueling choices||Most foods (fruits, nuts, etc.) and beverages (soft drinks, fruit juices) are likely to cause GI distress when consumed during exercise. Stick to water, sports drinks, sports energy gels -- and during prolonged cycling, energy bars|
|Muscle loss (i.e. decrease in body-weight coupled with increase in body-fat percentage)||Inadequate protein consumption||Protein is the primary structural constituent of muscle tissue; athletes need 0.7-0.8 grams of protein per pound of body-weight daily|
|Not enough total calories||Failure to consume enough calories to meet your body's total energy needs will cause your body to break down muscle tissue for extra energy|
Active Expert Matt Fitzgerald is a certified sports nutritionist and the author of several books on triathlon and running, including Runner's World Performance Nutrition for Runners (Rodale, 2005).