A lot of runners love hard data--myself included. We like to know how fast, how slow, how light, how strong our runs and our bodies can be. GPS watches, scales, and other measuring tools have made it really easy to focus on the numbers instead of hearing the symphony of feedback that our body has been playing to us all along.
The same is true with nutrition. Too many runners are looking outside of ourselves for the perfect diet--judging ourselves and each other for whatever trends we are or aren't trying.
The truth is that the diets required to fuel our training can and should vary as widely as all the paces, lifestyles and body types you see out there running the race. For example, a 120lb East African training 150 miles per week to finish under 2:05 will have totally different fueling requirements from a 65-year-old American training her heart out to break 5 hours.
So, without judgement, here is what has worked in my career as a professional marathoner:
Tip 1:1 of 7
I have no idea how many calories I eat per day. I can't really tell you how often or how much I eat at any given "meal." I don't love cooking, and I eat everything too fast.
So what's this non-foodie athlete's advice? I think the only thing I have always done right when it comes to fueling my running is this: I listen to my body. I operate off of the assumption that my body will ask for what it needs, so I essentially give it whatever it asks for.
Tip 2:2 of 7
I might not always give in to my specific cravings, mostly because I'm cheap and feeding all my cravings would get expensive. But I also believe in an ebb and flow of eating healthy most of the time, while allowing for some exceptions on a regular, predictable basis.
The cravings that are hardest to control are the ones that you have for things lurking in your kitchen. So I try to avoid keeping things in my house that I know I shouldn't eat every day. (Like the candy canes and gingerbread cookies I bought a week too early and tried to hide from myself on a top shelf...)
We all learned about food groups back in elementary school, and I use that grouping to substitute any specific cravings for something I have at home.
For example, if I'm craving a burger and fries, I'll break it down to the food groups: I clearly want protein, fat, and carbs. So I'll fry up a chicken sausage and eggs in olive oil, throw a bowl of greens and rice into the microwave to heat up the rice and steam the greens, and then put the eggs and sausage on top with a little cheese, and there's my fix.
Tip 3:3 of 7
Instead, I try to stay stocked in foods that I know will taste good going in, and also serve as excellent fuel on the next run.
Here are the staples I keep in my kitchen. I don't think it would harm anyone to use it as a guideline for a shopping list.
• Peanut butter
• Whole milk
• Whole fat Greek yogurt or cottage cheese
• Greens: spinach or kale
• Whole grain bread or tortillas/wraps
• Cheese: string cheese, cheddar cheese, soft cheeses
• Hydration: Nuun, Pedialyte, Electro-Mix
• Supplements: Iron and Previnex multi-vitamin, fish oil, probiotic and joint supplement
• Chocolate: chocolate chips, Cocoa Elite
• Olive oil
• 100% raw honey
• Pickles (or pickled beets)
• Meat: chicken, beef, sausage
• Beer (sometimes red wine)
• Bars or snacks: protein, fruit, nut, etc.
• Frozen fruit
Tip 4:4 of 7
Your list of staple foods is probably different, and if it is generally working for you, don't throw everything out and start all over. Maybe just tweak an item or two. Say you love fried chicken every day for lunch. Maybe your body is really just craving fats, so try a salad with nuts and oily dressing. Or maybe it's the carbs your body wants, and in that case, include a piece of whole grain bread or some rice.
Maybe you're a soda junkie. Don't try to remove it entirely. Start by eating a little extra portion of real food for lunch instead to replace some of those calories with something more nutritious and then eventually reduce your soda intake to one or two days per week.
Tip 5:5 of 7
I don't believe in cutting anything out entirely, especially if it's something you really love. So if you're an ice cream fan, eat some ice cream! Just not every day. Don't tempt yourself by having it locked and loaded in your freezer. Instead, stock up with plain yogurt and start off by adding honey and fruit or chocolate chips so that you're aware of exactly how much sugar you are adding. Then you can slowly reduce the amount of added sugar while still getting that sweet fix.
Denying yourself something entirely feels like a sacrifice, and if we let those sacrifices pile up, it can start to feel like the sacrifice outweighs the passion--for health or fitness or running, whatever yours might be.
Our FitBits and Garmin devices operate on a 24-hour cycle, but that's not how humans work. There's a reason why all major religions settled on one day of rest per week. It's because not every day is meant to be the same.
Tip 6:6 of 7
So yes, stock your kitchen with healthy substitutes. But listen, pick a day to be your cheat day and feel good about it. Your cheat day is the day that you have that burger and fries and ice cream for dessert that you've been waiting for. I promise, that will help you to stick to your guns the other six days and make life in general more enjoyable and sustainable in the long run!