It's a four letter word in every sense. It has a negative connotation. I am talking about the word diet. Most people think of the word diet and associate it with being hungry; lettuce and carrot sticks come to mind. But actually the definition of diet is the food a person habitually eats. You could be on an all Twinkie diet or a healthy, balanced diet. What you eat is your diet.
Runners have dietary needs that are a little different than the average person. While you may have heard that runners need to carbo-load before a big race and envision a giant plate of spaghetti and garlic bread to meet these nutritional requirements, the truth is that we shouldn't be that extreme. If fact, consuming large amounts of carbohydrates immediately before an event could lead to gastrointestinal distress (which is the last thing you want during a race).
Carbs may have a bad name in some nutritional circles, but they are necessary for athletes. If you focus on consuming the right kinds of carbs, unprocessed whole foods, they provide the essential energy and fuel that you need to run strong.
The idea is to have a steady flow of high quality carbs in your system leading up to race day. Choose foods like slow-cooked oatmeal, sweet potatoes and brown rice, rather than bagels, donuts or crackers. If you eat a mostly healthful diet, there is definitely room in your diet to include whatever carbohydrates you enjoy, but for sports fueling, I recommend focusing on high-quality nutrient-dense foods.
A lot of articles you will read will give you a daily % of carbs to include in your diet, but people who do not track their macro-nutrients closely (new runners for instance) may find this confusing. If the guidelines sat to 40% carbs, 30% protein and 30% fat, a lot of people may not understand what that means for their daily diets.
According to the Road Runners Club of Amercia, the International Olympic Committee developed these guidelines to define nutrient needs according to your activity level and body weight.
Intensity of exercise gram carb/kg body wt gram carb/lb body wt
Low intensity 3-5 g 1.5-2.5
Moderate ( 1 hour/day): 5-7 g 2.3-3.2
Endurance (1-3 hours/d): 6-10 g 2.5-4.5
Extreme (>4-5 hours/d): 8-12 g 3.5-5.5
This gives you a rough guideline to where to start and then you can adjust accordingly to how your body reacts to the intake. Every single athlete is different and only you can determine what works best for you. It may take some trial and error. Some people are carb-sensitive and may need to cut back from these guidelines to feel optimal. Other athletes may feel low on energy or experience poor performance if they consume less than these guidelines.
An effective strategy for me has been to consume most of my daily carbs right before my workout and immediately afterwards to refuel and lower my carb intake on days that I don't workout. I know a lot of people are scared of carbs, but it is not necessary to feel this way. You can definitely eat a moderate to high amount of healthful carbs as a athlete and remain slim if you choose the quality of your carbs and your timing carefully. Do some experimenting and see what works for you.
I find that a lot of new athletes may not be getting enough protein in their diets. Protein helps muscle growth, repair and adaptation. An athlete should consume protein with 30 minutes to one hour after a workout in addition to meeting their daily requirements. I recommend whole food protein sources like eggs, lean meat, fish, nuts or beans. Protein supplements (like powders or drinks) can be a convenient way to consume your protein when you are short on time or on the go. I enjoy protein shakes occasionally in addition to consuming mostly whole foods.
National Academy of Sports Medicine recommends the following protein intake according to activity level and weight.
Activity level Grams of protein per lb of body weight per day
Sedentary .4 grams per lb
Strength Athlete .5 - .8 grams per lb
Endurance Athlete .5 - .6 grams per lb
Repeat after me: Fat does not make you fat. Consuming more calories than you burn will contribute to weight gain. If you make mostly healthy, balanced choices and keep your calorie intake at or below maintenance, no single macronutrient in itself will cause weight gain. I add healthy fats in the form of avocados (in my salads, for example) olive oil for cooking and nuts, like pistachios, for snacking. I find that fats help sustain my hunger. Fats have more calories per gram than the other macronutrients so I recommend that you watch your portion sizes as to not accidentally go over your calorie needs.
Eating low fat packaged products may actually be less healthful than the full fat versions. Read the nutritional label carefully, food manufacturers often take out the fat in order to display a low fat label, but add in sugar and processed ingredients in its place. Often the full fat versions of foods are the best choices.
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine sedentary men should consume 13 cups of water a day and women nine cups a day. People trying to lose weight should should drink an additional eight ounces of water for every 25 pounds they carry over their goal weight. Water intake should be increased when exercising or during hot weather.
Work to drink two to three cups of water two hours before exercise to hydrate, drink one cup for every 20 minutes of exercise and replace lost water after exercising. For exercise that lasts more than an hour or in extreme heat consume a sports drink to replace lost electrolytes. When exercising one hour or less, plain water is sufficient.
A Note on Balance and Cheat Meals
I don't like the phrase 'cheat meal' because it implies you are doing something wrong. I live by this statement: What you do occasionally does not impact what you do habitually. This means if you make a habit of choosing healthful, whole foods most of the time, enjoying a less than nutritious meal (like pizza, french fries or fried sushi: three of my favorite indulgences) occasionally won't make a big impact on your overall health and fitness goals. It goes both ways. If you habitually eat fast food and make poor food choices, eating an occasional salad won't impact you positively either.
Bottom line, it's your life. You have to enjoy it too. Sometimes it's Grandma's home cooked meal or celebrations with family and friends that bring meaning to life. You shouldn't have to worry about every calorie consumed. If you make good choices most of the time, there is no reason to turn down Grandma's (or Olive Garden's) garlic bread. (Can you tell I like garlic bread? Second mention in one blog post.)
I am a personal trainer. It is beyond my scope of practice to provide detailed meal plans or advise people specifically on what to eat or not to eat. I am permitted to give general guidelines like I have in this blog post. If you need more specific nutritional guidance, feel as if you have an eating disorder or issues with food, I recommend you speak to a registered dietitian (RD) who has the educational background to help you. Remember that personal trainers, online health coaches and even nutritionists are not permitted by law to provide specific diets to cure or treat any disease, included obesity.
What's your favorite health food and what's your favorite indulgence? Did I mention garlic bread?
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