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What should runners eat?

Runners can run out of fuel easily. “All endurance athletes need more macronutrients, vitamins and minerals than the average person,” say Shalane Flanagan, marathoner and Olympic medalist, and Elyse Kopecky, authors of “Run Fast. Eat Slow” (Rodale Books, 2016). Which is why they should take extra care not to run on empty when it comes to diet.

How should runners eat to ensure health and peak athletic performance? Flanagan and Kopecky, as well as Mitzi Dulan, RD, CSSD, author of “The Pinterest Diet” (Dulan Health, 2013) and Heather Mangieri, MS, RDN, CSSD, LDN, author of “Fueling Young Athletes” (Human Kinetics, 2016) all stress that runners, like everyone, should eat a healthy, balanced diet of fresh whole foods. It’s easiest to do this, Flanagan and Kopecky say, if you cook for yourself. “Other than running more miles, the single greatest thing an athlete can do to improve their performance (and long-term health and happiness) is to learn to cook,” they say.

What should runners include in their diet?

Mangieri says to consider nutrients rather than ingredients. While total carbohydrates are a fuel source for runners, she says, Vitamin D and calcium help maintain a strong skeleton. Iron and B12 are key because a deficiency of either would result in fatigue. Flanagan and Kopecky point out the key role of good fats, which help fight inflammation and repair the body. “Don’t fear fat,” they say. “A balanced diet rich in good fats is essential for bone, hormone, heart and brain health and a healthy metabolism.”

Mangieri attests to the primary role of protein. “Runners tend to use about 10 to 15 percent of the protein they consume as energy. Therefore, their daily need is slightly higher than for non-athletes,” she says. “Still, most Americans are getting plenty. Rather than increasing intake, it’s important to make sure that protein intake is spread evenly throughout the day. Doing so increases the protein efficiency and helps to maximize muscle protein synthesis.” For sources, Dulan suggests chicken, salmon and pork tenderloin. (She also encourages consumption of antioxidant-rich produce, such as bananas, apples, pineapples, watermelons and grapes.)

Which meals and snacks should runners eat every day?

For breakfast, Flanagan goes for a whole-milk yogurt bowl with muesli and fruit or an egg scramble with spinach, avocado and parmesan (with buttered whole-grain toast on the side). For lunch, she’ll choose a hearty grain salad, such as quinoa, wild rice or farro with seasonal vegetables, greens, nuts and an olive-oil-based dressing. At dinnertime, she’ll pair a favorite protein, such as steak or roasted chicken, with roasted vegetables, sweet potato fries and salad. Flanagan snacks on nuts and dates, muffins, smoothies, or bananas or apples with nut butter. Snackwise, Dulan suggests a combination of protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats, as with protein balls and kefir and Greek yogurt drinkables.

What should runners eat before, during and after a run?

“The best pre-event or training foods will be low in fat and fiber and adequate in carbohydrates and fluids,” Mangieri says. The night before an endurance event, Flanagan will eat salmon, a hearty salad with grains, sweet potatoes and bread with butter. The next morning, she’ll go for protein, carbohydrates and a small amount of fat, usually in the form of coffee with creamer, GU Brew (an electrolyte drink) and her Race Day Oatmeal (recipe below) with a banana, creamer, walnuts, almonds, berries and honey. During marathons, Mangieri recommends engineered foods with carbohydrates, electrolytes and fluid, such as sports drinks, energy gels, chews, beans and “bloks.”

With sprints, Mangieri points out, carbohydrates are the primary fuel source. She recommends opting for simple forms, such as sport drinks, carbohydrate gels/chews/bloks, fruit, graham crackers and fig bars. “They will digest quickly and provide a quick source of fuel,” she says. When sprinting, Flanagan reaches for bread, fruit and sweet potato breakfast cookies. Post-marathon, she tends to go for a burger and fries, such as the Greek Bison Burger (recipe below) and sweet potato fries from her book. “It’s important to celebrate every race,” she says.

Which foods should runners avoid?

Dulan, Flanagan and Kopecky agree on steering clear of artificial sweeteners. Flanagan and Kopecky add soda, highly processed packaged foods and sugar to the no-go list, although Flanagan admits, “I limit my consumption of sugar, but I don’t completely avoid it. I love dark chocolate. In a healthy diet, there is room for indulgences, but most of mine are wholesome homemade treats.”

How much should runners eat?

Regardless of diet, consume the right amount. “Runners need the same balanced diet day to day that non-runners need—they just may need more,” Mangieri says. “As a rule of thumb, their extra carbohydrate calories are specifically to support their increased energy expenditure. Therefore, whether they need extra fuel to support their running will depend on the duration and intensity of their training. For the most part, training for a 5K will not require any extra calories; the longer runs will.” Still, “stop counting calories,” Kopecky and Flanagan advise. “Instead, eat mindfully and get back in touch with listening to your body’s hunger signals.” That way, you’ll be off to a running start!

Photo credit: Alan Weiner

An Olympic Runner’s Favorite Ingredients

Below are Shalane Flanagan’s top five go-to foods.

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Pasture-raised eggs: They’re an easily digestible complete protein with healthy omega-3 fats. “Eat the yolk!” Shalane Flanagan urges. “It’s the most nutritious part.”

Whole-milk yogurt: It contains healthy fat, protein, calcium and probiotics for digestion.

Sweet potatoes: These nutrient-dense complex carbs are easier to digest than pasta the night before a long run, Flanagan says.

Seasonal fruit and vegetables: Loaded with vitamins and minerals, they should be eaten with fat to maximize nutrient absorption.

Grass-fed beef or bison: In addition to being high in iron (which is especially important for female runners), these protein sources are rich in conjugated linoleic acid, which helps build lean muscle.

Greek Bison Burgers
Serves 4

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For pumping iron.

These burgers are our jam. In the summer, we make them on a near weekly basis. Combining the ground meat with egg, feta, almond flour, and Greek-inspired seasonings results in the juiciest and most flavorful burgers you’ll ever eat.

Shalane loves to make them with ground bison (buffalo) when training at high altitude for the iron-rich kick, but they’re also foolproof made with ground beef, lamb, or turkey.

This recipe is simple enough to double or triple when feeding a crowd (Elyse multiplied the recipe by 8 for her daughter’s first birthday).

1 egg

½  cup crumbled feta cheese

¼  cup almond flour or almond meal

1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano leaves or 1 teaspoon dried

2 cloves garlic, minced

¼  teaspoon fine sea salt

¼  teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 pound ground bison (buffalo) or ground beef, lamb, or turkey

4 whole wheat pitas or hamburger buns (see gluten-free substitute above), optional

Optional toppings: Avocado Cream (page 178), Chipotle Hummus (page 70), or Don’t Get Beet Hummus (page 73)

1. Preheat the grill to medium-high.

2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the egg, feta, almond flour or meal, oregano, garlic, salt, and pepper. Add the meat and use your hands to combine, being careful not to overwork the meat. Form into 4 equal-size patties about 1 inch thick.

3. Grill the burgers, flipping once, until a thermometer inserted in the center registers 160°F and the meat is no longer pink, 3 or 4 minutes per side. In the last minute, warm the pitas or buns on the grill (if using).

4. Split the pitas or buns open, stuff each with a burger, and top (if desired) with a spoonful of Avocado Cream, Chipotle Hummus, or Don’t Get Beet Hummus.

5. For a gluten-free alternative to buns, serve the burgers between 2 slices of grilled eggplant rounds. Simply slice 1 large eggplant into 1-inch-thick slices, brush with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt, and grill for 3 to 4 minutes per side.

Superhero Muffins
Makes 12 muffins

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For a long Sunday run

These muffins were designed for superheroes like you. They’re packed full of veggies and sweetened with maple syrup instead of refined sugar. In addition, almond meal and whole grain oats replace nutrient-stripped white flour. These are Shalane’s go-to muffins—nourishing and sweetly satisfying for an easy grab-’n-run breakfast.

And don’t fear the butter. Fueling up with healthy fats is a great way to start your day. Fat helps transport important vitamins throughout your hardworking body and will help keep you satisfied longer.

As a bonus, these muffins are gluten-free.

2 cups almond meal

1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats (gluten-free if sensitive)

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

½  teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon baking soda

½  teaspoon fine sea salt

½  cup chopped walnuts (optional)

½  cup raisins, chopped dates, or chocolate chips (optional)

3 eggs, beaten

1 cup grated zucchini (about 1 zucchini)

1 cup grated carrots (about  2 carrots)

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

½  cup dark amber maple syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a 12-cup standard muffin tin with paper muffin cups.

2. In a large bowl, combine the almond meal, oats, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, salt, and walnuts, raisins, dates, or chocolate chips (if using).

3. In a separate bowl, mix together the eggs, zucchini, carrots, butter, maple syrup, and vanilla. Add to the dry ingredients, mixing until just combined. The batter will be thick.

4. Spoon the batter into the muffin cups, filling each to the brim. Bake until the muffins are nicely browned on top and a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean, 25 to 35 minutes.

If you have a high-powered blender, you can grind your own almond flour. For 2 cups of almond flour, pulse 10 ounces of whole raw almonds on high speed until finely ground.

Keep a batch in the freezer for a sweet grab-’n-run breakfast. Simply defrost on low power in the microwave.

Discuss