These are the golden diet rules for runners, according to fitness and nutrition expert Anita Bean
By Ella Walker. Published 2020-03-15
Trying to get on track with your training plan? Then it’s a good idea to think about what’s on your plate too.
With the delay to this year's marathon there is now more time to train for us fair weather runners. However whether we prefer the herculean effort or prefer a gentler jog around the park (I'll be honest for me its the latter) we’re probably asking ourselves the same question: “What can I eat before a run that isn’t spaghetti Bolognese?”
As well as Lycra, smugness and hi-vis fitness jackets, bowls of pasta are synonymous with running culture – but there are alternative running-fuel ingredients, and sports nutritionist and former bodybuilding champion, Anita Bean, is committed to proving that. The health writer has put together 100 recipes specifically geared towards the needs of runners – regardless of speed and ability – in her book, The Runner’s Cookbook.
“A lot of athletes and runners come to me with the same questions because they don’t really know what they ought to be eating – there’s a lot of conflicting information,” she explains. “Do I really need to take gels during a run? What’s the best way to fuel for a 5k or a marathon, or a half a marathon? What should I be eating straight after a run? Those are the kind of questions I really wanted to address.”
Part nutrition guide, part cookbook, the recipes are simple (“You don’t need advanced cooking skills”), come with extensive nutritional information, and are tailored to a typical runner’s lifestyle – meaning they’re generally quick to whip up, and will keep you going and going and going.
But what food mistakes do runners consistently make? And does all that exercise mean you can eat anything you fancy? Here, Anita busts some myths and sets out some golden rules…
There’s no need to consume energy supplements
“I see runners relying on supplements, thinking they need to have sports nutrition products after all their runs, and they’re taking sports drinks and gels and they really don’t have to. For the majority of runners, if you’re running for less than 60-90 minutes, you certainly don’t need to be taking sports drinks or any other kind of sports nutrition products.”
Being a runner doesn’t mean you can eat whatever you like all the time
“Runners starting out often think running is a license to continue eating whatever they want. Runner’s weight gain is quite a real phenomenon, and that’s because many runners overestimate the amount of calories they burn, or overcompensate by consuming extra food after their runs,” explains Anita. “Or they think, ‘Well, I’ve run 10k today, so I deserve this chocolate cake’. Basically, it’s getting the balance between calories in/calories out wrong. And it’s fair to say some runners will find their appetite increases, but once you continue running regularly, you find your appetite will reduce.”
In fact, you ought to be even more careful about what you’re eating
“Start to really cut down on highly processed foods: sugars, sugary snacks, crisps, high-fat, high-sugar foods. Instead, ensure your diet contains lots of fresh fruit, fresh foods and more natural wholefoods. Whole grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, lean meat, fish.”
Don’t cut out carbohydrates
“There’s so much stuff out there talking about low carb and ketogenic diets; that’s just overcomplicating the issue. Quite honestly, nutrition doesn’t have to be complicated and when you look at the diets of top runners, they’re eating a diet that includes carbohydrate,” states Anita. “If you’ve got a long or hard run ahead, you want to eat more carbohydrate. Carbohydrate is what we call a fast fuel – it’s the muscles’ preferred fuel, it produces energy faster than fat or protein. If you try and cut down your carbs, you’ll feel really tired and fatigued to start with, but you’ll find that it may sustain you for long, slow runs, your low intensity easy runs, but a low-carb diet cannot fuel high-intensity runs.”
Even Olympic athletes struggle with nutrition occasionally
“As a runner herself, Jo Pavey [who has written a foreword to the book] has said she’s found it really difficult to access proper nutritional information on what she should be eating, and she knows how important nutrition is. It can make a huge difference to anyone’s experience, so whether you’re a five-time Olympian like Jo, or just starting out with Couch to 5k programmes and anything in-between, nutrition really does make a big difference to how you feel, to your energy levels, your recovery, and your performance on your runs.”