Sooner or later, every runner will find themselves on a quest for the holy grail of peak performance. This often involves an insatiable pursuit of the perfect training regimen, resulting in a grab bag of speed work, breathing techniques, footwear technology and gait analysis. But perhaps the simplest and most predictable aspect of increasing your performance comes from figuring out which healthy foods to eat (and which foods to avoid) and how to incorporate them into your everyday running diet.
Get started with these food guidelines:
Carbohydrates. Recent science has found that carbo loading before a race offers no benefits for races lasting less than 90 minutes. For endurance runners, carbo loading can be beneficial for increasing stamina, not performance. When looking at your carbohydrate intake, adopt today’s rule of thumb of 2.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight.
Sugar. Yes, sugar is a carbohydrate, but it has such a bad rap in nutrition circles that it merits its own discussion. Consuming simple sugars, meaning glucose and/or fructose before and during a run, is OK as long as your running time lasts more than an hour. Simple sugars from fresh fruit or cane sugars quickly convert into energy called glycogen, the fuel your muscles need to perform. On the other hand, if you’re running shorter distances, sugars simply represent empty calories and have no measurable performance benefit.
Protein. Lean proteins come in a variety of healthy foods and should be incorporated into your training regimen as a post-race recovery plan. Protein helps rebuild muscle and begins the regeneration process. Ingesting protein during a race, once thought as taboo, can also increase endurance and decrease exercise-induced muscle damage. Some sports drinks offer a small addition of protein to a 6–8 percent carbohydrate formula. One cautionary note: Not all athletes’ gastrointestinal systems can tolerate protein while running, so experiment well in advance of any big race.
High-fat diets: friend or foe? A high-fat diet will increase muscle reliance on fat for fuel during prolonged exercise, which decreases a body’s reliance on precious glycogen stores, but even so, there is no correlation with increased performance. The health disadvantages of a high-fat diet, especially with today’s abundance of processed foods and saturated fats, is a cautionary reminder that restraint at every fitness level is necessary for optimum health. Even so, a performance runner will tolerate an occasional high-fat binge more so than your average couch potato, so don’t feel guilty if you give yourself a hot fudge sundae as a reward for a well-run race; just don’t adopt it as part of your training regimen.
Anti-inflammatory foods: a runner’s post-run secret weapon. The anti-inflammatory food pyramid features some of the best healthy foods to eat post-run to reduce cramping, soreness and muscle trauma. When consumed immediately after a race, food such as walnuts, avocados and blueberries helps restore muscles, reduce inflammation and return you more quickly to training for that next big race.
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