How the Elites Eat: Quality, Quantity, and Stop Over-Thinking
By: Cait Chock
The focus on sports nutrition, or 'healthy eating', has exploded in recent years. Everyone wants to know what everyone else is eating. Not that the overwhelming curiosity in regards to all things food and diet is new, but for a long time the world of distance running fell under a bit of an umbrella. Runners ran so much they could eat whatever they wanted and not gain weight, so it didn't matter, right?
Over the years science has proven that while running mega miles often enables runners to eat calories by the truckload, in order to perform at their best it DOES matter what foods they turned to to fulfill that energy requirement. Unfortunately, an interest swung wildly to the opposite end of the spectrum and today, the general populace of runners are more than curious: but rather, borderline obsessed with what goes into the mouths of elite runners.
What's most interesting is that in large part, the highest degree of diet scrutiny is coming more from the general populace of runners rather than the elites. Certainly the elites recognize standard tenants of eating to perform, many have gradually cleaned up their eating habits as they've reached each next level of running, but the focus on the minutia isn't there.
There's a difference between eating as a healthy, moderately active individual and eating as a performance-motivated runner. Molly Huddle phrases it perfectly, "I think it's important to note the difference between eating for athletic performance, which focuses on fuel and recovery, and eating for general health. The two overlap, but are not the same."
We live in a very food-obsessed culture, on both ends of the spectrum, and that has a tendency to spill over into the athletic and healthy-living populous. Runners are type-A, goal-oriented folk and are always looking for ways to improve. Though, a mistake that runners can make is 'over-thinking' and over-analyzing things; it happens in training and it is happening when it comes to their diets. And, just as in training, nutrition ultimately must be built around the individual. There is no cookie-cutter for success and it often takes some experimenting to find what works best for you.
Food to Support, Not to Overshadow Training
No single food will make you faster, elimination of a single food will not make you faster, and it's crucial to emphasize that, yes, proper sports nutrition will set you up to improve, BUT it will not make up for a lack of training. In a runner's ever-seeking quest to get faster, don't fall victim to wanting to believe that in merely eating like a runner faster than yourself, you'll automatically be entitled to the same times. THAT kind of thinking is what continues to fuel the 'over-thinking' of nutrition, and over-thinking in other areas of training. In the end, habits outside of your running can support your training but they can never replace it.
As Huddle so eloquently points out, eating for a runner is different than eating for a healthy, slightly active individual. Runners need a lot more energy to support their training and for their bodies to be able to recover. Runners demand a lot more from their bodies than the average folk. "I have learned to try to eat adequate meat and red meat portions as well as carbohydrates," shares Huddle. "I throw some fruit and vegetables in there so I don't get sick, but they aren't the majority of my diet like a healthy non-athlete may eat." A prime example of the deviation, fruits and vegetables are important to include for their micronutrients, but because her body requires so much energy she realizes she needs to include a lot more calorically and energy-dense foods. And to be clear, she's not swapping 'junk' for apples and carrots, rather, just foods to give her more bang for her energy buck like proteins and whole grains.
In speaking of fulfilling energy requirements, you'll note Huddle is lean, running like a high-performance vehicle, "I try to eat snacks as well, as I am someone who needs to eat enough rather than cut back." She points out another fact, runners are different from the masses and each runner is unique unto themselves. A group of runners could all be running the same mileage, at the same level of training, but there would be variance between what and how they were to eat in order to perform at their best and reach their ideal race weight.
A Tale of Two Racing Weights
There tends to be two kinds of runners, those who need to be a little more mindful not to eat too much in order to achieve their racing weight, and those who need to be more mindful in order to eat enough so as not to lose weight. For runners in the latter category, they often far exceed the estimated energy needs from metabolic calculators and that's why it's more important to focus on foods, performance and outside indicators (ie: weight loss, feeling fatigued, etc.) rather than the caloric numbers. Keeping pace with a metabolic furnace is what's motivating Huddle to opt for steak and potatoes over a salad.
Lauren Kleppin provides another perfect example of a how important individualization is for performance, "I came out of the womb like a scene from the Exorcist, with my head spinning 360 degrees and vomiting in demonic fashion. Come to find out after 18 years of growing up in Wisconsin, the land of cheese, milk just wasn't my thing. Contrary to popular belief around me, it wasn't going to help me grow any taller, or make my bones any stronger, or taste even slightly good, if its only purpose in my body was to escape." Cutting back on dairy helps her avoid follow-up Exorcist moments, but she's also quick to admit she still has a soft spot for the occasional fro-yo piled high with toppings. Even running at the highest level, one is entitled to be human, "I just probably won't be attempting a workout anytime soon after."
Foods that are staples for Kleppin include: cage-free eggs, peanut butter, bananas, spinach, avocados, hummus, and almond milk. "I feel that if you are serious about performing at a high level physically, you have to be serious about doing your own research on the choices you are going to make nutritionally, and be serious about fueling your body properly...nutrition is not a one size fits all sort of deal." Kleppin, true to the artist inside her, likes to fill her plates with lots of color.
Beer also makes its way into Kleppin's fridge, as it does for Sage Canaday. While Canaday's fellow ultra-runner girlfriend is strictly gluten-free, and as she does most of the cooking many of his meals wind up being that way too, he isn't strict and not shy in saying he will never give up his beer. Elite runners eat balanced but realize they also work hard enough to still include the foods they enjoy. They know how they fuel their body supports their training but that they also don't live in a bubble.
One of Kleppin's ASICS Mammoth Track Club teammates, Daniel Tapia, shares his philosophy, "Flexibility is important for me because I know that I can't take my entire pantry with me everywhere I train or race." The times he is most strict naturally center around his workouts; he ensures he goes into each run fully hydrated and in order to fuel 2-4 hours worth of running he consumes Cytomax and PowerBar Recovery drinks along with that water to replace the electrolytes and carbohydrates he's losing. Each morning before his run he makes sure he is fueled with, "complex carbs like oatmeal, whole grains, and vegetables which will take longer to burn during something as grueling as the marathon." The rest of the day he makes sure to get enough protein by way of chicken, salmon, eggs, and yogurt which will build muscle and expedite muscle recovery.
The three key windows of time for runners to pay extra diligence in their food and fluid choices are pre, during, and post-run. These are the times to be most strict to ensure your energy levels are fully stocked and you set yourself up to recover faster after the workout.
From all of these runners, you will note that they know the important role nutrition plays in allowing them to perform at their best; yet, they don't seek a particular food or adopt a diet regime with the expectation it's the 'holy grail' in making them improve. At the end of the day, they know the most important work is done on the track, road, trail, you name it.
Seek quality overall, seek adequate quantity, remain balanced, and don't 'over-think' your food choices.
Caitlin Chock (caitchock.com) set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004. A freelance writer, artist, and designer she writes about all things running and founded Ezzere, her own line of running shirts (www.ezzere.com). You can read more, see her running comics, and her shirts at her website.