If you're training for a long run or running to lose weight, the balance between enough calories and too many calories can be a huge challenge. Underfuel and you pay the consequences of lost speed, endurance, and a slew of health consequences. However, overfuel and you not only stand to gain weight, but you also may experience unwanted gastro-intestinal distress on the run.
While trendy diet plans that are currently flooding social media may be off-limits if you're serious about training and logging in miles, that doesn't mean you have an excuse to order the entire brunch menu at the end of a long run. It's all about being aware of how many calories you're burning and how many you're consuming.
It may sound like a complicated relationship, but it's not that bad when you get the hang of it. Here are nine simple rules to keep in mind if you're trying to balance a running schedule and be conscious about your caloric intake.
Know how many calories you burn
There are many trendy gadgets and fitness trackers that will measure your heart rate and accurately estimate the calories you burn on a run. Seeing that number in black and white may make you rethink your postrun binge. On average, women burn approximately 100 calories per mile. To put that in perspective, a five-mile training run earns you less than two pieces of pizza before you've overindulged and eaten more calories than you burned.
Think of food as fuel, not as a reward or punishment
Instead of overeating because you think you deserve it after a long run, try to think about eating as a way to refuel your body. Your body may need something different than what you would eat for a reward. Additionally, if you've overindulged the night before, don't restrict your diet too much as punishment for your actions. Food is fuel, and you feel best when your body gets the premium fuel it needs. Instead of asking yourself what you do or don't "deserve," ask yourself what your body needs after you've just completed a tough workout.
Don't just throw yourself into any diet experiment
After suffering from bloating and overall gastrointestinal discomfort, I tried an elimination diet to work out what food or food group was causing the problem. An elimination diet might be a great idea for people who aren't training for a half marathon, but two miles into my planned seven-mile run, I knew it wasn't appropriate for me and my training program. Right away, my legs felt like they were made of concrete, and even the first mile was hard to get through without throwing in the towel. At mile two, I was lightheaded and beginning to get dizzy.
I ate a nutty protein bar and walked the last two miles back to my car. The run was a failure, but the failed experiment taught me that I need carbs to get through even an easy run. I may be able to eliminate a lot of junk food and processed food from my diet, but I can't run a long distance on veggies and fruit alone. If there is a certain diet you've been wanting to try, maybe consider saving it for a time when you're not training for a race. Disrupting your body's caloric intake when you're demanding so much from it could result in poor performance.
Carb up, but be smart about it
Yes, there are carbs in pizza, junk food, and sugar, but not the type of carbs that will let you cruise through a double-digit training run. Look for complex carbohydrates like whole-grain bread, sweet potatoes, and vegetables. Simple carbs like sugar and junk food produce blood sugar highs and lows, and they're not a sustainable energy source for a long run. Eating them in excess will also result in weight gain, regardless of how much you're running.
Your muscles need good carbohydrates before your run to give you the energy you need to hit the finish line, and you also need those complex carbohydrates after your run to replenish the glycogen you burned in your muscles while running.
Protein is the essential recovery food
Your muscles take a beating while you're running long distances, and they need to be refueled immediately after you've finished up. Ensuring that you consume lean, healthy proteins like chicken, eggs, or tofu after a run helps your muscles repair more efficiently. Protein and complex carbs are where most of your postrun calories should come from.
Hydration is crucial
You may not think about drinking water when you're mapping out your caloric meal plan during your training, but it's arguably the most essential part of a runner's balanced diet. Don't wait until minutes before your run to down a glass of water. Drinking too closely to your run may leave you feeling waterlogged and uncomfortable. Instead, aim to stay hydrated on your run by drinking water steadily throughout the day. Avoiding carbonated beverages, caffeine, and alcohol is also crucial to prevent dehydrating yourself and stomach cramps during your run.
Don't skip the midrun fuel
Knowing when and how to eat in preparation for your long run is critical to becoming a better runner. Your body needs fuel during your long run in addition to before and after. If your run will take more than one hour, you need something to eat on the go. During this time, simple carbs are the best bet because you want the quick-acting blood sugar spike to power you through the last few miles. There are a lot of foods designed to be eaten while you run, like a banana or dried fruit, and a little experimenting will help you find the one that's best for you. Try to stick to a midrun snack that's about 100 calories.
Eat and run more mindfully
Meditation is already known to have a positive impact on athletic performance, but using the mindfulness meditation technique to stay present and quiet your mind can also help you make better nutrition decisions. Before, during, and after a run, taking a minute to quiet your mind and check in with your body may reveal what your body actually needs to be at its best. Listen to your tired muscles, cramping stomach, or pounding head and respond with the fuel that will help every part of you recover more quickly.
What works for everyone else may not work for you
I know a lot of runners that swear on a handful of nuts before a run, but that is a disaster for me! I tried trail mix once before a long run, and instead of having an energized, easy run, I had a five-mile plan that turned into a two-mile slog and a 100-yard dash to the bathroom. What works best for your running partner may not work for you. Use every run on your training plan as a dress rehearsal for race day to learn what foods fuel you and what foods make you feel sick, tired, or slow. Keeping a journal as you train will also help you see patterns in your nutrition and running that may lead you to the perfect nutrition plan.