Which diet is best for runners?

Is it low or high carb? Train low, race high? Intermittent fasting? Should you be vegan or eating iron-rich red meat? Fiona Bugler investigates...

Food is fuel that you need to fire your running engine, so making sure you get the right balance of energy and nutrients is vital to help turn you into a lean, mean, running machine. But how finely-tuned does your engine need to be? What’s the right fuel combination to keep you performing well – and if you’re trying to lose weight, what will keep the pounds off?

John Berardi, PhD is one of the founders of Precision Nutrition, the world’s largest online nutrition coaching company. He’s an advisor to Apple, Equinox, Nike, and Titleist and was recently in London presenting to fitness professionals. He has an interesting answer to this question: what’s the best diet?

In short, Berardi points out that all diets and eating plans when followed, work. They all have their pros and cons, and they all have evangelical advocates. If you know people who follow a particular way of eating, you probably have seen them experience success. There are slim, fit and super healthy vegans, meat eaters, high carb and low carb eaters, fasters and people who eat all day.

So does it really matter whether you have more carbs, fat or protein? Is the macronutrient mix the key ingredient to success? What’s better: low carb or high protein?

The science categorically says no, it really doesn’t matter. In 2013 The Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) revealed that, ‘numerous trials comparing diets differing in macronutrient composition has demonstrated… very small and inconsistent differences in weight loss and metabolic risk factors’.

And furthermore, the real difference, the key to success for most diets is simple. It comes from sticking at it. Again in JAMA, four meta-analyses summarising between 14 and 24 major trials (in other words a broad sweep of studies) found that ‘adherence is the only consistent factor with weight loss and disease related outcomes’.

But surely for runners it’s different – we need carbs, right? Why would we have all those pasta parties, energy gels and sweets if we didn’t? Or is the movement advocating “train low (carb), race high” the right approach? And with leading figures in the running world, such as Tim Noakes, author of the The Lore of Running having a complete U-turn, saying carbs are not good for runners, should we ditch the pasta, the porridge and the whole grain bars?

‘I think it’s worth pointing out that the words of those who are following the low carb diets, and preaching that carbs are bad for you, are generally coming from the mouths of hyper disciplined, type A people,’ says Berardi.

‘Ask yourself: what do you prefer to eat? If you’re running well, and you’re healthy and you’re eating the things you want why change it?’ he adds.

So how does the “traditional” runner’s diet work? ‘The high carb diet has an internally consistent system,’ explains Berardi. ‘You deal with the blood sugar swings that are inevitable from having a high carb/high sugar diet, by taking gels and sugary drinks when you train – the system fixes itself,’ he says. ‘But if you don’t do all of it, problems will show up, so for example, if you don’t have gels in a longer race, you may under-perform. You think it’s because you didn’t have a gel. It’s not. It’s because you eat a high carb diet and you didn’t have the buffer when you needed it,’ he explains. ‘If you’re going to use the high carb diet and you’re healthy and performing well, then that’s good, but you have to use the whole system,’ he adds emphatically.

And what about the new approach? The new school of physiology and nutrition which says you should choose a high fat diet, which is ‘glycogen sparing’. The theory goes that you train the body to use fat when you run. You burn fat during your training and events and therefore you do not always have to be loading up with carbs.

‘If you eat a high fat and low carb diet theoretically you shouldn’t burn and crash. When you run a race like a marathon, you burn more of your calories as fat so if you eat more fat in your diet it should take longer before you need to tap into your glycogen stores,’ explains Berardi. ‘For most runners the liver can hold 100-120g carbs and whole body carb storage is around 400-600g or 1600-2400 calories (but remember the exact total amount depends on body size and muscle mass),’ he says.

Berardi concludes that you really have to choose what works for you – your tastes, your preferences – but his and other’s research does point to guidelines on eating for your body shape (see them at www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-body-type-eating). Most runners are ectomporphs (skinny, longer limbs) and according to his research they are better able to metabolise carbohydrates than other body types, and should aim to have a diet that consists of around 55 per cent carbs, 25 per cent protein, and 20 per cent fat. For a mesomorph (stockier and athletic in a muscular way), it’s 40 per cent carbohydrate, 30 per cent protein, and 30 per cent fat, and for the rounder, heavier endomorph, Precision Nutrition recommends around 25 per cent carbs, 35 per cent protein, and 40 per cent fat.

But, as mentioned earlier, macronutrients aren’t really that important for most of us. And Berardi points out that the fine-tuning of macronutrients is most relevant for elite runners. ‘Recreational runners – i.e. those who run two to three times a week – should not eat differently than someone who is eating for health. You don’t need to carb up. You don’t even need to take carbs in a workout,’ says Berardi.

‘Eating for health is, as always, about eating less processed, healthy food, and a mixture of proteins and carbohydrates and fats,’ says Berardi.

Try lean chicken, fish and eggs for a daily protein fix and snack on nuts, and seeds for smaller protein hits. Protein not only repairs muscle damage, it also helps you to feel full. Whey protein is one of the most popular and research-supported proteins for athletes and is often found in recovery drinks.

CARBS: As a rough guide, you need around five to ten grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per day. Choose pulses (which also are protein-rich) and wholegrains. For a simple rule opt for brown – bread, rice, pasta. And don’t forget that you can get carbohydrates from a diet rich in colourful fruits and vegetables.

FAT: Eat healthy fats. Choose foods rich in natural fat: butter, milk, cheese, eggs, meat, fish, avocado, nuts, seeds and olive oil. Remember saturated isn’t all bad. Recent research found that there was less risk of chronic heart disease in countries where saturated fat was high than in countries where processed high sugar diets dominated.

WATER: Stay hydrated. As well as drinking lots of water throughout the day, an antioxidant-rich smoothie or juice (made with dark berries and vitamin-rich fruit) is the multi-tasker way to fill up fast! Eat water- rich foods such as watermelon, apples and lettuce.

Read Dr Berardi’s advice for runners who want to lose weight on our website at www.womensrunninguk.co.uk/training/train-right-goal and for more information on Precision Nutrition visit www.precisionnutrition.com/calorie-control-guide.

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