I studied dietetics at Florida State University and fully planned to pursue a career as a dietitian when I graduated. Then my senior year the opportunity to go pro in running arose and I couldn’t turn it down. Even then, I thought it would last a year or two then I would go back to dietetics. I love my life and can’t imagine having done it any other way, but I also enjoy staying close to the field of nutrition and always enjoy my time spent in the kitchen cooking for myself and others. The advice below comes from my friend, fellow runner, and dietitian, Lisa Braden.
Lisa Braden is a Registered Dietitian with a passion for running. She loves spreading the positive message of nutrition and how it impacts not only athletic performance, but every aspect of life. As an avid marathoner and half-marathoner, she knows the role that a solid diet and hard work play in achieving big goals. Lisa lives in Oklahoma and trains with Wahoo! Running (her own version of Bowerman Babes). She is known as a wiz in the kitchen and is always available to talk food and running on Instagram or through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following are some questions that Lisa and I routinely get asked by fellow runners. I hope they are relevant to you and help you figure out the nuances of fueling as an athlete. You can read a previous “Ask the Dietitian” article that Lisa and I wrote here. You can also check out my favorite recipes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as professional advice from a dietitian about snacking. Lastly, for more general information about my philosophy around food and nutrition, read this.
1. I am injured and can’t run, How do I manage eating on a rest day or during off season?
LB: This question comes up a lot. And I understand why, it’s a great question. However, it is a little difficult to answer for the masses because every athlete is different. Sports are different and so are rest schedules, and off seasons.
When athletes, like Colleen, are in heavy training it is important that she eats a solid base (at least half her plate) from carbohydrates to make sure the carbohydrate that her body stores up called glycogen is at high levels for training. Our bodies burn up glycogen during workouts and it needs to be replaced through carbs in our meals. Other important foods include, lean proteins, both animal and plant based, to fuel muscles for recovery, fats like avocados, nuts, and seeds for sustained energy, plus fruits and vegetables give us the much needed vitamins and minerals for overall health. All of these foods should be a part of your daily diet. And in amounts based on your training. And if you train like Colleen - it’s going to be a lot of food!
There is a difference between eating for performance and eating for general health or weight management. A lot of the foods stay the same, but the amounts you eat might change. When you are in off season, or injured, your body may not require the carbohydrate levels that a high intense training cycle requires. Easy swaps would be to lower your pure carbohydrate foods and increase fruits and vegetables, while eating similar protein amounts and moderate fat amounts. Finding the right balance is an important skill to learn because it has a lot of elements to it.
Eating wholesome food, getting adequate sleep, managing stress, and being in tune with your body set you up for being able to handle the ebbs and flows that come with training, injuries, and off season. There is no set calorie number for each day because our bodies do different things each day, and everyone is different. But combining all of the components of a healthy lifestyle and diet will set you up for the best success for both performance and weight management.
My main and last point is this. Learn to love your body and all it can do. Fill it with things that make it happy and make you happy. Learn foods that work for you and ones that don’t. Don’t overthink it and forgive yourself if you feel like you make a mistake. Try new foods, spend time in the kitchen, and eat with friends and fellow athletes. Nutrition can be a gift to your body if you learn to love all it can do.
2. Are carbs actually bad for breakfast?
LB: Nope! Carbs can be great for breakfast, especially if you do your workouts in the morning. And if you do, carbs should definitely be a part of your morning routine. We burn up some of the carbohydrates we store in our body and use as fuel during our workouts while we sleep, so we need to refuel in the morning. If you workout mainly in the afternoon, your breakfast can lean more toward protein, fat, and/or fiber - which don’t settle as well right before a run or workout. Use each meal to your advantage based on what your body needs and when.
A general rule of thumb is 1 hour before a workout eat 1g of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight. Or 2g of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight 2 hours before. This can come from fruits, starchy vegetables, whole grains, or beans. Your choice on what works for you!
Carbohydrates are often misunderstood and labeled bad by popular diets. Carbohydrates give us energy, they can fuel our bodies in lots of ways. Keeping in check how much you eat based on your activity level is the most important point, and that goes for eating any type of food in excess. The more you work out, the more carbs and overall fuel you need. If you don’t move a lot, your carb portions will be smaller and more focused on high fiber carbs sources like fruits and vegetables.
3. What is your opinion about taking multivitamins? Do we eat enough or should we supplement them?
LB: I think taking a multivitamin is a personal decision and opinions on the subject vary. Can you get all you need from a healthy diet that includes all the food groups - yes! Can you also fall short - yes! The reality is that we don’t always get to the exact amount of macro ratios and all of the important micronutrients everyday. If you are eating foods from every food group and eating over 1500 calories per day, you are likely doing a great job. However, a multi-vitamin can help fill in the gaps in eating that inevitably happen if you feel like you need it. My advice would be to read the label and know what you are taking - not all are created equal. You even have the option of taking a half dose or smaller if you feel your diet is reasonably complete.
There are certain occasions where supplements can be helpful, most often it is because you are limiting a food group for some reason. For example, plant based athletes might need extra iron, B12, and other B vitamins that we find most readily in animal based meats. Or a dairy free athlete might need to look at Vit D, Calcium, and Riboflavin. You may also need a short term supplement to treat a deficiency in something, iron is common in endurance athletes. There are plenty of occasions where vitamins and supplements have a place. You can even combine supplements and diet therapy to correct deficiencies.
To know what is right for you and supplements, I would recommend speaking to a dietitian or other practitioner about your specific needs. Having someone look at your diet, your recent performance, how you are feeling, and even running blood levels can be helpful. They can help you make an educated decision based on your situation.
4. Are beets really as beneficial as everyone says they are for runners?
LB: Beets are a rich source of dietary nitrates which stimulates the production of nitric oxide. Nitric Oxide helps regulate blood flow and oxygen consumption. What this means for endurance sports performance, like running, is you are going to feel faster and be able to run longer before feeling tired. To get the performance boost, you need to take in roughly the equivalent of 2 cups of beet juice, or 7 oz. (by weight) of cooked beets two hours before your endurance activity. They also make supplements in liquid or powder form that are concentrated forms of beets, so you have to take less for the benefits. The performance boost is in the range of 1-3%. It is a personal decision on whether you want to add this to your morning race routine. My only advice is practice before race day, so you can see how your stomach holds up.
Outside of the performance benefits, beets are a wonderful part of a healthy diet. The are rich in fiber and phytonutrients. Plus, the color is beautiful! If they are too earthy for you, experiment a little. My personal favorite is beet hummus, it’s perfectly pink and delicious.