Discover more from Colorado Mountain Running & Living
Sports Nutrition 101 to Stay Healthy & Run Well
What I told a group of high school cross-country runners to develop a positive relationship with food
Welcome back, and thank you to all subscribers who filled out the reader survey. This is your last chance to fill it out, by September 18. As an incentive, I’ll draw two respondents at random to win an item of their choosing priced at $20 or less from the semi-rad.com store (which is full of fun stuff).
Several survey respondents replied that they’d like more posts about sports nutrition. Well, this post is for you! Below, I have back-to-basics advice for what to eat to run well. For much more specific advice about fueling for a 100-mile ultra, I sent paid subscribers a bonus post yesterday sharing my nutrition and hydration plan for Friday’s Run Rabbit Run 100-mile race. I suffered terrible nausea at last summer’s High Lonesome 100. For this race, I am changing my strategy significantly.
If you’d like to receive occasional bonus posts and an invitation to the monthly Zoom chat (next one is Thursday, Sept. 21, 5pm Mountain), and my deep gratitude, please consider upgrading your subscription to the supporter level.
A couple of weeks ago, the coach of Telluride High School’s Cross Country team asked me to give a nutrition talk to the students. We’ve been collaborating because I got hired as a paraprofessional to support and supervise an autistic sophomore boy on the team. I’m thoroughly enjoying running with and encouraging this young man and getting to know the team as a whole.
When the coach found out about my background as a runner and coach, she invited me to share with the students what I know about how to fuel and hydrate for optimal running performance.
I eagerly jumped at the opportunity and saw it as a crucial chance to help set these adolescents on a healthy path with a positive relationship with food. The topic of sports nutrition—and how distorted and damaged some athletes can become due to fads and disordered eating—is something that always interests me, but even more so now due to a couple of things I recently read and heard.
One is’s book Up to Speed: The Groundbreaking Science of Women Athletes that I reviewed in the second half of this post. One of her chapters takes a deep dive into the history of recognizing and treating the “Female Athlete Triad” (the combo of disordered and restrictive eating, amenorrhea, and poor bone health), which in recent years has evolved into a deeper understanding of “relative energy deficiency in sport” (RED-S), whose symptoms affect males as well as females, and what to do about it.
More recently, I listened to this podcast interviewing ultrarunner Tim Tollefson about his struggles with eating disorders (anorexia and binge eating), OCD, and body dysmorphia (obsession and anxiety over perceived flaws in one’s appearance). I’ve followed Tim’s ultra career ever since he came on the scene, and he always struck me as a super nice guy, so it was painful to hear how he developed anorexia as a collegiate runner and ever since then has had an obsession with counting and restricting calories, as well as anxiety and distress about his body’s appearance.
The point is: I’m aware that runners—especially high-performing ones—can develop an adversarial relationship with food to the point that it becomes self-harming, and often that negative relationship with food and body image takes root in adolescence. Therefore, I wanted to talk to these teens on the cross-country team about nutrition in the most positive and empowering way possible. How could I do that, and deliver basic info about an extremely complex topic, in about 15 minutes?
What follows is a slightly condensed version of my talk with them.
OK you guys, we’re going to talk about nutrition and hydration for everyday weekdays like this when you have cross-country practice, and then talk more specifically about what you want to eat and drink before your meets, so you get to the starting line primed to run well. I’ve raced everything from 5Ks to 100-milers, and learning how to fuel and hydrate properly for different distances and intensities is critical.
First, though, I want to zoom out and have you all think about your potential as an athlete—and your athletic performance—as being dependent on three things. Like a three-legged stool, your success as an athlete is propped up on these three things. One is what you do here in the afternoons, which is cross-country practice with exercise to develop skills and fitness. What do you think the other two things are?
[One girl raises her hand and asks, “Sleep?”]
Yes, very good! One is recovery, and sleep is a big part of it. Recovery is part of training. We’re not going to focus on this today, but I want you to recognize the importance not only of getting adequate sleep, but also, after a stressful high-intensity workout, of following that with an easier workout or a rest day. You make progress as an athlete through a process of stress and adaptation. You stress your muscles, lungs, and heart with hard workouts, and then you need to recover from that stress to to adapt to it.
What’s the other pillar supporting your athletic performance?
[Several say, “nutrition.”]
Yes! Nutrition, and hydration is part of that. Fueling adequately is essential. So, if you guys wear yourselves out by pulling all-nighters, and you don’t eat well, you’re not going to perform well athletically.
Before we dive into food specifically, let’s talk a little about hydration, and along with hydration, electrolytes. I’m not going to talk a whole lot about it, because you all tend to run for under an hour, and you don’t need to worry too much about hydration and replacing the salt you lose through sweating unless you’re running an hour or longer. But it’s critically important to have adequate fluids. I like to remind runners that proper fueling with food is a performance issue, but hydration can actually be a life-or-death issue. You can die from dehydration, or from drinking too much without replacing your salts [hyponatremia].
The basic thing to know is, you want to make sure you’re adequately hydrated, and you need to replace the salt you lose through sweating. It’s good to have some salty snacks for longer runs. To avoid dehydration, an easy thing to do is the spit test—when you’re running, you should be able to easily form spit in your mouth. If you can’t form a wad of spit, you need to take a sip of water. Don’t start a race thirsty.
Electrolytes are the salt and minerals our bodies need. If ever you’re doing a longer run, or going with your family on a long hike, take some electrolytes mixed in with your water. The main one to be concerned with is sodium. For every 16 to 20 ounce bottle of water, you want to have at least 150mg, ideally more like 300mg, of sodium. [I held up a single-serve package of Scratch.] This is a typical hydration mix. It has 375mg of sodium. I’ll split one of these between my two bottles of water for a regular long run, but if I’m in a hotter climate where I’m sweating more, then I’ll use it full strength.
When you think of sports drinks, you maybe think about good ol’ Gatorade, and you might want to chug a Gatorade before or during a run. Gatorade and other sports drinks like it are helpful because they have the simple sugar we’ll talk about for energy, and they hydrate you, and they have electrolytes. Just be careful not to overdrink or chug a big sugary drink right before you start a race or a long run, because then you can get what’s called stomach slosh, and it’s not going to feel good.
Let’s now talk about the food you need every day to run well. This is a super complex topic, and I’m going to try to keep it as simple as possible.
If we break food into the three main categories known as macronutrients, who can tell me what those three are?
[One boy answers: “carbs and proteins and fat.”]
Yes! Those are the three main categories, and they all fill different roles. Carbohydrates, fat, and protein. And to make things a little more complicated, there are two kinds of carbs: complex and simple. Complex carbohydrates are more nutritious because they have things like vitamins, minerals, and fiber in them. They take a little longer to break down and convert to energy. They’re what you get when you have a salad with a bunch of vegetables, or whole wheat bread or brown rice. Simple carbohydrates are less nutritious, but they’re great for fuel. They are the carbohydrates that break down quickly because of their molecular structure, and they go right to your blood stream and convert to energy. Sugary snacks and drinks are simple carbs, as are starchy simple carbs like potato chips, bagels and other white bread made with refined flour.
When you think about what you need during the day to have energy to run well at your afternoon practice, make sure you’re eating the two macronutrients that provide the main sources of energy: mostly carbohydrates, plus some fat. They both convert to energy, but they function differently. Think about how to build a fire with different kinds of wood; would you use kindling or a big log to light the fire? Simple and complex carbs are like kindling—they light and burn more quickly. Fat is like a big log—it’ll burn, but is harder to light and burns more slowly. Your body takes longer to convert fat to energy. Getting a combo of complex carbs and fat will help you have sustained energy.
You should also know that some fats are healthier than others. Fats that come from plants like olive oil or avocado, or from nuts and fish, are healthier than animal fats in dairy and meat, but those animal fats are OK and satisfying in moderation, and you can get a lot of other nutrients like protein, calcium and iron from animal sources.
What about the third macronutrient, protein? Protein plays a smaller role for making energy in our body. But it’s essential for many of your body’s functions, especially building and repairing muscle, so you also want to eat some protein in your meals too.
So when you think about what to eat at lunch, before practice, try to choose food that’s nutritious and satisfying, with complex carbohydrates that won’t burn through you really fast, with some fat and protein mixed in, but not something super protein-heavy. For example, if you were going to have a vegetable stir-fry on brown rice with some protein such as chicken or tofu, or a large hamburger on a white bun, you’d want the stir-fry for more sustained energy.
When practice rolls around at 3:30, you may be hungry and need a light snack. Don’t start practice hungry! That’s the time to reach for quick-burning simple-carb snacks.
The easiest natural snack is a good ol’ banana. Other good pre-run snacks are potato chips—try to get the healthier kind that only has potato, salt, and oil, and not other additives—or a cookie like a Fig Newton. I also like these energy products you can get at the market—these are simple carbs with about 150 calories so they will convert to energy soon and not make you feel too full in your gut, and they also have some electrolytes. This is a Honey Stinger Waffle, and these are Honey Stinger Chews that are like gummy candies. You can also try half or all of an energy bar like a Clif bar or a gel like Spring Energy. Be sure to wash these snacks down with water to help them digest.
If you buy energy products, check the labels for caffeine. Some gels have caffeine and can trigger diarrhea if you’re not used to caffeine, so I recommend non-caffeinated ones.
So then you go to practice and run hard. What’s important to eat within about an hour after you finish?
[A boy answers: “Protein?”]
Yes—protein! Plus, carbohydrates. Your body has storage space in your liver and muscles, and the storage of carbohydrates is called glycogen. When you run, you empty what you had stored. You want to have some carbs after you run to replace that glycogen. And you also want to have protein to repair your muscles. So look for a snack with a combo of carbs and protein after running, and then eat more protein at dinner.
What are some good post-run snack examples? You can buy a protein bar, which is fine, but those bars have a lot of additives and are expensive. I think a great snack is a large glass of milk or a string cheese with a piece of fruit, or yogurt with berries. Or a bean and cheese quesadilla. You get protein and some fat from beans and cheese, and carbs from the beans and tortilla. Most importantly, nourish your body after you work out, and rehydrate with water too.
Any questions so far?
[The coach said, “I’ve heard a lot of questions about how soon before practice, and how soon before a race, do you want to take in a snack and hydration?”]
OK, let’s talk about the morning when you have to travel to a meet. It’s a delicate balancing act because you don’t want to start the race hungry or thirsty, but you also don’t want to be digesting a lot in your stomach as you run. There’s nothing worse than running a 5K race at close to max intensity and thinking you’re going to crap your shorts, right? Every runner has had that experience, so you have to think, “How am I gonna manage my gut so that I feel great when I run?”
When you have a cross-country meet in the morning, you need to start with good nutrition the day before. You don’t want eat super spicy or heavy food the night before. Avoid things that will upset your stomach the next morning. Eat mild, predictable and nutritious foods the day prior, with a good amount of carbs.
The morning of your race, assuming you’re going to have a few hours to drive to get to the start line, you want to have a satisfying but not overly filling breakfast. You also want to eat early enough to get the #2 job done in the bathroom, if you know what I mean.
All of you have different body sizes and levels of fitness, so I don’t want to give you guidelines on the amount you need in terms of calories since you’re all different. The key thing is, you want to eat to satisfaction but not feel stuffed.
I think a great pre-race meal is whole wheat toast with some kind of nut butter like peanut or almond, plus a banana or berries, and some milk if milk doesn’t upset your stomach. That’s around 400 calories. I’m a huge fan of eggs because eggs are so nutritious, but they are protein-heavy and can cause upset stomach when you run, so I generally avoid eggs on race-day morning. Also be careful about high-fiber foods like oatmeal. Oatmeal is super healthy if you use old-fashioned oats with natural sugar from berries instead of sugary instant oatmeal, and add some walnuts for protein and fat, but if you’re not used to that high fiber, then you can get diarrhea. Try it out for breakfast on a regular day. There’s an old saying, “nothing new on race day.” Whatever you eat before a race or a run that you care about, try beforehand.
Then you drive an hour or more to the race location and get ready for the start line, and suddenly your stomach is grumbling. That’s not good—you don’t want to start the race hungry. You want to have a little bit to calm your stomach but not enough that your stomach has to work hard to digest. That’s where a small snack comes in handy such as a half a banana, which is about 50 calories, or maybe one of those simple sugar snacks we talked about like half or all of a Honey Stinger waffle (depending on how hungry you are), washed down with some water. Or you could try an energy gel, if you’ve practiced with it before. Time it so that you have the small snack and some water about 20 to 30 minutes before your race starts, so it settles in your stomach, and you have time to go to the bathroom if you need to one last time before the start.
Let’s have a little biology lesson here to understand this delicate balancing act of eating the just-right amount before you run hard. What happens when you run really hard—what is your cardio system doing? It’s delivering blood, which carries oxygen, to your working muscles. For your muscles to work, plenty of oxygen needs to flow to them. Running in the heat is hard because some of the blood gets diverted from muscles to your skin, to create perspiration to cool your body, so that’s an added stressor and means less blood flow—and less oxygen—to your muscles. When you eat, your gut needs blood flow to digest. But when you run, your body prioritizes delivering blood to your muscles, which means the job of digestion is put on hold. That’s why food can sit in your stomach and feel nauseating when you’re running hard. And that’s why it’s best to not have much in your stomach when you start a high-intensity run.
[Coach: “Another question I have relates to cramping. How does nutrition play in with cramping?”]
It’s long been believed that cramping has to do with salt intake, but that’s kind of a myth. Cramping is not necessarily due to a lack of salt. Whether it’s in your calf or quads, or feet—and I’ve literally been stopped mid-run by my arch cramping and toes curling—or sometimes a side stitch, cramping is really scary because suddenly you’re nonfunctioning and stopped mid-run. The best way to think of cramping is as a neuro-muscular panic attack. Your brain and body are cramping as a stress reaction to protect the muscle from the severe stress you’re causing it. Why does this seem to happen only during a race and sabotage our race? It’s so frustrating! It tends to happen in races because we rarely duplicate our effort level in regular training runs, whereas on race day, we go all out.
The best thing to do for muscle cramps—as soon as you start to feel the first quiver or twinge that might be the sign of a cramp—is try to relax. It’s hard to do mid-race, but if you can alter your stride a little, relax your jaw and shoulders, and breathe a little more deeply, you may be able to prevent it. In a longer race like a marathon or ultra, you could take a walking break, and eat or drink something for stress relief, but you guys don’t have that option in your shorter distances if you want to be competitive. Think to yourself, “ease up, but don’t give up.” Dial back your effort level just a small bit, smile, and hopefully that will manage the cramp and prevent it from becoming debilitating.
If it’s a stomach cramp under your ribcage called a side stitch, that’s a little harder to manage. Try to breathe more deeply, feeling your breath go all the way to your belly instead of high in your chest. You can also put your hand on the area that hurts and try to squeeze it a little.
Hopefully doing the relaxation I talked about can help, but cramps can unfortunately stop you in your tracks. If it happens, try to stay positive and say, “Wow, I’m cramping because I’m working incredibly hard and doing my best.”
Now, I want to end on a more serious topic, one that you guys maybe have never heard of, but it’s important to know about. It’s a condition that coaches and doctors have learned a lot about in the last 20 years, and it tends to hit collegiate and post-collegiate athletes, but it often stems from habits and training started in high school. Have any of you ever heard of something called RED-S? [No one raises hands, everyone shakes head.]
It used to be called the Female Athlete Triad, and it’s been renamed to RED-S because we now know that although it predominantly hits females, guys are at risk for the symptoms too. RED-S stands for Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport. Basically it’s a condition where your body starts to break down and get chronically injured, and is susceptible to stress fractures, all because you don’t have enough energy.
I want to end with this because if you take away nothing else from my talk, I want you to remember and believe this: that food is your fuel and your friend. It’s so important to fuel your body enough, with a sensible balance of the three macronutrients. Don’t demonize carbs, and don’t demonize fats; all play an important function.
Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport can happen when you under-fuel and over-train. If you do not fuel your body with enough calories, your body will start to break down, and in females, this can lead to the loss of your regular periods, which is a dangerous red flag. Talk to your coach or doctor or parents if your period becomes irregular and goes away. Because then what happens is your body isn’t getting the hormonal signals it needs to have healthy bones. That’s why some high-level athletes start to get chronic stress fractures. They develop early-onset osteoporosis due to under-fueling.
You guys can prevent RED-S with healthy fueling, and it’s important to know that runners are at risk for energy deficiency because they get the bad idea that they’ll run better and faster if they lose weight. So they restrict calories and/or exercise excessively. Trust me, that is a strategy that is bound to backfire in the long run. Feed your body, eat to satisfaction, and realize that all the food groups play a role in your healthy functioning as an athlete. I’ll say it again, food is your fuel and your friend.
Please let me know what you thought of that talk in the comments below! For another sports nutrition post with great advice from nutritionist Cara Marrs, please check out this one from the archives:
Colorado Mountain Running & Living is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.