Running On Optimal Fuel: Effective Fueling Strategies For Runners

Photo: Scott Draper/Competitor

The missing piece from most training plans? An effective fueling strategy.

Performance Inhibitor #1: Less Than Ideal Body Composition

While many new fitness enthusiasts are drawn to running for its calorie-torching side effects, if they become consistent runners who focus on performance gains, their bodies will become more efficient—and they won’t burn as many calories when running the same distance at the same pace. “A lot of people try to get leaner because they hope that’ll make them faster,” says Katie Davis, RD, specialist in sports dietetics, and owner of RDKate Sports Nutrition Consulting in the Chicago area. “But people either don’t know how to do that nutritionally or they’re going about it the wrong way, not seeing results, or fatiguing early and can’t finish their workouts.” Regardless of your fitness level or goals, improving the quality and timing of your nutrition, and exposing the body consistently to new training stressors—from adding ad- ditional aerobic cross-training to resistance strength work to running-specific speed and strength workouts—will decrease body fat and increase lean muscle mass.

Coping Mechanisms:

Change how you view food. “If people focus only on weight, it doesn’t create a positive association with food,” says Hana Abdulaziz Feeney, RD, specialist in sports dietetics, and owner of Nourishing Results in Tucson, Ariz. “If everything is driven by weight loss and reductionist thinking, you tend to compromise your exercise perfor- mance. I try to teach people if they’re eating to fuel and recover and support the exercise they do, they’ll lose weight as a side effect.”

Maintain a food journal. Nearly every registered dietician who works with athletes asks new clients to write down everything they consume for at least three to seven days. It’s a process that allows both the nutritionist and athlete to have an honest picture of what and when the individual eats and drinks. The ultimate goal of food journals is to reveal patterns, assess how the athlete responds to types and amounts of foods, and expose nutritional and timing deficiencies.

Set achievable goals. “Safe weight loss is one to two pounds a week,” says Kevin Anello, RD, of Eat Right Get Fit in Cincinnati. “If you lose weight any faster than that, you’re probably going to lose muscle and that can slow down your metabolism. I have my clients make gradual changes.” For athletes who train consistently, as opposed to weekend warriors, Anello recommends that they drop weight in the off-season to ensure they have enough energy to train and recover during the competitive seasons.

Create energy balance. “When you’re trying to meet body composition goals, a huge thing is eating consistently—providing your body with consistent energy,” Davis says. “That’s generally eating smaller amounts every two to three hours; it’s not a large volume of food because the body can only handle so much at a time to use the energy you’re taking on board efficiently.” Instead of counting calories or obsessing over portions, both Anello and Davis refer their athletes to to understand what a balanced plate of food should look like—half of the plate is composed of fruits and vegetables and the other half is divided with lean protein and whole grains, with a serving of dairy on the side.

“Nutritional guidelines for endurance athletes range a lot, and they’re based on weight. Carbs can be between 5 and 19g per kilogram of body weight on a daily basis, and that depends on how much you train,” Davis says. “Getting a balance of nutrients, vita- mins and minerals, and teaching the athlete how to respond to signals of hunger and fullness are the most effective approaches.” In other words, nutrition requirements, portions and what works best for each athlete are entirely individual.

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