The two factors that affect running performance most powerfully are training and diet. The most effective training methods were discovered not by scientists but rather through a generations-long process of trial and error at the elite level. What this means is that, if you want to get the most out of your own training, you should emulate the practices of the world’s best runners.
The same is true of diet. Elite runners all over the world share a core set of five basic eating habits that represent “best practices” for all runners. Adopting these habits will help you perform better in workouts, recovery faster afterward, get fitter faster, attain your optimal racing weight, and avoid injuries.
There are six basic categories of natural, whole foods: vegetables (including legumes); fruit; nuts, seeds, and healthy oils; unprocessed meat and seafood; whole grains; and dairy. The overwhelming majority of elite endurance athletes regularly consume all six of these “high-quality” food types. The reason they do so is that a balanced, varied, and inclusive diet is needed to supply the body with everything it needs nutritionally to handle the stress of hard training and to derive the maximum benefit from workouts.
In addition to the six high-quality food types, there are four “low-quality” food types: refined grains, sweets, processed meats, and fried foods. Most elite endurance athletes allow themselves to eat small amounts of each of these food types. Indulging in a treat here and there does no harm and is even beneficial in the sense that it makes the overall diet more enjoyable and sustainable.
Try this: Aim to include at least one serving of each high-quality food type in your diet each day.
While most elite endurance athletes eat everything, they don’t eat equal amounts of everything. Instead they skew their diet heavily toward high-quality foods and eat low-quality foods in moderation. High-quality foods tend to be more nutrient dense (i.e., richer in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants) and less energy dense (i.e., lower in calories) than low-quality foods. Basing their diet on high-quality foods enables elite endurance athletes to get more overall nutrition from fewer calories, and this in turn allows them to maximize their fitness while maintaining an optimal racing weight.
Try this: Use my Diet Quality Score (DQS) app to monitor and increase the quality of your diet.
Elite endurance athletes select high-quality carbohydrate-rich foods such as whole grains and fruit as the centerpiece of most meals and snacks. As the primary fuel for intense exercise, carbs enable these athletes to absorb their workouts with less physiological stress and to extract more benefits from their training.
Try this: Include at least one carbohydrate-rich high-quality food in each meal you eat (e.g., oatmeal for breakfast, whole grain bread with lunch, and quinoa with dinner).
Elite endurance athletes do not consciously restrict the amount of food they eat by enforcing strict calorie counts or portion-size limits or by eating less than is needed to satisfy their hunger, as many recreational athletes and dieters do. Nor do they mindlessly overeat as a majority of people in affluent societies do today. Instead, they pay mindful attention to signals of hunger and satiety and allow these signals to determine when and how much they eat. This is the only reliable way to eat sufficiently but not excessively—that is, enough to meet the energy demands of training but not so much as to gain or hold onto excess body fat.
Try this: Adjust the timing, size, and composition of your meals to ensure that you regularly develop symptoms of physical hunger (empty stomach, a strong desire to eat) shortly before it is time for your next meal.
Elite athletes are mindful of, and responsive to, not only their appetite but also to their dietary needs in general. Each athlete is a unique person in a unique situation. The diet that works best for one athlete is unlikely to work best for another athlete in every detail. For example, while all endurance athletes perform best on a carb-centered diet, some function better when they get most of their carbs from non-grain sources. Elite athletes are good at listening to their body, paying attention to how different foods and eating patterns affect them, and modifying their diet according to what they learn. As a result, each elite runner develops his or her own version of the Endurance Diet.
Try this: If you are experiencing a problem that may be diet related (e.g., sluggishness in workouts, difficulty shedding excess body fat), use a daily food journal to identify and eliminate the cause.