What Do "Real" Runners Eat?

Who do you look to for nutrition advice? Do you look to other runners? Below are two runners who did well in their sport.

Mary is a 40-year-old runner who has been running all of her adult life. She trains for one half-marathon a year and otherwise runs 5K and 10K races. Mary is 5'5" tall and weighs 130 pounds. Her best running times occurred when she was in her 30s. She often won her age group in local races.

Mary's typical daily diet consisted of:

  • Breakfast: Coffee, 2 cups shredded wheat, 1 cup milk, 1 banana, ¼ cup walnuts

  • Mid-morning snack: A 200-calorie snack of yogurt and mixed fruit

  • Lunch: Turkey and cheese sandwich with mayo, pretzels, apple, 2 medium cookies

  • Afternoon snack: Almonds and pretzels

  • Dinner: Chicken breast, baked potato with pat of butter, 1 cup broccoli, ear of corn, glass of wine

  • Before-bed snack: 2 cookies and a glass of skim milk

The night before a race, Mary would do best on a small lean steak, big baked potato, green beans, and water. The common pre-race pasta dinner was just not for her.

Mary was a consistent eater and a consistent runner. Although a close evaluation might show areas of improvement in her diet, she ate a diet she enjoyed and was thoughtful in what worked for her (steak over pasta). She provided her body with nutrients and energy, and kept her weight consistent. Bravo!

John is a 35-year-old runner who ran weekly with Mary. John once won local races or placed in the top five when he was in his 20s. John lives on sports drinks, granola bars, jellybeans, and hamburgers. Here's John's typical daily intake:

  • Breakfast: 2 granola bars and 16 ounces of sports drink

  • Mid-morning: Jellybeans and 16 ounces of sports drink

  • Lunch: Burger and fries and 16 ounces of sports drinks

  • Afternoon snack: 16 ounces of sports drink and a granola bar

  • Dinner: Chicken sandwich and fries, iced tea

  • Before bed: 16 ounces of sports drink

John had the genetic edge. And yet, as John got older, his weight crept up and his times got slower. Both his weight and his nutrition probably contributed to his slower performance. He is now working to eat smarter and is looking to Mary for advice.

“Real” runners eat in a variety of ways, sometimes following what research tells us is helpful and healthful and sometimes not. For the best likelihood of optimal performance and energy, however, follow the sports nutrition guidelines, not necessarily what fellow runners eat.

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