Category Archives: Nutrition

Optimal Nutrition for Runners

Last week we posted about some more natural, do-it-yourself approaches to traditional energy bars and sports drinks.  Deana, one of our readers, took the issue a step further, posing the following question in the comments.

“As I am just running 3-4 miles a few times a week I haven’t had to deal with fueling yet. However I start my 1/2 marathon training in July and will have to figure something out. Given all the additives and high calories I would like to work my plan for fueling with whole foods. But I have a question – is there an ideal set of carbs/calories/etc as running fuel? Or a ratio of these depending on your estimated calorie burn or miles?”

Deana is just getting ready to start her half marathon training, but as you can see she’s already realized something very important — as you begin to tackle longer distances, giving your body the right fuel becomes critical.  You might be able to fake your way through a 5k with sub-par nutrition (particularly if you’re in shape), but as you reach 10k and beyond, putting the right gas in the tank is key.  We also like the instinct to reach for natural, whole foods rather than processed, pre-packaged ones.  Anyway…on to the questions at hand!

What solid, whole foods are best before a run?

Back in September, we posted about the best foods to eat before, during, and after a run.  As far as pre-run nutrition was concered, we reccomended a light snack of energy-rich foods like bread, pasta, fruits, veggies and granola.

Is there an ideal ratio between calories, carbs, protein, etc?

You may have heard 3:1 cited as the optimum ratio between carbohydrates and protein for runners (meaning three ounces of carbs for every one ounce of protein or 75% carbs to 25% protein).  This thinking was explained in a recent USDA study called Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which in fact refers to a ratio of 3:1:1 — acknowledging your body’s need for healthy fats as well, though realistically if you have a relatively normal diet you are likely getting the fats you need throughout the day.  (As for calories, we’ll get to that in a bit.)

The best thing you can do to fuel your body properly is to follow these guidelines not just an hour before you train, but all throughout the day.  Strive to maintain that balance of approximately 75% carbs to 25% protein in each meal you eat and your body shouldn’t feel the need for anything special right before your workout.  (If you do need a boost, those links at the beginning of this post provide some healthy, effective ideas.)

So where should I get my carbs?

When it comes to nutrition, not all carbs are the same.  You’ll want to avoid “bad” carbohydrates like those found in white bread, white rice, and many pastas.  Heavily processed carbohydrates have typically been stripped of their fiber and other nutrients, leaving empty calories behind.  So where can you get the good stuff?

Whole grains (oatmeal, granola, brown rice)

Fresh fruits (bananas, oranges, blueberries)

Vegetables (mixed greens, stir-fry, pretty much anything you enjoy)

And protein?

Poultry (light meat, baked is best)

Fish (grilled or baked)

Nuts and beans (ideal plant-based proteins)

This is obviously a pretty broad overview of carbs and protein, but it’s just what you need to begin thinking about that 3:1 ratio in a way that fits into your real life.  If in general you’re getting a well-balanced diet of the above, heavier on carbs and lighter on protein, you’ll be firing on all cylinders when it comes time to work out.

Now one last piece to tackle…

How many extra calories do I need?

When you think about fueling up for a workout, you should definitely be thinking in terms of the stuff we’ve talked about above, not just focusing on upping your calorie intake.  Unless you are a pretty advanced athlete in excellent shape and with little fat to burn, you probably don’t need to load up with calories to get through a workout.  Just like we said with fat intake, most of us will typically eat enough calories during the course of the day to fuel the average workout, especially if your runs are remaining in the neighborhood of an hour in length.  Rather than thinking about loading up on calories, focus on simply filling your belly about an hour before your run and getting those healthy carbs and proteins in your system throughout the day.  If you are feeling hungry during or after a run, your body is almost certainly craving healthy carbs or protein — not just additional calories.  Examine your diet and see what’s lacking.

Thanks, Deana, for the great question and for sharing your training progress with us.  Be sure to let us know how you’re doing with your half marathon work!

Three and a half (Awesome) alternative energy bars you can try today

On Monday, we talked about some natural, practical alternatives to traditional sports drinks.  Today we have some similar alternatives to those energy bars that are so tempting for grab-and-go nutrition.  If you look at the ingredient labels (aside from seeing lots of things we can’t pronounce), you’ll notice a lot of the times that the fat and calorie content is on par with the unhealthiest candybar on the shelf.  Here are some simple ways to get the benefits of a high-energy snack while avoiding the junk.

Snack smart.  Your snack doesn’t have to be shaped like a bar to provide solid, convenient energy.  Think ahead and grab some easy, self-contained fruits like bananas or apples, which are pretty much as convenient as an energy bar anyway.  Less handy but just as good are a container of diced pineapples or grapes.  These foods can leave your feeling lighter on your feet than an energy bar would.

Bake your own.  If you really like the idea of energy bars, you can save yourself some money and avoid a lot of extra additives by making them yourself.  There are TONS of recipes out there, so you should be able to find something online that meets your tastes.  Here’s one from practicalhacks.com, but there are plenty of different approaches to try.  On the whole, they tend to be pretty easy to make.

Mix something up.  If baking isn’t your thing and you just want to whip up something quickly, making your own high-energy trail mix is a great alternative.  Choose your favorite items and mix them up in a bag.  That’s all there is to it.  Some solid ingredients to consider are nuts, cranberries, almonds, raisins, and even chocolate chips for a sweet bonus (darker is healthier).

Skip it.  Unless you’re doing serious endurance work, chances are that you don’t really need a concentrated dose of energy before a workout (assuming you are eating properly otherwise).  Keep in mind, depending on your training goals, that there are usually a lot of calories packed into high-energy snacks — that’s kind of the point.  So unless you are training hard enough to work off the extra intake, you might want to consider focusing on mealtime as your main source of both calories and nutrition.

Three and a half awesome (alternative) sports drinks you can try today

In the past, we’ve always recommended good-old-fashioned water as the best way to stay hydrated throughout the day or during a workout.  Of course we also realize that sometimes you want a little extra kick, not to mention some additional vitamins and electrolytes your body can use to keep firing on all cylinders.  More and more, athletes are passing on the traditional bottled sports drinks in favor of more natural alternatives, skipping the artificial flavors (and neon coloring) along the way.

Here are three (and a half) easy ways to do exactly that.

Try coconut water.  In some circles, coconut water is being passed around as the latest superdrink — a high-potassium, low-sodium way to replace electrolytes and improve performance.  Realistically, it’s probably more on par with plain water in terms of hydration benefits, but if you like the taste and feel good about drinking it, by all means give it a try.  It’s a little pricy to be downing all day long, but makes a good post-workout treat or warm-up drink to mix things up a little.

DIY brewing.  About as easily as you’d make a pitcher of iced tea, you can brew up your own Gator/Power-ade replacement, avoiding the high sugar content and hard-to-pronounce ingredients.  Here’s a quick, natural recipe that starts with water, green tea, coconut water, or another base and adds salt for electrolytes and fruit for flavor.  This is one you can adjust for large or small quantities depending on what you need.

Quick mix.  For a faster, simpler version of the brewing approach above, you can actually just mix up a bottle, chill in the fridge, and be ready for action.  There are some good instructions over at LIVESTRONG.com that pretty much require you to mix and drink.

Even quicker mix.  Okay, this one barely counts as a sports drink, but it’s perfect if you’re in a hurry and water just isn’t doing it for you on a given day.  Try just slicing up (or dropping in whole) a few pieces of your favorite fresh summer fruit into your water bottle to add some flavor and vitamins.  It’s an unbelievably easy way to add some variety to your hydration without worrying too much about it.

Eat Smart: BBQ for Runners

A great day for a barbecue is usually a great day for a run, too, right? Yet somehow it doesn’t seem like very many of us are getting up from the picnic table feeling energized and excited about a workout.

It probably has something to do with the tendency to stuff ourselves with all manner of summertime goodies that leave us feeling more like relaxing by the fire than lacing up running shoes. Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way! Check out some delicious BBQ alternatives to the usual hot dog and hamburger fare that won’t weigh you down or wreck your diet for the week.

Less turf, more surf. Whether you are making steaks, kabobs, or burgers, you can usually get away with swapping beef out for some much-more-healthful seafood. Try grilled fish instead of beef steak, chicken on your kabobs, or salmon paddies on that burger bun. You still get to enjoy a traditional approach to barbecue with something much lighter and easier on your system (maybe even tastier, too).

Get creative with corn.. Corn is good for you. Tons of salt and a personal stick of butter to roll it in…not so much. Try spicing up your corn with seasoning and tossing it on the grill. It’s delicious and you can pretty much enjoy as much as you want without feeling like a slug.

Choose your kabob. You can put pretty much anything on a kabob, but steak is usually a mainstay. Try going heavy on the veggies and light on the meat, maybe even swapping in some chicken instead of beef. And seriously…eat the veggies and mushrooms. They aren’t decoration!

Eat more chicken.. Chicken is great on the grill, but it pretty often takes a back seat to other (heavier) barbecue meats. Get your meat fix with some grilled chicken and one of your friends’ “top secret” sauce recipes. A great sauce can even steal the spotlight from a decent burger.

Go veggie. If you really want to go for it, consider passing on the meat altogether (though in some circles, this might require you to endure some passionate jeering from BBQ aficionados). Vegetables, pasta dishes, salads, and even more creative options like grilled pizza can leave you satisfied and feeling like a million bucks.

We hope some of these ideas will help you feel good about BBQ season and squeeze in a workout or two that might have otherwise been claimed by one hamburger too many. And if anybody gives you a hard time about your fitness-minded selections, consider inviting them out for a run later. Enjoy!

5 ways to stay hydrated (that you may not have considered)

If ever there’s a topic that we hit again and again on this blog, it’s hydration. It’s so important, yet so easy to overlook. We’ll keep the nagging to a minimum, but if you’re looking to up your water intake throughout the day, here are five easy ways to do it.

Salads. A big meal during the day means your body needs to divert both energy and hydration to support digestion. Salads flip that equation around by keeping you light on your feet but also delivering lots of water at the same time. Salad standbys like lettuce, cucumbers, and carrots are all packed with water.

Fruit. Fruit is another-water rich food that can fill your belly and also help you stay hydrated. Apples, blueberries, and watermelons are all great summer fruits that give you a snack you can feel good about.

Smoothies. Smoothies are a treat to drink and it’s easy to pack all sorts of good fruits and veggies inside. They are substantial enough to be enjoyable and satisfying, but healthy enough that you shouldn’t feel like a slug after you’re done. Crushed ice will really increase the water content of the drink. Speaking of which…

Ice. If you have a tendency towards mindless snacking, munching on ice chips can be a great way to avoid eating a ton of junky calories without thinking about it. As an added bonus, it’s water!

Water+. Generally, plain old water is the best thing you can drink throughout the day to stay hydrated, but for some of us getting enough can feel like a chore. If you’re finding glass after glass of water to be less than satisfying, try squeezing in a lemon or adding pretty much any other fruit that strikes your fancy. Experiment with orange slices, strawberries, or some apples.

Heart Health: So what’s the deal with cholesterol, anyway?

Cholesterol is just one of those things.  You know it’s important, but it isn’t exactly an issue to get excited about.  Still, it can have a profound impact on your health, especially in the long term.  And taking control now can dramatically reduce cholesterol complications later in life.

Here are some thoughts on getting a handle on your cholesterol, starting with the basics: what’s up with that good-cholesterol/bad-cholesterol deal anyway? Continue Reading

Make room for dark chocolate this V-Day

‘Tis the season for chocolate.  Heart-shaped-box chocolate.  Filled-with-gooey-goodness chocolate.  Fifty-percent-off-on-Wednesday chocolate.

For whatever reason, chocolate is  a romantic thing.  For a lot of us it’s the best possible end to any meal, a go-to comfort food, and the Achilles’ Heel to the most regimented training diet.

Well we’re not going to go toe-to-toe with anyone’s love for chocolate, especially the day before Valentine’s Day.  But in the spirit of American Heart Month, we wanted to point out that chocolate doesn’t have to be a guilty pleasure…but it does matter what kind you get. Continue Reading

Ten things you can start doing for your heart right away

Thanks to American Heart Month, there’s a lot of information flying around right now about how important it is to take care of our hearts and stay healthy in general.  With so much good insight and advice out there, it can be easy to get overwhelmed.  So today, we’re going to be super-focused and give you 10 incredibly easy things that you can start doing for your heart right now. Continue Reading

Stay (Heart) Healthy! Six Awesome Resources from the AHA

The American Heart Association does a world of good by funding research, raising awareness, and promoting the importance of heart health.  They also do an amazing job of providing tools and resources to the general public, much of which is available through their website at www.heart.org.

Here are six great AHA resource pages, all well worth a look if you’d like to learn more about a particular area of heart health. Continue Reading

Stay Healthy! Five foods to boost your immune system

Getting sick, whether it’s an irritating cold or a major illness, can really throw your training for a loop.  We’ve talked before about how to do everything you can to avoid coming down with something, but today we’re going to focus quickly on diet in particular.

Like the rest of your body, your immune system needs good, quality food to operate at it’s best.  Here are five everyday foods that will help give it the edge. Continue Reading