We are experiencing uncharted territory in the running world. We would typically be well into our fall marathon training or already have a few races under our belts from spring, but the majority of races have been canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Now, some of us find ourselves logging more miles; some are training for virtual races; and others have decreased or even hit pause on their running.
As your mileage and goals change, you may be wondering how you should adjust your fueling habits. With less structure and routine outside the house and more time inside, your eating habits may have changed. Yet, whether you’re running for health, continuing your training, or eyeing a future 2021 race, what you put into your body can have a significant impact on energy, performance, and recovery, both in the short term and long term.
So we tapped Jessica Provost, M.S., R.D., owner of Extra Mile Nutrition and Melissa Ireland, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., owner of Perform Well Nutrition, and Michelle Fumagalli, R.D., owner of Fit Plate Nutrition to help you rethink your nutrition plan to fit your new normal.
No matter what type of activity you are engaging in, having enough energy is crucial. You’ll want to ensure you’re fueling for energy availability, which means eating enough to support both exercise and normal body functions, such as breathing. If you’re still heading out for high-mileage runs or intense exercise, eating enough can decrease the likelihood of injury and illness while improving performance, muscle strength, training response, and more.
“Not eating enough in general, and specifically around workouts when fueling and recovery are so critical, impairs immune function,” Provost says.
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If you’re training, this becomes extra important for optimal muscle recovery. It’ll also help you prepare for runs and workouts in the future. If you’re running just to stay active or for fun (and not as much as your usual mileage), nutrient timing may be less important, but ensuring you’re eating quality, nutrient-rich foods, including fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains within two hours postexercise is important for both immunity and injury prevention no matter the intensity of your training. And, even when you’re not training intensely, eating sooner can help with the recovery process, balancing blood sugar, and preventing overeating later on.
Go Back to Basics
Have you found yourself stress eating comfort foods and snacks during the pandemic? You’re not alone, and that’s okay. But it’s important to remember that incorporating healthy foods is key to keeping your immune system strong. Rather than feeling pressure to ditch the comfort food entirely, start by adding fruits and vegetables that you like back into your routine. Whether you’re training or not, fruits and veggies are high in antioxidants and polyphenols, which can help reduce inflammation, improve health, and contribute to an overall healthy immune system.
To easily add more fruits and veggies into your daily diet, try incorporating them in smoothies, eating them as snacks, or adding them to meals like supplementing half the pasta with veggies in your favorite mac and cheese recipe to get your four servings of fruit and five servings of veggies a day as recommended by the American Heart Association.
Diversify Your Nutrient Intake
Ensure you’re getting a variety of nutrients from whole foods, such as fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables. Getting in quality whole grains can be a great way to sustain energy and fuel endurance exercise while offering necessary micronutrients needed to support metabolic function for running and provide immune support. If you suffer from a sensitive stomach, trial high-fiber products a few hours before a run or include them a day or two before the long run to minimize bloating and discomfort.
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“In addition to daily fruits and vegetables, athletes should also include Vitamin D-rich foods, omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics for immune support,” adds Ireland. “Focus on getting these nutrients from food sources first.”
The off-season can be a great time to make eating more fun and flexible. As this year has left many of us without a strict training calendar, this might be an opportunity to find more time to cook if you’re logging fewer miles, try new recipes, and enjoy pleasurable foods that may cause GI discomfort or other issues when training.
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“Optimal hydration is extremely important, especially during the hot, humid and sweaty summer months,” says Fumagalli. Staying hydrated on and off the run will help keep your immune system healthy, too. A good starting point is to drink half your weight in ounces. For example, a 150-pound sedentary person would require about 75 ounces of water per day. That number increases for active individuals, especially those exercising in the heat. Make sure to include electrolytes and additional sodium if you’re a salty sweater and are exercising more than 45 to 60 minutes.
Try New Fueling Methods
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Now is a great time to experiment with new fueling methods in preparation for future races and really understand how proper fueling and recovery can impact your running and energy. For example, if you usually rely on gels and chews, but they don’t sit well in your stomach, try some whole food options, such as dates or boiled potatoes. Giving different foods and products a try now can prepare you for when you are in your next training cycle.
While you don’t necessarily need to be peaking in mileage when you don’t have any races on the calendar, you can still practice your fueling plan during your current runs and optimize your overall health through nutrition. Keeping nutrition top of mind will help keep you healthy and energized. As a bonus, if it becomes safe to race in a small, local fall race or a virtual race catches your eye, you’ll be prepared.
Sarah Schlichter is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in public health and a runner.
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