Kicking The Habits

An unbalanced diet could be undoing all the good work you put into your training. Here's how to overcome your nutritional foibles


Posted: 16 March 2006
by Anita Bean

You might think that, as a health-conscious runner, you're eating all the right things, but the chances are you have at least one nutritional bad habit. Whether it's a penchant for chocolate cookies or a more serious pitfall such as running on empty, most of us have at least one bad habit. Runners tend to eat a healthier diet than your average crisp-munching couch potato but we are also more prone to food fetishes and disordered eating. We spoke to a range of runners from across the age and ability spectrums and found the eight most common runners' food mistakes. Read on to see if you recognise yourself, and to find out how to fix your problems.

The fat phobe
You avoid fat because you think it will make you fat

There's no evidence that a very low-fat diet improves physical performance. Quite the contrary, in fact. Eating too little fat has been proven to increase your heart-attack risk, increase your risk of injury, suppress your immune system and, ironically, lower your stamina. Go below 20 per cent of total calories coming from fat and you will certainly be missing out on the good fats found in vegetable oils, seeds, nuts and oily fish. These fats assist vitamin absorption, lower blood cholesterol, control blood pressure and help regulate your metabolism. One group of healthy fats, the omega-3 fatty acids, is especially good for runners, enhancing oxygen delivery to working muscles, boosting endurance and preventing ligament, joint and tendon strains.

Change your ways

  • Focus on healthy fats (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and omega-3 fats) and minimise the ones that can harm your health (saturated and trans fats).
  • Aim to consume around 0.5-1g of healthy fats per kilogram of your body weight per day.
  • Choose olive or rapeseed oil for cooking, use sesame, flaxseed or walnut oil for dressings, smear peanut butter instead of butter in sandwiches, and add one of the following to your daily menu: half an avocado, two tablespoons of pumpkin seeds, a portion of sardines or salmon, or a sweet potato.

Running on empty
You always run on an empty stomach because it makes you feel light and lean

Many runners claim they can't run with food in their stomachs. Others believe that running on empty will help them shed weight faster. The truth is that you will be better off exercising after a light meal or snack. Exercising in a fasted state reduces your endurance and encourages your muscles to turn to protein for fuel, so you can literally burn away those leg muscle fibres. While you may burn slightly more fat for fuel, according to researchers from the University of Connecticut, the downside is that you tire sooner or have to drop your speed so you end up burning fewer calories than if you'd grabbed a snack before heading out of the door.

Change your ways

  • A slice of toast, a piece of fruit, a small cereal bar or a handful of dried fruit will help you train harder and longer.
  • It is possible to "train" yourself to run with a small amount of food inside you so try different high-carb options to find what works for you.
  • If you can't face solid food, try a liquid meal: fruit juice (diluted half and half with water), a small meal replacement shake (carbs and protein) or a smoothie.

The evening gorger
You eat like a sparrow during the day then gorge at dinner and into the evening

This is a very common pattern of eating that's akin to filling your petrol tank after you've reached your destination. Your calorie needs are lower in the evening (post-run) so all those calories you don't burn up will be shunted into fat cells. A busy and stressful work schedule often deadens your natural appetite (because of high cortisol levels) but once you relax at the end of your day, cortisol levels drop and your appetite soars, causing you to eat a bigger dinner than you need and usually extending into an all-evening sitting of high-calorie snacks consumed in front of the TV.

Change your ways

  • Switch to a front-loaded eating pattern, eating at least two thirds of your daily calories for breakfast and lunch (with a couple of healthy snacks in between).
  • If three square meals aren't an option, carry a supply of healthy but substantial snacks: bagels with cheese, yoghurt drinks, peanut butter sandwiches or assorted nuts and dried fruit.
  • Plan a light meal or snack one or two hours before your training session and a balanced meal afterwards.

The carb fiend
You eat so many carbs your kitchen looks like a pasta factory

While a high-carb diet is generally recommended for boosting endurance and promoting recovery after long runs, some runners take this message to the extreme, eating considerably more than the recommended 60 per cent of total calories from carbs. The problem is that all these carbs displace protein and good fats in your diet, resulting in fatigue and slow recovery after training. Without enough protein you risk losing muscle tissue and you won't be able to build a lean strong body. Studies at the University of Texas have shown that combining carbs with protein (in a three to one ratio) after exercise speeds glycogen recovery compared with carbs alone. A milkshake or yoghurt would therefore be better post-workout choices than a pasta feast.

Change your ways

  • Aim to consume 1.2-1.4g protein per kilogram of body weight (84-98g if you weigh 70kg) daily, including at least one protein-rich source (lean meat, fish, dairy or pulses) per meal.
  • Your carb portion (pasta/potatoes) should measure no more than twice your protein portion.
  • Vegetarians can eat their daily protein quota by eating a variety of beans, lentils, whole grains, tofu, dairy foods and nuts (think beans on toast, vegetarian chilli and rice, or lentil dhal and chapatti).

The weekday saint/weekend party animal
You eat a model healthy diet Monday to Friday then binge drink at the weekend

It's all or nothing for many serious runners who regard their binge drinking sessions as a reward for a good week's training. One or two drinks may be healthy (helping lower blood fats and reduce your heart-attack risk) but more than six units of alcohol (three pints of beer or six glasses of wine) in one go (classified as a binge, according to the government guidelines) could jeopardise your training as well as your health. It takes up to 48 hours for the body to recover and rehydrate from a binge session, so you could well be feeling below par during your Monday session. What's more, alcoholic drinks can add a hefty calorie load to your weekly diet, cancelling out any calorie-burning benefits from your weekday runs – a couple of 175ml glasses of wine tots up 240kcal, a can of premium lager 260kcal (the same as a Danish pastry).

Change your ways

  • It's much healthier to have one or two drinks a day than six or more in one session.
  • Drink a glass of water in between each alcoholic drink to stretch out your evening and reduce the risk of dehydration and hangover.
  • After a run, make your first drink a big glass of water, diluted juice or a sports drink before hitting the beer or wine.

The calorie-deprived runner
You eat fewer calories than you burn

There are two types of runners in this category: the under-eating over-training runner who loses weight unintentionally; and the runner who uses running to lose weight. Consistently failing to match calories burned with those consumed (whether intentional or not) carries the risk of chronic fatigue, muscle loss (where the body is forced to break down tissue proteins for fuel), reduced performance despite increased training, lowered immunity and a greater chance of injury and infections.

Change your ways

  • If you're stepping up your mileage, adjust your calorie intake. You will need to eat an extra 1,400kcal a week for every extra 10 miles each week to maintain your muscle glycogen stores and prevent a rise in cortisol.
  • If weight loss is your goal, cut back your calorie intake only modestly – no fewer than 1,500kcal per day for women or 1,800kcal for men and gradually build up your running volume.
  • Keep energy levels high and glycogen stores topped up by eating five or six small meals or snacks during the day.

The junk-food addict
You eat whatever you want because running burns it off

It's surprising how many runners use running as a convenient excuse to justify their junk food habit. Unwilling to change, they happily exist on a diet of fast foods and ready meals supplemented by snacks of crisps, sweets and biscuits. While running burns a lot of calories, it's easy to underestimate your calorie influx from all that processed grub and end up with a bit of a calorie overdraft. A Pizza Hut individual margherita pan pizza with garlic bread stacks up 1,264kcal, equivalent to two hours and 12 minutes of running for a 70kg person, a KFC chicken fillet burger and fries is 738kcal (one hour and 18 minutes of running), and a Snickers bar is 311kcal (33 minutes). These foods are calorie dense, loaded in salt and unhealthy (saturated and trans) fats, and low in fibre, which not only damages your health but also accustoms your taste buds to the taste of processed foods. The odd chocolate bar or burger is fine but a junk-food loaded diet cannot provide all the important vitamins, minerals and fibre to fuel runs and promote recovery.

Change your ways

  • Breaking a junk-food habit is difficult – try to limit yourself to one junk-food item a day.
  • If you do have a junk-food meal, make it healthier by adding a salad, a serving of vegetables or a bowl of fresh fruit.
  • Swap snacks high in fat, sugar and salt for healthy but delicious alternatives – try dried apricots or mango for a sweet fix; a handful of peanuts for a salty fix or a chicken tikka toasted deli sandwich instead of a Big Mac.

The pill popper
You pop vitamin pills and just about anything else that promises to make you run faster

A multivitamin supplement may top up low levels in your diet and give you peace of mind but there's no evidence that mega-doses will make you run faster. In fact, high doses of certain supplements (including chromium, vitamins A, C, D and B6, and iron) taken long-term can do more harm than good and lead to imbalances in the body. Claims for many supplements promoted to athletes, such as bee pollen, ginseng, and carnitine are not supported by scientific evidence so you could be wasting your money. Aim to obtain your vitamins and minerals from food and regard supplements as a safety net.

Change your ways

  • Popping a pill can't erase all the effects of a poor diet – re-assess your diet and aim to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables daily, plenty of wholegrains as well as at least one source of healthy fats daily.
  • If you want to take a multivitamin/mineral supplement pick one that contains at least 23 vitamins and minerals, 100-200 per cent of the RDA for the B-vitamins and vitamin C, no more than 100 per cent of the RDA for vitamins A and D and the minerals.
  • An antioxidant supplement may promote faster recovery during periods of intense training.

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