by Nancy Ling, RD
Meet the Runners
Jennifer is a 25-year-old marathon runner (5-foot-6, 125 pounds) who wants to improve her time on her fifth marathon. She runs four times a week for a total of 35 miles. She eats two meals a day, usually skipping breakfast because she's not hungry. Often she's too tired to do her speed workout on Wednesday evenings. She wanted her diet assessed because she thought maybe what she was eating - or not eating - was making her fatigued. She knew her training was pretty heavy, and she wanted to eat right to support it.
Steve is a 45-year-old former couch potato who started running about a month ago - at the same time he started the Atkins diet to lose weight. At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, he's ten pounds lighter than his highest weight of 190, but his goal is to be 165. He wants to know how to be safe on the Atkins diet while losing weight and training for a half-marathon.
Sandra is a 37-year-old short distance runner with a husband and two small children. She isn't interested so much in training for races as she is in running casually for fun, fitness and stress relief. She runs to stay vital and healthy, and she wants her diet to match and enhance that. At 5-foot-4 and 145 pounds, she'd be happy to lose a few pounds, but she finds it difficult to do as a stay-at-home mom. She just wants a review of her diet overall and some tips for healthy snack and meal ideas.
These three runners are typical. While we all love to run for the sake of running and being outside, we also do it for health reasons - and, naturally, we want our diets to be healthy to compliment our very healthy running lifestyle. But sometimes, we don't know where to start!
So we're going to take our three runners and find out how they are eating now, and how they can tweak their diets to improve how they run, how they look and how they ultimately feel. Yes, diet can make a difference!
Jennifer usually skipped breakfast, having only time and energy and appetite for a cup or two of coffee with 2% low fat milk in it. She went to work at 8 a.m. and by noon she was usually quite famished.
For lunch, she went to the cafeteria at work for a mixed salad from the salad bar, or soup and a baked potato, or a slice of vegetarian pizza, with water or diet soda to drink.
In the afternoon, she sometimes had a banana or an apple or some other seasonal fruit. After work, most days, she went for a 5-6 mile run or a track workout. When she was too tired to run, she still tried to do the workout, worrying about the marathon she was training for.
For dinner, sometimes Jennifer went out with friends to dine in a casual restaurant. She ordered dishes such as grilled chicken caesar, or chicken strips, or quiche and salad or Chinese chicken salad, drinking diet soda. At home, she fixed meals like baked chicken, baked potato with a small amount of butter and steamed vegetables. If she was too tired to cook, she had a back-up supply of Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice meals in the freezer she could heat and eat.
Later in the evening, she sometimes had a chocolate bar or some candy or anything sweet she had in the house.
Jennifer's intake was on the skimpy side for a young woman training for a marathon. Eating only two meals a day, with a snack of fruit in the mid-afternoon, did not provide enough nutrients or calories to support her training. No wonder she often felt too tired to do the after work workouts! The long runs on the weekends would eventually take their toll too, as she required even more carbohydrate and protein to fuel and recover from those runs.
In short, Jennifer's diet needed more calories, carbohydrate, protein, calcium, antioxidants and fluid.
I gave Jennifer the following suggestions:
Begin each day with breakfast. It doesn't need to be a big ordeal - just milk and cereal, a breakfast bar and a yogurt, or two slices of toast with peanut butter and/or jam and a glass of juice. Some carbohydrate and a little protein to get the body started for the day.
For lunch, Jennifer could add some lean protein, such as sliced turkey, chicken, tuna, tofu or low-fat cheese (in a sandwich or added to her usual salad). Adding a carton of milk or yogurt would provide much needed calcium for strong bones.
Jennifer's homemade dinners sound very healthy. She could make some meals in large quantities, put them into plastic containers and take them to work for lunches, or have them the following day. Frozen dinners can be handy, but generally don't have enough food in them to fuel a busy, active lifestyle. If you use them, add a cooked vegetable (such as frozen green beans, peas, or carrots - these are quick and easy). Or add a salad with lots of colorful vegetables - romaine or red leaf lettuce, arugula, purple cabbage, sliced radishes, green onion, tomatoes, red bell pepper slices and some shredded cheese and little bit of dressing.
Steve tried to follow the Atkins diet, a widely popular program that allows unlimited amounts of meat, cheese, eggs and fats (like butter and oils) with no calorie counting, but totally restricted in carbohydrates. For breakfast, he ate three scrambled eggs with grated cheddar cheese and coffee with cream. For lunch, he ate sliced turkey with mayonnaise and a salad, or tuna salad or chicken salad with mayonnaise. For dinner, he had a cup of cooked vegetables, an 8 oz steak or 8 oz of pan-fried chicken and a salad. For a bedtime snack, sometimes he had a couple of boiled eggs.
Steve ran three days a week in the mornings before work for about 40 minutes (4 miles). On weekends, he did one long run, usually on Sunday morning for between 60 and 90 minutes.
Steve was happy with his weight loss, but he felt good about his running and didn't want to give it up. In fact, he wanted to train for his first half-marathon, and he loved long slow distance running. Unfortunately, the Atkins diet was not only making him feel constipated, it was impacting how much he could run. He knew he had the muscle strength and could develop the cardiovascular fitness to run 13.1 miles, but he felt that he wasn't fueling his body properly to run long distance. He wanted to have the energy to run, lose about 10 pounds a month and reach both of his goals in three months.
Steve was definitely not consuming enough carbohydrate to fuel long distance running. I suggested that he try a compromise between the Atkins diet and the endurance athlete's diet, so he could continue his pattern of stellar weight loss AND fuel his runs.
Steve gradually added back very controlled amounts of carbohydrate into his diet to fuel his running, but not so much carbohydrate that it would impede his weight loss.
Before each 40-minute morning run, I suggested that he consume an orange or a banana and 8 oz of sports drink. This will provide enough carbohydrate to properly fuel the run. Afterward, he can consume the Atkins breakfast (eggs, ham, chicken salad or other protein food), which will provide protein for recovery (there will not be any carbohydrate for repleting glycogen stores, but there was not much glycogen being spent).
That is all Steve needs to add during the week.
Come Saturday evening, Steve should continue to consume his salad, vegetables and meat for dinner. Then, as a dessert/bedtime snack, he should eat a fruit and a bowl of cereal (one ounce of cereal plus a half cup of milk) OR a fruit and two slices of toast and butter. This provides some carbohydrate for the following day's long run.
Sunday morning, before the long run, he should consume two slices of toast and peanut butter, consuming a sports drink on the run (a 20 oz bottle is ideal). This will fuel the run. Afterwards, he should eat the full Atkins breakfast and continue throughout the day with the Atkins diet.
Steve could try this for a month, documenting how he feels and how much weight he loses along with his training mileage. It is a bit of an alteration from the Atkins diet, which is strictly virtually carbohydrate-free (except for the tiny bit that is in vegetables) and it is a definite alteration from the typically high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet followed by most runners. It puts all the carbohydrate before the workouts to fuel his runs and allow him to have the endurance he needs to complete a decent workout and improve cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength.
Sandra lived with her family and was the primary grocery shopper and cook, so she had more to think about than just her own diet. She ate cereal and whole milk for breakfast, or one of the breakfast bars that her kids liked. For lunch, she ate a grilled cheese sandwich or took her kids to a fast food place for cheeseburgers and fries or pizza. At dinner, she typically made meatloaf, mashed potatoes and carrots, or Shake-and-Bake chicken, rice and a salad. Sometimes she made lasagna or linguine Alfredo. Before bed, Sandra often had ice cream or jello or homemade cookies with her family.
Sandra's diet was traditional family style, and she prepared meals and snacks that mostly appealed to her growing children. As such, the foods she chose were sometimes high in fat and sugar. Because her kids needed calories for growth and needed frequent meals and snacks to fuel their active lifestyles, she ended up eating as often as they did, choosing some of the energy-dense foods they did, such as burgers, fries, cookies, ice cream and the like.
However, Sandra was better off eating less fat. The most important thing to understand is that she did not need to eat the same as her kids and her husband. She could always buy lower fat products for herself, as she most likely needed fewer calories than the other family members.
First off, Sandra used whole milk - not because she preferred it, but because her kids drank it. I suggested that Sandra buy non-fat or 1% milk to use in her cereal and to drink. She definitely did need the calcium, but not all those fat calories.
Second, I suggested that she buy a high-fiber, low-sugar cereal such as bran flakes, corn bran or raisin bran, instead of sharing the higher sugar cereals her kids preferred.
Third, I suggested that Sandra choose lower-fat lunches. She could take her kids out for submarine sandwiches instead of burgers. If her kids objected, she could always purchase a sandwich and bring it to the fast food place - or take the opportunity to teach her kids about better nutrition. She could have lunches at home, where she could prepare sandwiches that the kids liked that would be lower in fat, too - such as cheese, turkey, or roast beef sandwiches made with mustard for herself, lightly buttered for the kids.
Fourth, I suggested Sandra purchase a low-fat cookbook to start making lower fat versions of homestyle favorite meals. She could make meatloaf with extra lean ground beef or ground turkey, and she could make baked chicken without the skin. Making more vegetables for dinner would be beneficial for not only her, but the entire family, as exposure to a variety of vegetables early in life is a good way to develop healthy eating habits in children.
After dinner fruits instead of more traditional desserts would provide much needed vitamins, antioxidants and fiber to the diet. Cookies are okay, but lower fat cookies would be better. A good strategy for bakers is to make cookies that the other family members really enjoy, but you aren't crazy about!
About the Author: Nancy Ling is a Registered Dietician.