When you start running, you can eat anything you want…all those foods that others say are “bad” for you are magically wiped out by your running program and all treat food is back on the menu…right?
Hmmm…not quite that easy unfortunately but I did manage to catch up with a top NZ nutritionist based in Malborough, Emily from Hope Nutrition, to ask her the keys to better eating and energy. This is what I found out…
If there’s one seemingly universal point on healthy eating, it’s that you should mainly eat whole foods. Emily describes these as foods that are “as close as possible to their natural state”. Others talk about “nothing added and nothing taken away.”
This makes whole foods are easy to spot. They generally only have one word on the ingredients list.
Emily highlighted the foods she commonly considers whole foods, even though she adds a few processed foods as part of her selection: Colourful fruits, fresh vegetables, lean protein foods (fish, shellfish, beef, lamb, etc), oats, chickpeas, lentils, starchy vegetables and quality thick greek yogurt and hard cheese.
If I was to go one step further, I’d say an even more universal point on healthy eating is to eat mainly vegetables. The more whole, fresh vegetables you eat, the better.
Certainly not all beginner runners are trying to lose some excess weight but many are. Vegetables are packed full of nutrients, not calories, and tend to crowd out the other stuff you don’t want. We’ll talk more about portion sizes later on.
Tip 1: Add vegetables to at least 2 of 3 meals
I think one of the most frustrating things about processed foods, is that they often combine the ingredients you want with the ingredients you’re trying to avoid.
Better to eat what you actually wanted.
Muesli bars are a classic example of this for runners. You buy the muesli bar for natural energy in oats, dried fruit and nuts…but the problem is the takes the liberty of adding 2 teaspoons of sugar, 1 teaspoon of fat and a bunch of preservatives to keep the supermarkets happy before you can blink.
Emily suggests making your own processed foods first. That way, you take control, you’re mindful of how these processed foods are made and you might save some money too. Even just google it before you buy it…might make a bit more sense than reading the back of a packet.
Tip 2: Eat just what you want and aim to make your own “processed foods” before you buy them off the shelf.
100 years ago, we didn’t need to have as much self-control with what we ate. There was probably only so much potatoes, cabbage and dry bread we could stomach. And 90% of us would be on our feet, working like crazy for 10 – 14 hours a day.
Now, we live an age of abundance. It appears like there are no hard limits to how much we can eat or the types of food we can eat, all year round. Now we have to make up our own limits to survive and thrive.
Beginner runners are often full of enthusiasm so they start asking questions about what are the best foods for runners, how often should I eat, when should I eat?
Emily rightly puts us in our place – It’s much more important to figure out whether the way you’re eating day to day is good for you before talking about timing, supplements or power foods.
Unless you’re running more than an hour, more than 3 days a week, and not wanting to drop a few extra kilograms – then you probably don’t need to increase how much you eat but might like to look at the kinds of food you eat. Not all foods are created equal. 500 calories coming from pizza is not the same as 500 calories coming from a roast vegetable salad.
Think of food as fuel. You might better, not more. not need more. Maybe you just need to get the right kind…
So instead of looking for ‘quantity calories’, which could cancel out your efforts to lose weight, and look for ‘quality calories’.
Tip 3: Focus on nutrition rather than calories to fuel your body.
Emily says…“Life’s not about being strict…have it if you’re really going to enjoy it”
If I was to add my two cents here…
Lose the weight and lose the guilt
I’d reinforce the idea that even if you are trying to lose weight – an ‘all work, no play’ attitude to food is undesirable and unsustainable.
When you are having to constantly use up precious willpower saying no to foods you know aren’t helpful for you, just like a rubber band, eventually you’ll stretch, break, binge and possibly completely derail your progress.
Better to deliberately choose times when you can make the most of your ‘treat foods’.
I like to think of this strategy as simply maximising your enjoyment.
I studied economics in a past life and they talk about this idea of diminishing returns/maximising enjoyment. Relating it to food, it’s the idea that the first mouthful is the most enjoyable and each subsequent bite, is less enjoyable than the one before.
So if you’re like me and your ‘treat food’ is icecream. Following the rule of maximising enjoyment – order and enjoy one scoop at a time.
Make sure you’re making the most of your treat foods by making a big deal of it. Be mindful, take your time and savour the experience. Treat foods are much better when you add them to something fun like hanging out with friends, enjoying some sunshine or out for a special occasion. But watch out for ‘energy killing’ food…
Eat by energy-factor
Emily says “As soon as food creates negative feelings [or kills your energy]…don’t eat it…don’t eat it if it’s just to fill a gap”.
Some foods taste great, we love them in the moment…but then either we can’t control ourselves or they completely kill our energy levels. That doesn’t seem like a great trade. 10 seconds of pleasure for potentially 10 days of downward spiral. No thanks.
Tip 4: Make the most of your ‘treat-food’ – guilt free, maximising enjoyment and energy.
PS: As a personal tip for those wanting to lose weight faster, I’d suggest that you don’t treat yourself with ‘treat food’ after a running race. Instead, reward yourself in a way that makes you want to run more often – a new pair of tights, a new running bra or running shoes would be a great incentive.
As many of us run in the morning, we’re often running on an empty stomach. Firstly, this isn’t a problem if you’ve enjoyed a nutritious dinner the night before. Especially as a beginner, you’ll have a enough energy left over to still exercise for 30 – 60 minutes.
But it’s really important to eat within 30 minutes of finishing your run, especially if you’re also trying to lose weight. I’m not a nutritionist, but what I can talk to is the behavioural problems of running on empty for too long.
If you wait until you get really hungry, you’re less likely to make the right decision in the moment. You’ll reach for foods that are convenient and immediate. Rarely are these the ideal choices.
Much better to plan out what you’re going to eat when you return home from your run or walk. That way you’re not caught out and find yourself squandering your best efforts.
Tip 5: Eat within 30 – 45 minutes of finishing your run
So the most important message is that starting to run won’t necessarily change your diet and nutrition unless you want it to. Many people that run tend to strengthen their mindset so they are able to make lasting improvements to the rest of their lives. If you’re looking to lose weight, running alone may not be the complete answer but it’s an amazing first start.
Get out there!
My name is Alex Asher. I’m an online running coach, the founder of Moxiee Running and heading a fresh movement to inspire confidence in more women through running.
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