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Best Foods for Runners: 4 Lessons I Learned About Eating for Fuel

I like running. And I really like dessert. Training for a half marathon welcomed an onslaught of both, but I knew it would take more than sugar to power me through 13.1 miles. My new fitness challenge? Figuring out what to eat before and after running -- without resorting to bland fare that puts performance before taste.

I’ve always found the idea of “food as fuel” depressing. Don’t get me wrong -- I’m all for mindful eating, but I wouldn't put that at odds with a varied, vibrant, pleasure-seeking diet. Trial and error have taught me what works for my body, and while I shy from extremes, I do have one rule: Everything I put in my mouth must be delicious, be it a plate of farm-fresh veggies or a slice of birthday cake.

This was all pretty simple when I was running three or four miles a few times a week. A fair-weather health nut and ardent home cook, I tended toward porridge-y breakfasts, salad-y lunches, and dinners heavy on the legumes and seasonal vegetables -- with enough sweet snacks and restaurant adventures sprinkled in between to keep my spirits high. Moderate exercise, moderate eating. Not a whole lot of strategy. Then I did something not uncommon, but slightly insane nonetheless: I registered for a half marathon. And “salad for lunch” became a phrase that would make me laugh out loud.

Diet books love to say that exercise isn’t an excuse to eat more. And that's true. It's not about eating more; it's about making smart choices when we do! Sure, running’s calorie-obliterating powers mean I don't have to hold myself back during Sunday brunch or my 4 p.m. snack attack. But honestly, it’s not fun to run with heartburn or a jittery high that evaporates by mile three.

So I needed more food with nutritional value and -- always! -- flavor. It had to fit my budget and dietary preferences (pro-gluten, wary of dairy, and insistence on plant-based). I don’t like to eat a lot in one sitting, which just means I’m basically eating all day long -- so snacks would also need to factor into the plan. I also wouldn’t say no to dessert.

I had an appetite for experimentation. But to make sure my instincts wouldn't undercut my efforts, I had nutritionist Rania Batayneh, M.P.H., author of "The One One One Diet: The Simple 1:1:1 Formula for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss," look over my training plan. Luckily, she and I were in sync on moderation -- and even better, she spotted some potholes in my diet I could have run right into without her help. Talk about a good trail partner!

Lesson #1: The breakfast of champions includes a snack.


I’m a morning person, which is not unrelated to the fact that I am definitely a breakfast person. People who don’t wake up immediately thinking of food are a mystery to me. Oats are my go-to -- granola in summer, porridge in winter, both topped with fresh fruit and a slew of so-called “superfoods.” It’s an endurance breakfast, certainly -- but it’s too much to digest before the increasingly time-consuming runs that are now beginning my days.


I can’t run very far on an empty stomach, though. So I’ve taken to popping one of these coconut-date bars before I set out. The low water content keeps me from cramping, and the fat-and-carb combo gives me sustained energy to get through my workout. "I love this as a pre-run option," Batayneh says. "You may want to consider adding protein for a more balanced bite, especially as you increase your mileage. Hard-boiled eggs are small and easy to digest, and those not sensitive to dairy can also enjoy a half cup of milk or a few tablespoons of ricotta. The old peanut-butter-and-banana standby is also perfect."


When I get back, carbs are top of mind. Basically, endurance workouts are fueled by glycogen, or carbohydrate stores in the muscles. Eating a carb-centric meal shortly after a run trains the body to store glycogen for future needs (i.e. tomorrow’s run. Circle of life!). My oats fit the bill, but the thought of cooking and eating a hot bowl of anything seems kind of oppressive by then -- and I usually stay at high speeds to get out the door for work. So I’ll more often go the drinkable route with a green smoothie, adding hemp or chia seeds for protein to help my muscles recover. For savory moods, frittata muffins bulked up with potatoes and other veggies are easy to grab and go.


"This is a great way to get the veggies you may not want later into your day," Batayneh says. "I also recommend adding olive oil, avocado oil, or coconut oil to any green smoothie. Along with the fruit and the protein, this will give you a 1:1:1 balance of all three macronutrients -- an easy-to-remember formula that's both satiating and nourishing."


Lesson #2: Sandwiches are the perfect food.


I’m something of a veggie sandwich connoisseur. Bland, mushy messes need not apply -- sandwich construction is an art, and condiments are my muse. No texture is left behind: something creamy (hummus, avocado), something crunchy (cucumber, sprouts), something “meaty” (mushroom, pressed tofu), something pickled, something saucy, and a leafy barrier to keep the bread from sogging. I like to think of the whole thing as “salad plus bread,” but more fun to eat and less equipment-intensive.


Before marathon training, I rarely ate sandwiches for lunch. I’d do the soup thing, or the salad thing. Now that I’m carbo-loading 100 percent of the time, I’m making up for the time I’ve wasted. This goat cheese and veggie sandwich is one of my favorites (given my dairy trouble, I sub avocado for goat cheese). Greek salad sandwich and grilled veggie hero, you’re always on deck. I’m determined to have my bread and eat my veggies too -- and provided I’m not loading up full loaves like submarines (I’m not ... yet), the bread’s surface area acts as built-in portion control. 


Batayneh, my new best buddy, agrees. "The good news is that you are carbo-loading, but balancing the sandwich with protein and fat. It's that 1:1:1 ratio we love! I also recommend you think about eating half of your sandwich at 'lunch time proper' and then the other half one or two hours later. This works to keep your metabolism fueled and prevents you from feeling overstuffed." She also very responsibly reminds me that salads are a legitimate lunch option, so long as they're properly balanced with protein and carbs. So adding cooked whole grains to your salads is fair game, if you're into forks!


Lesson #3: The cure for 4 p.m. danger? You guessed it: more carbs.


For some, the snack monster strikes late at night. For me, it's midafternoon. If I can make it to 5 p.m. without mainlining an 8-ounce bag of trail mix, it's a good day. Though I try to choose healthier options, I must admit I feel better on days I don't spoil my dinner with multiple lunches -- especially now that I’m trying to keep my body running as efficiently as possible.


I’m usually all about mindfulness, but in this instance, it’s volume I crave -- a robotic hand-to-mouth motion as I power through my slump. It’s not a great habit, but while I work on it, I can at least make it less ruinous. Crudites and fresh fruit are great options, but I tend to eat produce-heavy meals, so I like to ease up on the fiber a bit in between. (Yes, you can have too much of a good thing.)


Enter puffed rice (or even better, puffed quinoa, which I order in bulk online). It massively lightens an Emma-sized serving of snack mix.  Tossed with peas, pepitas, coconut, and a sweet-and-spicy coating, it’s thoroughly hanger-quenching. (And on days when the sweet tooth rears its head, it makes a mean crispy treat too.)


Batayneh can get behind my lightening strategy, but also recommends kicking off snack time with a straight-up protein like hard-boiled eggs, deli turkey, or jerky. Having an "appetizer" will help me feel full more quickly and keep me from overdoing it -- a strategy I'll definitely be trying.

Photography by: Bryan Gardner

Lesson #4: At dinner, density is a friend.


Ah, dinner. The pressure’s off -- kind of. While I’ve got about 10 hours to let my insides sort themselves out, I’m essentially fueling my next run. Carbo-loading is a pre-race tradition, but not an everyday necessity -- especially since, as you can see, I love my carbs all day long. So where does that leave me at night?


Remember my voluminous afternoon snack? At dinner, I want the opposite of that. Here’s where balancing meals with lean protein makes all the difference. For instance, I love a good curry, but ladling spicy, fiber-filled sauce over a modest heap of protein and starch is totally different from downing endless bowls of it over mountains of white rice. (By all means, try running 10 miles with that inside of you.)


"I am so happy you realize that you don’t always have to carbo-load at night," says Batayneh. "You are fueling your body appropriately throughout the day, and the veggies count towards your carbs. You will feel lighter on your feet and likely more energized on your morning run if you eat a satisfying -- but not overindulgent -- dinner that won't leave you feeling stuffed and bloated. Think 1:1:1, morning to night."


Protein could be meat, fish, eggs, soy, lentils, other legumes ... every body is different, and mine feels best when I switch it up. My guiding mantra has become, “What will fill me up in as little room as possible?” I’m a big fan of saucy egg dishes, hearty soups, and lightened-up burgers -- and if I’m extra-hungry, count me in for a side of sweet potato fries, a nutrient-dense side that always feels like a treat.

I'm sure my diet will continue to evolve as I amp up my mileage, but those are my biggest takeaways thus far. One thing that won't be changing? My commitment to deliciousness.


Are you a runner? Has it changed how you eat?