The food pyramid has been in existence for decades – originally conceived by the United States Department of Agriculture to graphically represent what they consider to be a healthy daily intake of a variety of foods. While the food pyramid has evolved and subtly changed over the years, it is a fairly accurate representation of the basic portions of each food group that the average individual should consume. But for runners and athletes, a slightly different approach must be taken towards overall nutrition in order to sustain the energy requirements that are demanded by intense activities and sports. Simply put, the basic food pyramid may not provide enough nutrition to keep an athlete fueled. A runner’s diet is more critical to manage than say, a non-runner’s or a sedentary individual. We will break down the essential food groups located within the food pyramid and discuss how they should be altered if you are an athlete or a runner:
- Fruits and vegetables – while the general consensus is that fruits and vegetables can be eaten with abandon among the general public, there is no real requirement to increase fruit and vegetable intake if you are a runner. In fact, adding too many fruits and vegetables to your runner’s diet may cause discomfort or gastrointestinal issues during a run. Stick to the basic food pyramid recommendation of three vegetable servings and two fruit servings per day.
- Carbohydrates – referred to as grains on the USDA food pyramid, carbohydrates are a powerful source for energy and must be included in any diet for athletes. Stick to whole grains if possible as refined grains are less nutritious and don’t provide the full amount of energy that an endurance athlete requires. If you run or exercise at 70% of your aerobic capacity for at least an hour a day, you’ll want to consume approximately 6g of carbs per pound of bodyweight each day.
- Proteins – the three main sources of protein are dairy, eggs, and meat. In general, most athletes require higher levels of protein that non-athletes – but that doesn’t mean you have to go overboard when it comes to this important nutrient. Some athletes and runners feel that bombarding their bodies with hundreds of grams of protein a day will somehow make them bigger, stronger and have more endurance on those longer runs. While protein intake is absolutely vital, most athletes do not have to increase their protein levels by much in order to meet their nutritional requirements. Aiming for 1 g of protein for every 2 to 3 pounds of body weight per day is often plenty to keep your body in great shape.
- Oils – here is an area in which runners and athletes should increase their consumption over non-athletes. Oils are fats – usually in liquid form and derived from plants or nuts, and they provide an important source of highly essential fatty acids that drive cell functioning and overall health. For every hour of exercise on a daily basis, add an extra half serving of oil or consume an appropriate amount of nut products to deliver these essential nutrients.
As a runner, you have specific dietary requirements that are important to follow in order to properly fuel your body, protect your joints and bones from the stresses of running, and keep your energy levels where they need to be. In addition to maintaining a proper balance of food intake, ensure that you are adequately hydrating in order to maintain peak performance and to exercise safely.