Traditional Nutrition for Runners, Part 1

This is the first of a guest blog series I’ve invited nutritionist Frances Bavin to share here on whole, natural, traditional foods and how they help you nourish yourself for better running.

Eating healthy, natural food, the type that our bodies were designed to eat, can help with performance and recovery. I recommend everyone eat a natural, unprocessed diet, but as a runner, your need for good nutrition will be even greater.

Although there are a lot of variables from one person to the next, there are some points that all runners should consider, particularly in the run up to an event. These mainly involve basic, sound, nutritional habits rather than silver bullets. Sports nutrition can get very mathematical and there are various schools of thought, all of which have their own merits. I have put together some advice that serves as a starting point that can be honed once achieved.

Is Your Diet Natural?

I encourage my clients to make sure they are eating 80% good – and this means that it has to have been living at some point. Plenty of fresh vegetables, good quality fruit, nuts and seeds, some well prepared grains, and animal produce – all from good organic sources wherever possible to avoid pesticides and other toxins.

If you can say yes to this you are doing very well. It is hard to stick to when we live in an environment with convenience foods on every corner. Your 20% is there to stop you becoming a social outcast or for the days you’ve trained hard and think you deserve some ice cream.

Are You Digesting Effectively?

It doesn’t do much good to eat a healthy, nutrient-rich diet if you aren’t able to digest, absorb, and use what you eat. Here are the key factors you should take into consideration:

  • How quickly will each kind of food digest? At one end of the spectrum you have juices, then fruit as the quickest digesters, followed by vegetables, then grains, dairy and finally animal proteins like eggs and meat. Fast-digesting foods give you quick energy, though when you need sustained energy, slow-digesting foods including protein are important — you just need to eat them early enough that they can digest before you run.
  • Are you chewing your food thoroughly? Digestion starts in the mouth with enzymes in your saliva that break down carbohydrates, in addition to the obvious necessity of breaking down your food into small enough fragments that your stomach can deal with it. Make sure there are no lumps left before you swallow – remember, your stomach doesn’t have teeth!
  • Is your digestive system strong enough for the foods you’re eating? Gluten for example, which we no longer prepare slowly and carefully like we would have done traditionally, is becoming a problem for more and more people. I think the easiest (and cheapest) way to figure out if you may have a gluten intolerance is to cut it out entirely (that’s wheat, rye and barley and all things containing them). Try this for a month, most people notice some benefits. Re-introducing carefully and noting any symptoms you may experience is the next step, though if you have experienced huge improvements you may not want to reintroduce it at all.

As you will be well aware, having food sloshing about in your belly whilst running isn’t the best feeling. Heavy exercisers also need to consider the fact that exercise can make the gut more porous temporarily, and if you do have an issue with gluten or other foods you may be setting yourself up for a leaky gut which in turn can lead to other undesirable symptoms from gut issues to auto-immune problems.

Think of your body in two settings – ‘rest and digest’ or ‘fight or flight’ aka the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. You can’t be in both places at once. If you are running, you are not going to be digesting, so eating your food well in advance of a run, or at least making sure it quickly digests is important.

Eat larger meals 3 hours before you exercise, and smaller snacks nearer to the time. Chew your food carefully and be as relaxed as possible when you eat to assist your body to digest. Keep the meals and snacks simple, not too many different food groups in one, and think about nutrient density rather than just calories.

For more about nutrient density, stay tuned for Part Two next week.

Frances Bavin works as a nutritional therapist in Edinburgh, Scotland, seeing a wide variety of clients with various health issues as well as athletes needing help with sports nutrition.

Frances trained at The College of Naturopathic Medicine and uses a naturopathic/functional medicine approach. She is also the chapter leader of the Weston A. Price Foundation in Edinburgh. Her mission with each client is to help them take control of their own health and to positively enjoy being a healthy person and getting the most out of their life.

You can find her through

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