Jan 29, 2024

In addition to being the Stroller Mile World Record Holder and a JAMBAR Ambassador, Neely Spence Gracey is the co-author of Breakthrough Women’s Running: Dream Big and Train Smart, a great guide to help female runners achieve big goals.

The following is an excerpt from chapter four of the book, where she talks about the importance of good nutrition. 

Myths and misinformation about food abound, and much of the general advice you hear doesn’t take into account the goals and lifestyle of a dedicated runner. 

Most athletes can benefit from learning more about their individual needs, so if you’re chasing a big goal, it’s a great time to consult with a registered dietitian or qualified nutrition consultant. Look for someone who has experience with and certifications in working with athletes (for example, a C.S.S.D., who’s certified in sports dietetics through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics). But here, with help from a few of those experts, we’ll go over some of the basics. 

First and foremost, you have to eat enough to support your training. You’re aiming for energy balance—taking in sufficient fuel to cover everything you’re expending while running, mom-ing, working, playing, and just all around living as a human. Take in too little, or burn too much, and you risk what’s called low energy availability, or LEA.

A few years ago, experts at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine joined together to put out a statement on nutrition and athletic performance. Energy balance serves as “the cornerstone of the athlete’s diet,” they said, noting that it:

  • Offers more opportunities to get adequate macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals like iron, vitamin D, and magnesium)
  • Allows all your organs and systems to function properly
  • Provides a solid baseline for your training and race-day fueling
  • Protects you from long-term damage to your physical and mental health

Energy needs vary widely from runner to runner, and change over time based on everything from your training to your hormonal cycle to how much you move around during the day. Even your stress levels, altitude, and the temperature outside play a role! So there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and commercial calorie-counting or food-tracking apps can be misleading and downright dangerous. Instead, tune in to your own cues of hunger, fullness, mood, and how well you run and recover.

Signs you may not be eating enough include:

  • Dragging on your runs, or taking longer to recover afterward 
  • Constantly getting injured or sick
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Low mood or irritability (hanger, anyone?)
  • General fatigue
  • Irregular periods

If you notice them, you can course-correct before you experience some of the longer-term effects, including low bone density and fractures, heart damage, a sluggish metabolism, and fertility problems. Together, the constellation of harms caused by LEA is called relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S). Not only can RED-S set you back in your running, it can seriously harm your health.

So where should all that nourishing fuel come from? Again, there’s no one eating plan that works for all runners (that’s one of many reasons to think twice about fad diets like keto and paleo, which claim to have the singular solution to better health and performance yet advocate cutting out whole food groups). However, a few basic principles can guide you in creating a plan that’s healthy and sustainable for you. 

The United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s sport nutrition team created three different diagrams of the athlete’s plate for easy, moderate, and hard days of training. They’re a useful visual guide for your meals, especially with a small tweak from Maddie Alm, M.S., R.D., who’s also an elite runner and two-time U.S. Championships qualifier. She breaks them down into three main components:

  • Carbs: These are your body’s primary source of fuel for aerobic activity; your body stores them as glycogen to fuel your runs. They’re also your brain’s preferred energy source. Fill this part of your plate with whole grains, potatoes, or legumes.
  • Protein: Best known for building muscle, protein also repairs and restores other tissues, including tendons and ligaments. It’s critical for immune health, too. Here, think poultry, fish eggs, beef, and soy foods like tofu or tempeh.
  • Color: Greens are good, but don’t forget your reds, yellows, and purples, too! Eating fruits and vegetables in all hues of the rainbow means you’ll absorb all the micronutrients—vitamins and minerals—you need for healthy bones and blood. They also contain phytonutrients that regulate your body’s inflammatory response. From arugula to eggplants to tomatoes, think about eating the rainbow of produce.

Top off each meal with a source of fats, which act as a back-up fuel source for easier runs, support hormone health, and also help your body absorb many vitamins and minerals.  Polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats—the kind found in avocados, nuts, flaxseed, chia seeds, and fatty fish like salmon—best support heart and brain health.

These general guidelines can give you a starting point for portioning out your plate. From here, you can adjust by noticing how your body responds to specific foods and combinations. If you’re feeling sluggish and low on energy, you probably need more carbs. Struggling to recover from hard workouts? Prioritize protein. And make notes in your training log about any foods that leave you feeling particularly great (or awful). 

Most sports nutrition experts advocate getting as many of your nutrients as possible from whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and proteins like beef, fish, and tofu or tempeh. I generally find I feel and perform better when I eat more of these wholesome ingredients and fewer that are fried, high in refined sugar, or packaged and processed, especially as race day nears. But that doesn’t mean these foods are “bad” or off-limits. Dietitians like Olympic Trials marathoner Starla Garcia also advocate an all foods fit philosophy—one that allows room for joy, culture, tradition, and pleasure en route to creating a sustainable plan that works for you.

Neely with JAMBAR

Neely is currently in Orlando, training for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in the marathon, which will be held February 3.