Aside from the actual miles you run and workouts you do, your diet is one of the biggest factors in your fitness and performance as a runner. There are plenty of different diets for runners out there, and figuring out which is the best for you is crucial so you can perform at your very best.
Food is fuel, and what we feed our bodies influences how we look and feel.
Eating varied, nutritious, whole, natural foods will make you feel energized and strong on your runs, and you’ll recover well. Eating processed foods, excess sugars, and fats, or consuming too many calories, in turn, will make you feel sluggish, bloated, and heavy on your runs.
However, when it comes to the best diets for runners, it seems like the only thing sports nutritionists can agree upon is that there is no universally-accepted consensus about the single best one.
Moreover, it seems like the Rolodex of popular diets is ever-expanding. From paleo to vegan, Whole30 to keto, the litany of popular diets is not only diverse but also contradictory, with some diets demonizing the very foods and nutrients highlighted in others.
And where does running fit in? As runners, we know that a healthy diet is important, but what is the best diet for runners? Keep reading to find out, as we give our recommendations for the best popular diets for runners.
In this guide, we’re going to look at:
- What Is the Best Diet for Runners Overall?
- What Is the Best Diet for Runners With Health Conditions?
- What Is the Best Diet for Runners With Sensitive Stomachs?
- How to Make Your Diet Work Well With Running
Let’s get started!
What Is the Best Diet for Runners Overall?
When it comes to structured diets, the Mediterranean diet is certainly among the best diets for runners. It also consistently places among the top two or three diets in the U.S. News and World Report’s annual ranking of best diets
The Mediterranean Diet is modeled after the dietary patterns common in the Mediterranean region—especially Greece and Italy—around the 1960s, since this population had notably low rates of lifestyle diseases like heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Mediterranean Diet has been shown to reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome, all-cause mortality, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. Research also demonstrates that the Mediterranean Diet is more effective at helping people lose weight compared to low-fat diets.
Why Is the Mediterranean Diet One of the Best Diets for Runners?
Not only is the Mediterranean Diet one of the most well-researched diets, with findings demonstrating its superior ability to reduce the risk of many chronic diseases, reduce body fat, and improve markers of physical health and performance, but it also features food groups and macronutrients that support the demands and needs of runners.
The primary reason the Mediterranean Diet is one the best diets for runners—and effective at improving health and reducing the risk of lifestyle disease—is that it relies on sound nutritional principles: eat whole, natural foods in moderation, and avoid processed foods.
The Mediterranean Diet encourages the consumption of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, fish, seafood, and extra virgin olive oil, which provides anti-inflammatory, heart-healthy fats.
Poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt can be consumed in limited amounts, and red meat is to be eaten sparingly.
The whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables provide the carbohydrates runners need for sustained and quick-acting energy for high-intensity training and racing.
Fish, seafood, seeds, and legumes, along with the eggs, poultry, cheese, and yogurt, consumed in moderation, provide lean proteins to strengthen, build, and repair muscles.
Lastly, healthy fats in olives, olive oil, avocado, and fatty fish support lower-intensity running and help reduce inflammation.
Foods to avoid on the Mediterranean Diet include processed meats like hot dogs and sausages, refined oils and other trans fats, processed foods, sweetened beverages, refined grains like white bread and pasta, “diet” foods such as sugar-free jello and light fat-free cookies and foods with added sugars like ice cream and jelly.
How to Make the Mediterranean Diet Work Best for Runners
The Mediterranean Diet is ideal for runners because of its emphasis on fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean and fatty fish, nuts, seeds, and herbs.
The diet does not provide specific calorie limits nor does it even emphasize counting calories or macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats), which is great for runners because plenty struggle to get an adequate number of calories to sustain their training, while others are trying to lose weight.
The focus should be placed on eating a plant-based diet, with the foods coming in their most whole, natural state as possible. For example, eating whole, ripe tomatoes would be preferred over canned tomato soup from concentrate or even canned tomato purée.
Although the Mediterranean Diet is plant-centric, fresh fish and seafood are encouraged, and eggs can be consumed in moderation.
High-mileage runners should focus on getting plenty of carbohydrates from whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, barley, arameth, teff, spelt, whole oats, and whole wheat. Tubers, such as sweet potatoes, potatoes, turnips, rutabaga, and kohlrabi can also provide sustained energy along with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and water.
Fruits and vegetables should be consumed in abundance, and olive oil, nuts, and seeds provide healthy fats, fat-soluble vitamins, minerals like zinc and magnesium, and sustained energy.
In addition to fish, seafood, and eggs, legumes like lentils, peas, beans, and soy, along with certain vegetables and whole grains should be the primary sources of muscle-reparative protein.
What Is the Best Diet for Runners With Health Conditions?
Given the prevalence of hypertension (high blood pressure) and heart disease, it’s not uncommon for runners to also deal with these conditions.
In fact, many people are initially drawn to running or take up the sport upon the encouragement of their healthcare provider as a means to improve cardiovascular health and reduce blood pressure, body weight, and/or cholesterol.
One of the best diets for runners who fall into this camp or want to lower their blood pressure is the DASH Diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.
The DASH Diet is an evidence-based diet designed to reduce blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health.
For example, one study found that after eight weeks, participants who followed the DASH Diet experienced significant reductions in blood pressure compared to controls, with a reduction of 11.6/5.3 mmHg in participants with hypertension and 3.5/2.2 mmHg in those with normal blood pressure.
The DASH Diet has also been shown to lower the risk of certain cancers, such as colorectal cancer and stomach cancer. It can also improve insulin sensitivity, improving symptoms of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Lastly, the DASH Diet can be an effective way to lose weight.
The defining feature of the DASH Diet is a limited sodium intake, capping the maximum daily allowance at 2,300 mg or 1 teaspoon per day for the standard iteration of the diet and only 1,500 mg or 3/4 of a teaspoon on the lower-salt version.
Why Is the DASH Diet One of the Best Diets for Runners?
Aside from sodium limitations, the DASH Diet is one of the best diets for runners because it follows healthy eating practices, such as focusing on vegetables, fruit, whole grains, low-fat dairy, as well as the consumption of lean meats, eggs, poultry, legumes, nuts, and healthy fats in moderation.
It also emphasizes the importance of eating foods in their most natural state and eliminating processed foods, foods with added sugars, and excessive fats, so it supports dietary habits that support overall health.
Aside from the health benefits associated with the DASH Diet, it is also practical and flexible as an eating plan, which works well for runners given the changing nutritional needs in accordance with variations in workouts from day to day.
The DASH Diet is also good for runners who are trying to get a better handle on basic nutrition concepts. The diet helps establish life-long healthy eating habits, stresses the importance of reading food labels, and helps shape your understanding of serving sizes.
Making the DASH Diet Work Best for Runners
One caution with the DASH Diet is that it may not be appropriate for runners who sweat a lot or run in hot and humid climates, especially if they have normal or low blood pressure.
Runners lose electrolytes such as sodium in sweat, so limiting sodium intake too significantly can be problematic. If you’re a heavy sweater, consider modifying the sodium limitations so that you take in more salt.
What Is the Best Diet for Runners With Sensitive Stomachs?
Digestive issues are unfortunately common amongst runners, particularly because running can be stressful on the gut. Many runners find they need to eliminate high-fiber foods.
If you have a lot of gas, bloating, diarrhea, and indigestion while you run, or in your daily life, particularly after eating vegetables, fruits, legumes, and certain grains, you might be sensitive to foods that contain FODMAPs.
FODMAPs stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. They are short-chain carbohydrates and fermentable fibers that the beneficial bacteria in your gut normally prefer to metabolize.
However, if you have imbalances in your gut microbiome or have an overabundance of pathogens relative to beneficial bacteria in your microbiome, you may struggle to digest FODMAPs. As such, the Low-FODMAP Diet is ideal.
Why Is the Low-FODMAP Diet One of the Best Diets for Runners?
The Low-FODMAP Diet is best for runners who have GI issues as it reduces or eliminates FODMAPs to alleviate gas, bloating, indigestion, diarrhea, and constipation.
However, although the low-FODMAP diet can be quite effective at alleviating GI symptoms in runners, it is quite restrictive and eliminates a lot of nutritious foods. Therefore, it’s not necessarily ideal for runners who don’t have digestive issues or irritable bowel syndrome.
In the first of three stages of the diet, all high-FODMAP foods—such as onions, garlic, cruciferous vegetables, leeks, peaches, apples, watermelon, cherries, blackberries, beans, lentils, wheat, rye, dairy, nuts, sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, and alcohol—are removed.
In phases two and three, some of these foods may be reintroduced, but many people find they need to stick to low-FODMAP foods only, particularly in the meal or snack you eat before running.
How to Make Your Diet Work Well With Running
Ultimately, no matter what diet you are following, it’s important for runners to ensure they are getting an adequate number of calories, and consuming a good balance of macronutrients to support training. Eat varied foods in their most natural form, as minimally processed as possible, and focus on consuming nutrient-dense, nourishing foods.
For information on nutrition and race strategies for runners before, during, and after an ultramarathon, you can check out our ultramarathon nutrition guide here!