One Dirty Magazine

The Nutrition Secret of the Pros

It matters less what you're eating and more that you're getting enough. High-volume training requires high-volume eating. Here's why.

David Roche July 26th, 2018

The Nutrition Secret of the Pros Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel

What’s the nutrition secret of professional runners? It’s not Paleo or gluten-free or vegan. It’s that almost everyone who sustains high mileage for an extended time is a talented eater who does not restrict calories.

That secret might seem counter-intuitive. Most of these pros are teenie weenies in running outfits that resemble yellow polka-dot bikinis (and I’m just talking about the men). Don’t they nibble on lettuce between their workouts?

No, they absolutely do not nibble on lettuce. I always assumed it took eating like a nauseated rabbit to reach the top in running. But that was before I actually lived with people at the top and quizzed them on their habits.

Pros are skinny because they run a lot, or because that is just their genetic make-up. (Though many runners are bigger and just as successful). To repair the musculoskeletal system and adapt to stress, the body requires lots of fuel.

Withholding fuel can lead to less body weight, which in some cases can lead to faster running over the short term. In fact, there are many stories about runners who train hard and don’t eat enough, and subsequently have one or two good (or even great) years.

The body seems to enter fight-or-flight mode with inadequate fuel, and some people have a remarkable ability to fight through dwindling energy reserves. Sometimes, they even win championships.

Eventually, though, it almost always catches up. Those runners break down and are never heard from again, suffering from stress fractures, overtraining syndrome or any one of a number of other maladies. The body stops fighting and flees, in the form of broken bodies and broken hormonal systems, leaving once-promising runners used up and looking for answers.

This article does not have answers. But it does have two guidelines to train by.

1. If you are running high volume or hard workouts, do not restrict calories.

Last July, I had just checked in to the Team USA hotel before the World Mountain Running Championships in Zermatt, Switzerland. A few of us were getting to know each other, sitting around a kitchen table with the Matterhorn towering ominously out the window to our right.

It was 2 p.m., and, with dinner scheduled for a few hours later, the feeding began. I felt like a spectator at Jurassic Park as a few team members dug into Matterhorn-sized piles of pasta, with a tablespoon or ten of olive oil globbed on top.

The scene repeated itself at dinner a few hours later, with one runner in particular making it clear that every pizza is a personal pizza if you believe in yourself. These men and women had world championships to their names and barely an ounce of fat on their frames. I was surprised, so I asked them about it.

One late-30s runner who is among the best in our sport told me that the dinner table is a great way to tell how long a runner’s career will be. The eaters last; the skimpers may be fast, but probably not for long.

For the last year, I have brought this story up when speaking with pros candidly and off the record. Almost all of them shared similar stories. Eating seems to be as important as training.

To make sure you are giving your body what it needs, follow these principles: (1) after every run, get some calories in your body within 30 minutes of finishing; (2) eat a lot throughout the day, guided by hunger; and (3) try to avoid waking up hungry.

The primary theory I have heard for the “need for feed” is that the body can only repair itself consistently over time if it has excess fuel. Breakdown is most common with higher volume (non-scientifically defined here as 60-plus weekly miles for men, 40-plus for women) or hard workouts (intervals lasting more than one minute or races). If you fail to fuel adequately, high volume and hard workouts will almost always lead to injury and burnout.

To make sure you are giving your body what it needs, follow these principles: (1) after every run, get some calories in your body within 30 minutes of finishing; (2) eat a lot throughout the day, guided by hunger; and (3) try to avoid waking up hungry.

That final rule may be the most important of all. If you wake up starving during periods of hard training, view it as a message from your body that it needs more fuel to rebuild itself.

A final note on what you eat: It doesn’t seem to matter all that much when it comes to performance. I’m sure there are long-term health consequences to living off pop tarts and/or bacon, but I’ve seen elites eat far worse. People have been successful as carnivores and as vegans, as gluten-freebies and by eating enough bread to be classified as Gluten-Americans in the census. The key is simply that they eat enough to repair their bodies.

2. If you need to lose weight, focus on aerobic running and short, high-intensity training.

While hard training necessitates lots of eating, you can still work on your body composition while becoming a better runner. The key is to limit breakdown to allow your body to stay healthy and happy.

In general, easy running (more on that here) with some marathon-paced running in moderation limits musculoskeletal breakdown and is conducive to losing weight through consistent calorie burning. If you are an experienced runner trying to lose weight, you may be able to do high-volume easy running without breaking down.

It is best to avoid VO2-max and lactate-threshold intervals, as they ask more from your body. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) in moderation, however, can crank up your metabolism with less breakdown risk. Short hills work best—anything from 10 seconds to one minute hard up a hill, repeated 8 to 10 times. When you get to your desired body composition, be sure to crank up the calories to sustain harder training.

In sum, eat to last. Pass the Bacon Pop-Tarts, please.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play

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olivier
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olivier

This article is so misleading if not dangerous even though it mentions some possible long term consequences. Thinking runners can eat whatever doesn’t take into account how insuline reacts to food intakes. Tim Noakes used to think carb loading was fine till he got diabetes 2. Sugar creates inflammations and that’s maybe why many runners develop arterial plaque. Add inflammations from exercise and you have a deadly combo.

Trailmomma
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I do agree that this is misleading. I’ve seen a few thin ultra runners suffer from heart attacks or strokes but (healthy) carbs don’t cause type 2 diabetes. Fat (among other things) do: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MonwPt4LIN0

Charlotte
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Charlotte

Thank you for this! I hear so many interviews with elites, and when they are asked what they eat in a day, my mind is blown. Unless the quantities of what they describe are massive, there’s no way they could do what they do on that little food. I love food, and I love eating…a lot. I’m glad my running supports this habit 🙂

Rick
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Rick

Run to eat, eat to run. Works well for me. Olivier, Dave isn’t suggesting eating anything/everything with reckless abandon. But a well-tuned machine needs fuel. Even that sports car doesn’t run very well when all it has is fumes. “… many runners develop arterial plaque”? Please share the studies… or the anti-cholesterol drug-manufacturing company you work for.

David
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David

“(1) after every run, get some calories in your body within 30 minutes of finishing”
a.) How many calories would you recommend after different workouts (eg 60 min tempo, 3 hour long run, track intervals)
b.) What sort of calories – Gatorade type, or Carb+ Protein (chocolate milk like).

Paul
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Paul

I’m guessing a LCHF diet is too restrictive?

Attila
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Attila

This is the worst advice EVER! Eat a lot…yes. Put trash in your body…no! You are dangerously misleading people that it’s okay to eat whatever if your run.

Rob
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Rob

These two guidelines are unquestionably true. But it’s also important to look at the nutritional values of foods in terms of minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients. The book Plant Victorious (http://www.plantvictorious.com/) offers a practical overview of optimal foods and focuses on performance-enhancing plant-based foods.