How Much Do 4 Most Popular Diets Fit Runners?

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Experts examined some of the latest, most popular diets out there and explained what’s really the best diet for a runner’s health and performance.

As a standard health-conscious group, many runners are interested in trying the latest diet trends – whether to improve health, shed pounds and lose body fat, or simply to improve running performance. But with a new fad diet appearing almost every week, and opposing opinions from advocates and experts, it can be difficult to know what works, what’s sustainable and what’s just plain dangerous. Consider also the added complication of being a runner who wants to perform at their best, and it can get even more confusing.

woman drinking water

5:2 FASTING DIET

You would probably be surprised to find someone who’s not heard of the 5:2, or “fasting” diet. The diet has taken the United Kingdom by storm ever since a BBC documentary in 2013 introduced the idea of fasting two days a week as an alternative to traditional dieting. First studies seemed promising, with many people quickly losing weight and improving markers for diabetes and heart disease, such as cholesterol and blood pressure.

However, questions have been asked over its sustainability and safety – especially among women, athletes and those with a history of disordered eating.

How does it work?

Basically, you eat whatever you like five days a week, and restrict yourself to 500 calories (600 for men) two days a week. However, this doesn’t mean you can consume junk food and alcohol; experts say that the efficiency of the diet depends on not overeating on your non-fast days.

What are its benefits?

For many people, this is the easiest diet to stick to because they can still eat out and enjoy their favorite foods for almost all week. On non-fasting days, no food or drinks are technically prohibited so the diet followers don’t feel they’re completely denying themselves specific food groups as with many other diet plans.

What are its downsides for runners?

On fasting days, because of the low calorie intake, it’s tough and potentially risky to do any kind of endurance exercise. You could develop hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar), potentially resulting in fainting if you attempt to train intensely on these days. Because concentration and focus, along with physical strength, will be lower on these days, there’s a higher risk of injuries. Many people have also reported that fasting affects their sleep, mood, and digestion – with unpleasant side effects being bad breath, diarrhea or constipation and headaches.

And it’s not just the fasting days that are worrying – if your fast days are the day before or after a hard training session, the chances are your recovery time will be much slower because your muscles won’t have stores of the required nutrients for repair.

Yes or no?

This diet might fit the average Joe trying to drop some pounds, but it’s not a sustainable choice for runners.

kiwi smoothie

THE JUICE DIET

Juices have become an important part of our lives. We can see them everywhere – Instagram and Twitter are full of celebrities posting photos of their super healthy green smoothies, and juice bars are popping up all over the world. But are smoothies just a passing craze? And can runners benefit from these “liquid elixirs”?

What’s it all about?

“Juicing” doesn’t mean buying a bottle of orange juice in your local store and consuming it instead of a meal. The fresh juices that you buy from a juice bar, or you can make using a juicer at home, typically use a centrifugal or cold-press juicer, both of which extract juice from vegetables and fruit while holding back the pulp (the fibre). What comes out is a nutrient-rich, easy to digest juice. Juices are usually a combination of vegetables and fruit – a green juice for instance could contain celery or cucumber, a leafy vegetable like kale or spinach, a fruit or two like pear or apple, and often herbs and spices like mint and ginger.

What are its benefits?

For a runner, freshly pressed juices are a fast way to get an intense antioxidant boost – useful for improving immunity during times of tough training. They also have the added bonus of being low in fiber so there’s less risk of gastric disturbance during your runs. Adding anti-inflammatory herbs and spices such as turmeric, ginger, and mint might also help to speed up muscle recovery.

Many athletes today swear by beetroot juice as a performance enhancer. Studies have actually discovered that beetroot increases blood flow, which means endurance is increased (but you’ll need a lot of juice to notice an effect!). If you have a juicer, try juicing two raw beetroots with 2cm peeled ginger and half a cucumber.

Yes or no?

Juice cleanses that involve living exclusively on juices for a day or longer aren’t recommended for runners. You’ll be taking in fewer calories, which may be desirable if weight loss is a goal, but you’ll also miss out on fiber and different essential nutrients such as B vitamins, sodium, calcium, iron and essential good fats. This could put your body under intense stress, particularly if you’re training. If you want to enjoy the benefits of fresh juice and boost your running, drink a home-made juice as a pre- or post-run snack. Use a ratio of 3:1 vegetables to fruit (one portion of fruit to three portions of vegetables) to lower the sugar-hit from the juice.

fruits

THE PALEO DIET

The Paleo diet is based on the principle of consuming only the foods that cavemen ate during the Paleolithic period – therefore it’s also called the hunter-gather diet. This in general means consuming lean organic meat, eggs, seafood, fish, fruit, non-starchy vegetables, seeds and nuts. Many health-conscious people believe that the Paleo diet is a great strategy to shed pounds, build muscle and boost energy. Others say that this diet reduces risk of life threatening conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, improves digestion and reduces inflammation in the body.

What are its benefits?

In general, this diet is high in antioxidants and low in sugar, salt and unhealthy saturated fat. No refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white pasta or noodles or cakes are consumed and no processed foods are allowed – for this reason very few additives, artificial sweeteners, flavorings or colorings are eaten.

What are its downsides for runners?

The Paleo diet cuts out major food groups such as whole grains (packed with fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, iron and selenium), healthy legumes such as beans, lentils and peas and all dairy products. This means that especially runners could be missing out on essential nutrients as well as energy. The diet is fairly high in animal protein – but not necessarily lean animal protein. There’s a well established link between red and processed meat intake and many types of cancer, as well as a link to heart disease. As the diet also cuts out dairy, there’s an increased risk of vitamin D and calcium deficiency – particularly in lean female runners who have an increased risk of low bone density.

Yes or no?

A modified, less restrictive Paleo type diet that includes some healthy whole grains and a greater emphasis on lean plant protein would be a better choice for runners.

antioxidant-rich-food-03

RAW FOOD DIET

The raw food trend is picking up pace in the UK with many advocates claiming it helps to improve digestion, boost energy, support weight loss and clear skin. But does a raw food diet suit runners? And do the claims stand up to scrutiny? The theory behind the beneficial effects of consuming raw is that when you heat many foods, the vitamins, enzymes and other nutrients are destroyed. This has been confirmed for certain vitamins, including vitamin C and the B vitamins. As animal products aren’t typically eaten in high quantities in the raw food diet (although some people do eat unpasteurised dairy foods, meat, fish and raw eggs), saturated fat intake and overall calorie intake is in general lower – which explains why many people shed pounds by going on a raw food diet.

What are its benefits?

The diet promotes large intakes of vegetables, fruit, seeds and nuts, you’ll be consuming plenty of fiber, anti-oxidants and beneficial phytochemicals. The diet is low in sugar, salt, refined carbs and saturated fat – factors which will help to boost overall health and aid with weight loss.

What are its downsides for runners?

The raw food diet is particularly difficult for runners to thrive on as it will typically be lacking in vital nutrients such as calcium, iron, protein and vitamin B12. In addition to this, certain nutrients such as betacarotene and lycopene are activated during cooking, so you may be missing out on these. You may also increase your risk of food poisoning as cooking kills the majority of the harmful bacteria in our food.

Yes or no?

Eat plenty of raw fruit, vegetables, seeds and nuts and seeds in your diet to benefit from vitamins, fiber and essential fats but don’t limit yourself to only raw foods because this may result in the lack of key nutrients for running and recovery.

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Written by Camille Bennett

Camille Bennett is our nutrition expert interested in fitness diet and doesn’t run out of delicious ideas for healthy and nutritional meals.

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