What do runners eat to reach a healthy weight?

Ein sportlicher Mann und eine sportliche Frau beim laufen.

Healthy weight. What does that mean anyway?
Many of us have been told by our doctors to use our body mass index (BMI) to determine if we are at a healthy weight or not. The BMI calculation takes into account your height and weight to yield a value that falls into one of four categories: underweight, healthy weight, overweight, or obese. But there is one part of this calculation that makes it ill-suited for generalizing to an entire population: muscle weighs more than fat. Many athletes fall into the overweight category because their bodies are packed with muscle to help them perform, and many runners are classified as dangerously underweight due to their light, wispy frames.

A sportive man and woman on their run.

The problem is, each and every one of us is unique. There is no one best body type, and when it comes to runners, we come in all shapes and sizes. That makes it difficult to define a range for a runner to fall in to be deemed a healthy weight. That being said, without focusing too much on the numbers on the scale, or the doctor’s analysis of how “healthy” we are, there are certain steps that we runners can take to put ourselves in the best health possible, which will allow us to live a higher quality of life, and most importantly, feel great every day.

So what can runners do to move away from stomach upsets, health problems, and generally feeling tired? You have probably heard some variation of the phrase “you cannot outrun your fork,” and this hits the heart of the matter. We know that the act of running is good for us. There are numerous studies on the health benefits of running and how it is keeping us alive for longer, but does that mean we can just rely on our running to keep us healthy? Unfortunately not. Before we begin to look into these, ask yourself the following questions to see if where you are now is the best place for you and your body type. As I mentioned, there is no one set best weight or body type for runners, so we each have to find our own best.

A young woman, enjoying eating fresh fruits out of a bowl.

But these questions will help you figure out how many changes you have to make to reach your ideal:

  • Although inaccurate, what does the BMI scale say about where you fit within the ranges?
  • Will losing weight and leaning down push you into an underweight category?
  • Are you already at the best weight for your body type, but the extra you would like to lose is for vanity reasons like looking good in a bikini? (This is the 3-7 lbs that does not help you feel any better or run faster, but you just feel like it will help with your self-confidence.)
  • Do you have the time or money to spend on looking after your long-term health?
  • Are you ready to make some lasting changes to feel better for the rest of your life (but maybe feel worse in the short term)?                                         

Runners can often fall in the trap of feeling like the thinner they are, the healthier they are. But this is actually not the case. You need to find a bodyweight that will help you perform the best and feel great, without restricting your diet in a way you cannot stick to, or forcing you down the perilous path of limiting your caloric intake to a dangerous level.

Now: You may make some changes, do everything you need to do while in training, run a personal best in your next race, yet your weight remains unchanged.
Do not panic! This most likely means that you are already at a healthy weight for your body type.

On the other hand, if you hit what you consider a healthy weight, where you feel confident about your figure, but you feel exhausted all the time, and running is becoming so hard that even an easy run feels like a race, then you are probably below your ideal weight, and it would be wise to increase your calories.
So what steps can we take to reach that healthy body weight for us individually if there are no specific guidelines?

The following 3 ways are great places to start: 

1. Food prep for lunches and snacks
As considered in one of the questions asked earlier, you need to be prepared to put time or money into preparing healthy, nutritious foods to fuel your body with. Set aside a few hours on a Sunday afternoon to chop, peel, and prepare real, whole foods to eat throughout the week. Place them into containers to take for easy lunches and snacks throughout the week. Just a reminder to always choose seasonal and regional products to ensure the best quality produce is fueling your body!

Wooden plate with lots of fresh vegetables on it.

This can include:
Washing, peeling and chopping off stems/core:

  • carrots
  • celery
  • bell peppers
  • berries
  • apples (put a small amount of lemon juice on the apple to prevent browning)
  • grapes
  • sugar snap peas
  • green beans
  • broccoli

Chopping into bite-sized pieces and roasting in a small amount of oil and seasoning:

  • carrots
  • parsnips
  • butternut squash
  • rutabaga (swede)
  • beets
  • sweet potatoes

Using your slow cooker or crockpot to cook:

  • chicken, steak, or lamb
  • meals in bulk to use the leftovers throughout the week
  • overnight oats

Lunches can be a combination of the foods above, or creating a healthy salad using your prepared vegetables along with spinach and some healthy fats like avocado or nuts. If you do not have the time to prepare these foods in advance, consider using a delivery service or hiring a personal chef to prepare the food for you and place it into individual containers. This is very important. You want to avoid situations where you are starving, as this is when we reach for those processed foods that are bad for us like cakes, candy and chips. These foods leave us feeling lethargic and fatigued anyway. The more wholesome, real foods we have available, the more likely we are to use them. Initially, this will feel like a burden, but you will notice the change in how you feel almost immediately, and will get the sense of self-satisfaction that comes from taking charge of your health.

2. Create a meal plan for the week
If you purchase the foods at the grocery store with an idea of what you are going to make for the week, with each food item serving a specific purpose, you will be more likely to stick to your healthy meal options. This is especially so if you have washed and prepared the vegetables that you will use in the meals ahead of time.
If you know you have a busy day coming, make the most of your slow cooker by looking for a recipe that involves just dumping the ingredients in and leaving it to work its magic while you are at work. Many of these recipes are simple, yet delicious, and make enough for leftovers that you can take for a lunch the following day, or even another dinner.

3. Don’t be afraid of fats or proteins
In the 90s, we were told that fats were making us fat, and lots of non-fat or low-fat products came into the market. For that reason, many of us became afraid of eating fats, blaming them as the reason we are overweight, even though sugar is the real culprit for a large percentage of our weight gain.
Eating good fats and proteins with every meal will help to keep you fuller longer, which stops you reaching for those unhealthy foods, and will also help you to maintain a healthy weight. But, be mindful regarding the amount of fat you are consuming because these items are high in calories. That doesn’t mean you should be afraid of them, you just need to think about serving size and portion control.

A glass full with olive oil surrounded by olives.A glass full with oilive oil sourounded by olives.

Good fats to include are:

  • avocados
  • nuts such as almonds, walnuts, and Brazil nuts
  • olive oil
  • dark chocolate (small amount!)
  • coconut oil
  • sustainable oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout, and tuna
  • grass-fed beef
  • organic eggs

By combining these with other meat products, beans, lentils, or other vegetarian sources of protein, you are giving your body signals to let it know that it is being taken care of. And your body will use that fuel to repair the muscles damaged by running, and you will feel better in your daily life. A word of warning though: Be careful not to cut your carbohydrate intake too low! Carbohydrates are needed to give your body the energy it requires to run and do your daily activities. If you cut your carbs too low, you will find your energy level and running performance declines dramatically. Try to replace around half of the more traditional sources of carbohydrates like pasta, bread, and cereal with vegetable sources of carbohydrates (e.g. kidney beans, lentils, potatoes, fruit) and the protein/fat sources mentioned above. Vegetables are high in water and fiber, which make them low calorie, yet satiating. The best part about vegetables is that we can pretty much eat as many of them as we want! If you feel as though your energy levels are low, add more carbohydrates and see how you feel after that. This is just scratching the surface of the changes runners can make to put their health first, to see if it makes a difference.

Try this for just two weeks, and see if you notice a difference in how you feel, both emotionally and physically. You will never know unless you try, and this could be something that could change how you feel forever.

You want know more about what to eat before running? We have the best foods to improve your running performance.

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Tina Muir As a former elite runner, Tina knows what athletes need to focus on in their training. "I'm an expert at improving your running." View all posts by Tina Muir »

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