The most common, performance-defeating nutrition mistakes—and how to fix them
If you’re searching for a pill to get you lean fast or magically improve your mile time without putting in the work, it’s time to sober up. There is no quick fix. Train smart, work hard, and eat the right way and you’ll get the results you’re seeking. Here are nine common nutrition mistakes many beginning runners make and how to fix them.
Your Diet Torpedoes Your Training
The fix: Treat your diet like it’s a part of the training plan. “You have to train a certain way and eat a certain way to get the body to burn fat and lean up,” says Krista Austin, sports nutritionist for several U.S. Olympic teams and founder of Performance and Nutrition Coaching. That means no more self-sabotage by eating high-glycemic carbs (like waffles with syrup) at every meal or starting all your runs on empty.
Instead of focusing on how much protein or carbs you need before each run or workout, consider your daily needs. Recent research suggests that what you eat throughout the day matters much more than what you eat immediately after exercising.
You Give Up When the Going Gets Tough
The fix: Training at threshold—a faster pace that you can maintain for 50 to 60 minutes, or 10K race pace for beginners—revs the metabolism and gets you fit fast. But remember to keep upping the pace as you progress.
“Anyone who’s new to running will naturally end up functioning above their threshold quite a bit because their running mechanics are so inefficient,” says Austin. That’s why brand-new runners often drop weight and increase fitness quickly. Once these runners start adapting to running consistently, however, that progress slows, and they need to increase their training stimulus to keep seeing results.
If threshold training leaves you feeling fatigued, Austin suggests occasionally sipping G2 or flavored water with electrolytes during your workout to increase performance without overloading on calories. “These high-glycemic carbs impact the brain and taste-bud receptors, and that creates an ergogenic [performance-boosting] effect.”
All You Eat Are Carbs
The fix: Runners whose number one goal is to lose weight can cut the pasta, bread, and cereals and have enough energy to complete many of the easy runs in 30 to 60 minutes. Most healthy diets will still provide enough incidental carbs—by-products of fruit and beans—to fuel you, says Greg McMillan, founder and head coach of McMillan Running.
When it comes to your more intense training days, increase your carb uptake, just don’t think it all has to come from pasta. "You can do it with more natural, less-refined carbs like rice or quinoa as part of your meal," says McMillan.
Vegetables Are Only the Side Dish
The fix: Eat whole foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. This will steer you to the most nutritious, fiber-filled foods that promote overall health.
“Higher-quality foods—veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, healthy oils, lean meats and fish, dairy, and whole grains—tend to have a higher satiety index,” says Matt Fitzgerald, a certified sports nutritionist and author of the Racing Weight series. “If you have a high-quality diet and eat enough to satisfy your appetite versus if you have a low-quality diet and eat enough to satisfy your appetite, you’re going to eat a lot more calories on the low-quality diet.”
If you focus on food quality, the quantity question will sort itself out (even the most monstrous appetites can stomach only so much fiber in one sitting). Combine a high-quality diet with consistent, progressive training, and you’ll achieve both weight and performance goals.
You Think You Can Get Skinny and Fast Simultaneously
The fix: Focus on weight-loss efforts during quick-start periods, or the four to eight weeks that immediately precede the base-building phase of a training cycle, Fitzgerald suggests. Create a manageable calorie deficit during this time, and adjust based on how your body reacts.
When you start your training program, shift your focus to fueling your body to meet the increased performance demands, not on counting calories. “If you use more energy, you have to take in more energy. If you perform poorly in workouts or are lethargic between workouts, you might not be taking in enough calories,” says Fitzgerald. “You can run the numbers and see a calorie deficit, but when you exercise a lot and don’t get enough calories, metabolism slows to a crawl. You get the opposite of what you’re looking for.”
You Think Being a Runner Means You Can Eat Whatever You Want
The fix: “The average person eats three additional calories for every 10 extra calories they burn through exercise,” says Fitzgerald. “You have to manage it with high-quality foods, pay more attention to nutrient timing, and become aware of satiety signals so you don’t overeat by plate cleaning.”
This doesn’t mean you can’t treat yourself every now and then. Just keep in mind that your post-run reward counts as a part of your total daily intake.
“We only burn around 100 calories per mile, no matter how fast you run that mile,” says McMillan. “You can look at any food—a doughnut or a Coke—and you can realize, ‘Holy crap, I can drink this much faster than I can run the miles to burn it.’”
Don’t make the mistake of rewarding every long run and race.
You Train and Live by the Spreadsheet
The fix: To progress and improve as a runner, sometimes you need to look beyond the numbers (miles and times) to learn what works best for you during training. Pay attention to how your body responds to the food you give it before, during, and after running. Write down what works and what doesn’t, and adapt.
“Good coaches ask how athletes feel versus focusing only on the numbers that are pushed out on a heart-rate monitor or the splits run on the track,” says Austin. “It’s the same thing with nutrition. You ask athletes how it feels rather than just saying, ‘You have to eat this.’”
You Live on Sports Nutrition
The fix: If you ran as hard as you could, you would empty your glycogen stores in 90 minutes to two hours, but how often do you do that? Sipping Gatorade throughout the day isn’t much different than drinking soda—you’re just downing a bunch of sugar with some added electrolytes.
Use sports nutrition products, such as gels, gummies, energy bars, and sports drinks, sparingly, says McMillan. Stick to real food. Eat the high-quality foods mentioned above, drink plenty of water, and avoid processed foods with added sugars, salt, and fats.
You Overdose on Caffeine
The fix: Yeah, caffeine can boost performance, but it can also aid in glycogen restoration—the process of restocking energy supplies to your muscles—for those dreaded two-a-days.
But beginning runners should know that we all metabolize caffeine differently. Regularly taking the ergogenic aid can make its effects less potent on race day. “I tell my athletes to see how little caffeine they can take prior to a training session to still get the effect we’re going for, and to only use caffeine on hard days,” says Austin.
Experiment with your caffeine intake while you’re training. There’s only so much caffeine the intestinal system can handle at one time, so loading up on caffeine before a workout or race can put you in the bathroom—frequently.
The bottom line: Dial in the amount of caffeine you can tolerate prior to intense workouts, and then hold off until race day.