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If you’re a fairly serious runner, you’re bound to go through periods in your training cycle when you over do it. Even elite runners, who have coaches monitoring almost every step they take, can fall into the trap of training too hard and pushing their body beyond its limits.
While finding the perfect balance between putting in the necessary miles and allowing for proper recovery is the Holy Grail for all runners, the reality is that many often overstep the tight rope that is optimal training and find themselves bordering on being overtrained and desperate for recovery.
If you ever find yourself in this dreaded position, backing off your training isn’t the only solution, nor is it guaranteed to improve the situation. The amount and types of food you put into your body before—and even more importantly, after—your workouts can help the recovery process. Here are three simple, but effective nutrition changes you can make to help dig yourself out of that ovetraining hole.
Increase Your Caloric Intake
The first thing a runner has to look at when they’re overly tired (or worse, overtrained) is the amount of calories they’re taking in on a daily basis. The reality is that most runners do not eat enough calories to fuel their daily expenditure. This lack of calories means the muscles aren’t getting the nutrients and fuel they need to recover optimally.
Usually, this caloric deficit is a result of runners wanting to lose weight to hit their “racing weight,” or perhaps just to be healthier in general. Unfortunately, trying to lose weight and training hard are two diametrically opposite goals; you need to restrict calories to lose weight, and you need to not restrict in order to support hard training.
So, if you find yourself feeling lethargic or riding that line between overtraining and optimal training, it’s important that put your weight-loss goals on hiatus for a few weeks and give your body the fuel it needs to recover.
How to intelligently increase calorie intake:
Determine the total number calories you’re burning per day. This number includes your basal metabolic rate (how many calories you burn without exercise) in addition to the number of calories you burned on your run. For a simple way to way to determine this number, you can use this handy runner’s calorie calculator.
Next, because you’re focused on optimal recovery, add an extra 300-500 calories to your total calorie expenditure for the day to guarantee you’re getting in all the calories and nutrients you need. While it may feel like you’re “cheating” your weight-loss goals in the short-term, calorie cycling (a short period of eating more calories) can actually help dieters break through weight-loss plateaus by resetting the metabolism.
It’s also important that you increase your calorie intake at the right times and with the right foods. Simply eating an extra helping at dinner or having a handful of snacks at work isn’t going to help you recover. Instead, focus on adding nutrient-dense and protein-rich foods immediately before or after your workouts or adding a protein supplement to your morning or nighttime routine. By eating the right foods at the right time, you can increase the speed at which your body recovers.
Eat Healthy, Lean Sources of Protein
Protein is the main muscle-building nutrient required to repair the small micro-tears inflicted on the muscles with every challenging workout. Therefore, it is critical that runners who are in danger of overtraining consume ample amounts of lean protein. This extra protein consumption will provide the essential nutrients and amino acids needed for muscle repair.
How to incorporate extra protein in your diet:
The most complete proteins come from animal sources such as fish, poultry and limited amounts of red meat. If you think you’re slightly overtrained or riding that fine line, consider adding salmon, tuna and chicken to your menu. These protein sources also have other important nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids and iron.
Don’t add artificial animal protein sources like deli meat or processed meats. Simply add grilled chicken breast to your lunch—on a salad or in a sandwich—and include salmon or red meat in your dinner.
If you’re a vegetarian, you’ll need to combine protein sources to ensure you’re getting the full range of essential amino acids. For example, you can combine grains with legumes or dairy, vegetables with soy or dairy, or legumes with nuts. Whatever your favorite combination, make sure you’re eating extra protein if you believe you’re pushing the boundaries of overtraining.
How much protein?
As a general rule, runners need 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. However, because you want to promote recovery and you’re trying to consume extra calories, you should aim for 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For example, a 160lb runner (72.7kg) would plan to consume 144 grams or protein per day.
Add More Nutrient-Dense Fruits and Vegetables to Your Diet
Behind protein, fruits and vegetables are an important power food for combatting possible overtraining. Most fruits and vegetables are superfoods for runners who need to focus on recovery because they are nutrient-dense and contain high quantities of essential vitamins and minerals necessary for muscle repair.
How to easily incorporate nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables in your diet:
If you’re feeling sluggish and trying to dig yourself out of that overtraining hole, focus on adding at least one fruit or vegetable to each meal you eat. This will ensure you consume all the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants you need to fuel optimally and repair your muscles.
If you’re looking for the most nutrient-dense fruit, vegetable, and legume options, here is a list of the top-30 super foods based on the ANDI (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) scoring system:
- Collard, mustard, & turnip greens
- Bok choy
- Brussels sprouts
- Swiss chard
- Bean sprouts
- Red peppers
- Romaine lettuce
- Carrot juice
- Tomatoes & tomato products
- Pomegranate juice
- Brazil nuts
- Beans (all varieties)
- Seeds: flaxseed, sunflower, sesame
Sample Diet for the Overtrained Runner
Reading general nutritional advice can often be a little confusing. I’ve explained here how to eat yourself out of overtraining, but how does it all come together in a daily diet?
Below is a sample diet for the average runner fighting off overtraining. Note, you won’t see serving sizes because each person’s caloric needs are going to be different. However, you can use the calorie calculator for runners, as well as nutrition labels or nutrition tracking websites to tailor this diet specifically for you.
Wake-up: Whey protein shake (to stop nighttime anabolic process)
Breakfast 1: Oatmeal with berries (raspberry, blueberry, or blackberries) and wheat germ. Honey for taste.
Breakfast 2: Reduced fat Greek yogurt with fruit
Lunch: Grilled chicken sandwhich and small spinach salad with peppers, broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, tuna, and sunflower seeds. Use a small amount of olive oil or mandarin oranges for dressing if needed.
Midday snack: Oranges or handful of nuts (Brazilian, walnut, pistachio)
Dinner: Salmon with brown rice and asparagus
Nightime snack: Cottage cheese with strawberries.
Post-workout nutrition: Recovery drink or sports drink and an energy bar.
Mix and match some of your favorite fruits and vegetables with this sample meal plan, be sure to consume an extra 300-500 calories per day, and eat yourself back on track to feeling fresh, recovered, and ready to train hard.