We often think of the new year as a clean slate and blank canvas of opportunity. That opportunity is often disguised in things we shouldn’t be doing or eating, making us feel that we “should” know better and therefore do better. But this negative outlook could be setting us up for failure before we even begin. What if we took a more positive approach to the new year, and instead exclusively focused on things we could add to our diet and lifestyle?
Bring On The Fiber
While we could all probably stand to eat less added sugars, what if we focused on adding more fiber-rich fruits, vegetables and whole grains into our diets? By eating more fiber-rich foods and complex carbohydrates, we will likely be naturally displacing some simple carbohydrates and added sugar sources.
While meats can certainly be an important part of a runner’s diet (for protein, iron, B vitamins and other nutrients), most of us could stand to eat more plant-based foods and fiber. In fact, fiber is one nutrient that most Americans don’t consume enough. Fiber helps with satiety, stabilizing blood sugar, digestion and regularity, and can even boost heart health by lowering cholesterol. Eating more plant-based foods (like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes) can reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases. Increasing the amount of fiber in your diet can be as easy as swapping the white bread you use to make your post-run sandwich for wheat bread.
Antioxidants are substances that can delay or prevent cell damage and are naturally found in fruits, vegetables, coffee and tea. By neutralizing the free radicals that our bodies are exposed to, antioxidants can help decrease inflammation, enhance recovery and enhance performance. Tart cherries, for example, are rich in polyphenols and antioxidants and have been studied for their ability to reduce muscle soreness and inflammation. In a study of elite male athletes competing in intermittent sprint activity, the group supplementing with tart cherry juice experienced less muscle soreness and inflammation, as well as faster performances, compared to the control group.
Optimize Post-Run Nutrition
With the hectic lives we lead, it’s common to occasionally skip that post-run meal or snack—or at least to not optimize its nutritional potential. Eating a proper combination of protein and carbohydrates after a workout can help repair muscle and synthesize new muscle, stabilize blood sugar, improve recovery and prevent an overactive appetite later. Some great options include a turkey or egg sandwich, yogurt with fruit, chocolate milk or a smoothie made with whey or soy protein. While warm soup can be a great option for hydration and electrolytes, it often lacks protein. However, opting for bone broth instead can add some necessary vitamins and protein, and may have an anti-inflammatory effect.
Stop Skimping On Sleep
While we all know sleep is essential, its importance can’t be minimized, especially for runners and athletes. Sleep is the time when our muscles, brains and bodies repair. Whether you’re preparing for a hard workout or recovering from one, sleep is an absolute necessity for your training and recovery plan.
Skimping on sleep can lead to depression, poor cognitive function, cravings and imbalanced hunger hormones, an inability to focus, poor recovery, higher injury rates and more. Aim for at least seven hours a night consistently and see how you feel. To improve your sleep health, put the screens and technology away before bed. Try gradually moving your bedtime up and keeping your bedroom on the cooler side (65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit is the ideal temperature for sleep).
It’s common to think about your next race or speed workout, but it’s also important to balance running with other forms of exercise to strengthen and improve different muscle groups. Cross-training can help prevent overuse injuries, such as tendinitis, runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis and shin splits. Including a variety of high-impact and low-impact exercises in your workout routine can strengthen other muscle groups and prevent burnout while making you a stronger and more efficient runner.
Prioritize Rest Days
Just as cross-training plays an important role in a runner’s regimen, rest days cannot be overlooked, either. Since running results in muscle and tissue breakdown, adequate rest and recovery is what primes the body to come back for subsequent runs and workouts. Rest days not only allow physical rest but mental rest, as well. Giving your mind a break from the rigors of training can be freeing and necessary to help you come back stronger and more motivated.
Pay Attention To Probiotics
We are just beginning to understand the health benefits associated with our gut bacteria. The research on probiotics is just in its infancy, and there is a lot more to be learned; however, we do know that 70 to 80 percent of the body’s immune system resides in the digestive tract. Ensuring that you have a healthy digestive tract can aid in boosting immunity. Probiotics also offer many other health benefits, including managing anxiety and improving mood.
To increase your probiotic intake, consider adding more fermented foods to your diet. Onions, cabbage, garlic, asparagus, tempeh and yogurt all have live probiotic strains, as do some newer food options like chips, protein powders and drink mixes (the last two of which can be easily tossed into a smoothie). Need another reason to consume more probiotics? Many probiotic-rich foods also offer other nutrients, like fiber, micronutrients and protein!
In short, the new year can be a wonderful time to check in with your body and set new goals. Health doesn’t have to mean elimination—making positive lifestyle changes is a great way to keep a healthy mindset and support your daily and athletic pursuits year-round.
Sarah Schlichter, M.P.H., R.D.N., L.D.N., is a registered dietitian and marathon runner based in Charlotte, N.C. She works as a nutrition consultant and in private practice, where she writes the blog, Bucket List Tummy, sharing nutrition posts, healthy recipes, running tips and everything on her bucket list.