Runners by and large understand that food is fuel. They know that for energy and power and sustenance, they need calories and carbohydrates and protein. But that doesn't mean they are the patron saints of nutrition. Runner standbys like pasta dinners, peanut butter-slathered bagels and neon-colored sports drinks do not a balanced diet make.
In fact, says Liz Applegate, Ph.D., director of sports nutrition at the University of California Davis, with a little more attention to whole, real foods, runners don't have to rely on energy drinks, bars and gels at all.
We asked the experts to tell us what should be considered the staples of a runner's diet. And by runner, we mean you. Whether you're the once-around-the-block type or a decorated marathoner, check out the picks below. (And click here for more detailed info on how much you should be aiming to get of the essential nutrients discussed below.)
"Runners pretty much have it down that they need carbs, but the problem is getting quality carbs," says Applegate. Instead of loading up on spaghetti for energy, she swears by black rice. When compared to its cousins white and brown rice, black rice takes the cake with more vitamin E and antioxidants, Health magazine reported. Susan Kleiner, Ph.D., RD, sports nutritionist for USANA Health Sciences, votes for quinoa, which even her culinarily-challenged NFL clients can prepare easily, she jokes. In addition to providing those whole-grain carbs, quinoa is also a complete protein, since it contains all nine essential amino acids.
Whole grains in general are also higher in fiber than white breads and pastas, so they'll help you maintain a healthy gut. Just make sure to eat your most fibrous meals after you're done working out for the day, since fiber is harder to digest, says Applegate, and the body isn't meant to be digesting while exercising.
While it isn't for everyone, beef is an undeniably great source of protein -- which speeds muscle recovery and growth -- with about 20 to 25 grams per 3-ounce serving. (Vegetarians needn't fret, there are many more protein options below.) Applegate recommends lean beef especially to female runners, since it's also a great source of energy-boosting iron. Try it after your workout in a stir fry with bok choy, red cabbage, onion and carrots over black rice, she says, for a tasty dinner with lots of antioxidants that won't take long to prepare, either.
Meat eaters can also turn to pork and chicken for protein, although they do contain less, says Applegate. But they also boast zinc and a B vitamin called thiamine, which may help runners recover.
When it comes to protein, eggs reign supreme. A single, large hard-boiled delight packs 6 grams of protein, plus additional nutrients you won't get from any other protein sources, says Applegate.
One of those is choline, an often-overlooked B vitamin, says Kleiner. It plays a role in a key neurotransmitter in the brain that the body needs every single time you move, let alone run. Choline has also been linked to reduced inflammation, a plus for runners, and greater happiness!
Not only does it provide vegetarian protein, it's loaded with calcium. But yogurt's biggest benefit for runners is the live bacteria, which help keep your gut in top shape, says Applegate. Opt for low-fat plain, then add your own flavoring like fresh fruit and a little honey, she says. Eating some on the regular is essentially like training your digestive tract, she says; stocking up on the good bacteria can help keep bad bacteria out.
Kleiner calls almonds and other nuts sources of "healthy, high-performance fats". Olives, olive oil and avocado are also safe bets, just don't eat them too close to exercising, since fat slows digestion, she says. Almonds have the benefit of boasting a significant dose of vitamin E, important to runners for its immune-boosting powers. Believe it or not, that peanut butter on your banana may just be slowing you down -- and it's probably not providing as much protein as you might think, says Applegate.
Speaking of bananas, "nature's power bar" deserves its reputation in the fitness world. Bananas are loaded with potassium and rich in vitamins C and B6, as well as fiber, which gives them an edge over sports drinks when it comes to boosting performance and balancing electrolytes. Raisins pack some similar powers, says Applegate, who conducted a study that found that about an ounce of raisins provided the same amount of carbs as an energy gel during a long run and didn't upset runners' stomachs, either.
Kleiner suggests freezing bananas, then blending them into a smoothie for a texture closer to that of ice cream. "You'll feel like you're really eating something, but it still digests pretty quickly," she says.
Whether they're sweet or not, potatoes -- with the skin on -- are great sources of carbohydrates for runners, the experts say. They also pack some potassium and fiber and are loaded with antioxidants. Not to mention, they're pretty versatile -- instead of topping with melted butter, try adding your favorite protein source to your next baked potato, or try a sweet one with an egg, avocado and salsa, says Kleiner.
Runners should aim to get about 8 ounces of seafood a week, says Applegate. Fish is a great source of protein and also omega 3 fats, which we don't often get from other foods, she says. Canned salmon, which you can whip up like a tuna salad, is a convenient pick, she says. Plus, salmon is also a rich source of vitamin D, which is intricately involved in your mood. Getting enough of the sunshine vitamin means you'll have the energy and focus to get off the couch and go run, says Kleiner.
"I'm big on kale -- like everybody," says Applegate. It boasts folate, an important B vitamin for circulation for runners, antioxidants, vitamin K -- all for very few calories. She recommends starting a salad with a dark, leafy green base and then adding at least four other colorful veggies to the mix. You can't go wrong with any salad green, though, since most pack fiber, calcium, iron and vitamins A and C, among other good stuff.
While not exactly a food, fluids are paramount. Dehydration is one of the most common reasons people feel too sluggish to work out, says Kleiner. Casual runners can usually drink according to their thirst; endurance runners will want to replace fluids on more of a schedule. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends replacing liquids at a rate of a pint of fluids for every pound lost during a long workout.
Are you a runner? What foods do you swear by? Let us know in the comments below!