The Best Diets for Runners, According to Dietitians
For the past 13 years, U.S. News & World Report has rounded up a panel of dozens of health and nutrition experts to help rank popular diets in several categories. This year, in addition to the best overall, best for heart health, best for weight loss and more, their annual best diets report introduced two new categories: best diets for bone and joint health and the best family-friendly diets. The Mediterranean diet reigned supreme or ranked near the top of every category, and the DASH diet, flexitarian diet, and MIND diet all put up a strong showing across the board, too.
But what about the best diet for runners? Because that’s not a category (yet), we tapped our own panel of pros to help us determine what qualities are — and aren’t — included in the best diets for runners. Read on to find out the main points of a balanced eating plan and how to determine if your diet is serving you or if it’s one you should run away from.”
“Food is supposed to be nourishing, first and foremost, so your eating plan should leave you feeling satisfied and energised.
The answer is simple: The best eating plan is one that fits your lifestyle. Look for an eating style that you could adhere to for the foreseeable future, says Julie Upton, a registered dietitian and co-founder of the nutrition news company Appetite for Health
“Your eating plan should meet your emotional and physical needs,” adds Lauren Harris-Pincus , a registered dietitian and founder of NutritionStarringYOU.com, and author of The Everything Easy Pre-Diabetes Cookbook.
Before starting a new strategy, ask yourself:
- Does this mesh with my medical nutritional needs?
- Does this align with my ethics and morals?
- Can I find ways to stick to this plan that match my taste and cultural preferences?
- Does this include carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats — all of the essential macronutrients?
- Is this eating style possible within my financial means, access to food and any travel?
- If I don’t live solo, can I make this part of my household’s lifestyle?
- Do I have the cooking ability and time to stick with this plan long-term?
“Food is supposed to be nourishing, first and foremost, so your eating plan should leave you feeling satisfied and energised. My top diet choices ensure your body is getting all the essential nutrients it needs, as well as allowing a bit of flexibility for fun within an overall balanced eating plan. Let’s remember, runners may be regimented, but they’re not robots,” Largeman-Roth says.
While some people do take up running with a goal to lose weight, “trying to train while restricting kilojoules is not a recipe for success,” Largeman-Roth continues. (ICYMI, here’s how it feels to run on a calorie deficit. Spoiler: not great.)
Finally, when thinking about healthy eating more holistically, consider these general guidelines:
- Limit ultra-processed foods
- Aim to get your fill of fibre, fruits, and vegetables
- Steer clear of any diets that call for speciality products or branded snacks or meals
- Consume enough kilojoules to fuel performance and keep energy levels stoked
- Include a mix of all three macronutrients: fat, carbs and protein
The Best Diets for Runners
Ranked by Harris-Pincus, Upton, and Largeman-Roth, these diets all allow for enough flexibility and kilojoules to adequately fuel for exercise and recovery. They also include seafood, which is “a great source of protein that also offers essential vitamins and nutrients your body can’t make on its own,” Largeman-Roth says. And they feature a mix of fruits and vegetables, “which not only provide vitamins and nutrients but also contribute to an individual’s overall hydration —another important factor for runners,” she adds.)
1. Mediterranean Diet
“It’s no surprise that the Mediterranean diet tops the list, although it’s more a pattern of eating than a diet,” Harris-Pincus says—and that’s part of what makes it such an awesome option. It offers flexibility to adjust portion sizes and kilojoule intake to meet your needs, she adds.
Going Med involves eating primarily plant-based, with fish at least two times per week and smaller portions of poultry and dairy sprinkled in, with red meat on more rare occasions. Carbs are most definitely allowed, especially whole grains, and it allows for moderate amounts of wine, if that’s something you enjoy.
“The foods in the Mediterranean diet can help keep inflammation in check to help hasten recovery,” Upton says.
2. Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension a.k.a. DASH Diet
Originally designed to help lower or maintain a healthy blood pressure, this eating style emphasizes foods rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, and fibre — all of which can also benefit runners, Largeman-Roth says. It’s similar to the Mediterranean diet, just with a keen eye on sodium consumption.
“Runners with hypertension or a strong family history can consider implementing this type of sustainable diet [into their lifestyle],” Harris-Pincus says. Athletes without those concerns can supplement with higher-electrolyte foods and drinks on intense training days, when you need the sodium.
3. Flexitarian Diet
Registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner coined the term “flexitarian” in 2009 to act as a mash-up of flexible and vegetarian, “and this lifestyle is a fantastic way to encourage the addition of more plant foods without completely eliminating animal foods,” Harris-Pincus says.
Going flexitarian involves eating a mainly plant-based diet, with the option to include meat, poultry, seafoo, and dairy every so often. Jackson Blatner endorses a mix of kilojoules from carbs, protein and fat, and because it has few hard and fast rules, “many runners will be able to stick with it for a long time,” Upton says. Plus, the eating style is linked to reduced risk for chronic diseases, including heart disease, certain cancers, and type 2 diabetes, she adds.
“This flexible eating pattern lets you include some animal protein, like eggs and chicken, which means you’re never missing out on important nutrients like iron, vitamin B12, and choline — all of which are extra important for female runners,” Largeman-Roth says.
4. MIND Diet
MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, and it’s essentially a combo platter of the DASH and Mediterranean diets. This strategy is not originally designed for athletes, but is still “a great all-around eating plan for runners as it focuses on plant-based foods, fish and anti-inflammatory foods,” Upton says. The original goal? Eat in a way that reduces risk for dementia—certainly not a bad bonus.
The MIND diet emphasizes leafy greens, berries, beans, whole grains, nuts, olive oil, poultry, and fish, and advises going light on red meat, sweets, and cheese, Harris-Pincus explains.
“This is a balanced diet approach for runners, particularly those with a family history of Alzheimer’s or dementia,” Harris-Pincus continues.
5. Dr Weil’s Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Running and other forms of exercise can cause inflammation in the body, Largeman-Roth says, so eating a diet rich in foods that tame that flame can be a boon for both recovery and long-term health. To diversify vitamin and mineral consumption, variety is the name of the game for this diet, according to Dr Andrew Weil, director of the Andrew Weil Centre for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona and creator of this eating plan.
Fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, fish and seafood, unsaturated fats and whole grains get top billing. Dr Weil suggests steering clear of ultra-processed and fast foods, and promotes consuming about 40 to 50% of your kilojoules from carbs, 30% from fat and 20 to 30% from protein.
“This is a great ratio of carbs, protein and fat for runners,” Upton says. Also, because it’s based on a daily intake of about 5000 to 10 000 kilojoules (depending on your gender, size, and activity level) it’s not as restrictive as many of the crash diets floating around social media.
No matter how much you run, certain eating strategies are always going to be a wise choice for your health and longevity. A review published February 2020 in the journal Nutrients confirms that these eating plans are all scientifically proven to reduce risk for chronic diseases, including heart disease and certain types of cancer:
- Mediterranean Diet
- DASH Diet
- MIND Diet
- Nordic Diet
- Traditional Asian Diets
How to Tell if a Diet Is a Good Match For You
Humans are not robots, and as such, we’re never going to stick to an eating plan’s pyramid, plate, or other formatted recommendations perfectly. For a diet to “work” for you and your lifestyle, it should be something you can adhere to about 80% of the time, Harris-Pincus says. Allow for flexibility for other 20% — when you enjoy foods outside of your eating plan.
These are some possible signs a diet isn’t working for you, according to the dietitians we spoke to:
- You’re feeling hungry or tired all the time.
- You’re obsessing about food all day long—that likely means you’re not eating enough to sustain and satisfy you.
- You’re bonking during runs—a sign the plan may not be allowing enough carbohydrates to adequately refuel glycogen stores.
- You’re bored or feeling overly restricted by your menu. A healthy and sustainable eating pattern should allow you to sprinkle in foods you enjoy without being a “failure” or being “off plan.”
- You’re having to go out of your way to stock up on loads of speciality foods that you wouldn’t normally gravitate toward or that are draining your budget.
- You’re noticing slower postworkout recovery.
- You’re not sleeping well.
The Bottom Line on the Best Diet for Runners
There’s no one “perfect” diet for runners, but if you’re looking for a way to eat healthier and enjoy following a plan, this list offers a wide range of options and enough flexibility to customise and meet your nutritional needs and personal preferences.
Runners need to take special care to avoid restriction before, during, and after a workout, as a strong run requires sufficient gas in the tank (a.k.a. fuel in form of kilojoules). In general, you also need sufficient calories to avoid more serious issues like RED-S, or relative energy deficiency in sport, which is defined by a lack of period, low energy availability, and bone-loss, and stems from inadequate energy intake compared to what you expend.
Beyond eating enough to fuel your running, feel free to choose the eating plan that jives best with your energy levels and personal preferences. “Each body is unique and your diet should be too,” Harris-Pincus says. “If you’re feeling confused or conflicted, consult a registered dietitian who can help customize your diet to keep you optimally fueled for your best athletic performance and overall health.”