There are a lot of questions, myths and misconceptions out there when it comes to nutrition for trail running.
One of our main goals and missions at Vert.run is to demystify the sport of trail running and ultrarunning, and to open the door really wide and show you that you belong here too.
And one of the ways that we do that (in addition to our free training plans, affordable coaching and awesome community) is by making as much information as accessible as we can for you.
In this blog post, we’re going to walk through some FAQs that trail runners of all levels have about nutrition–and even if you’re an experienced veteran ultrarunner, there’s good info in here for you, too.
The format of this article is a transcript of a podcast episode from our popular trail running podcast “Running Long,” which is hosted by Vert.run coach Francesco Puppi.
In this blog post, Francesco (who lives in Italy) interviews Wilfredo Benitez, the founder of On Pace Wellness–a Portland, Oregon-based nutrition firm that specializes in serving endurance athletes and ultrarunners.
Note: the transcribed version here in this article is a little shorter than the podcast itself. If you want the full conversation (and want to get to know Fran and Will!) give the podcast a listen during your next long run or commute. It’s a great conversation and way to open your mind to new ideas and tips.
Francesco: Welcome! Today we have the chance to talk with Wilfredo Benitez from On Pace Wellness, a company based in Portland, Oregon that is focused on helping people optimize their nutrition to improve health, wellness and performance.
To start, can you tell us a little bit more about your company, On Pace Wellness?
Wilfredo: I started On Pace Wellness about five years ago. It’s primarily a one-on-one nutrition coaching practice. We welcome anyone who is looking to improve their health, achieve their goals, improve how they eat and their nutrition.
I work with a lot of athletes, and the majority are runners. I myself am a runner and have gotten into the world of trail and ultra running about 9-10 years ago after starting out as a road runner.
I enjoy working with runners and I love helping runners learn how to eat not only to stay healthy, but also to become better runners.
Francesco: Today we are going to focus on the topic of being balanced as athletes with our nutrition and to start, let’s explore the idea of a balanced diet and what that might look like.
Wilfredo: It’s such an important and foundational topic for athletes who want to train hard and recover well–a balanced diet is truly key.
So what does that mean?
What we are looking for when we say a balanced diet for trail runners is truly a good balance or ratio of the three main macronutrients which are carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
When we’re looking at our plate, a simple way to generally assess if we are eating a balanced diet is when we look at our plates or our bowls throughout the day. We don’t want to just have one main macronutrient carbs fat or protein identified on that plate, right?
If we’re looking at our plate, and 75% of it is basically carbs like rice and pastas and potatoes and breads, and really not too much else, then maybe we need to focus on getting more fats and proteins on the plate as well.
For trail runners, this ratio of macronutrients is different from just any other person. One thing I do when I work one-on-one with people is personalize this ratio based on their training and other factors.
That’s another thing I should mention–everyone’s macronutrients might look different and for each person they will fluctuate throughout the year based on your training load or off-season.
It is good to keep in mind that runners’ bodies love carbohydrates and use them as fuel so it is important to make sure you’re getting enough without going overboard.
You’ll want to make sure you’re still getting enough fat and enough proteins, because those are really important nutrients as well. This is the foundation of making sure that our nutrition is healthy, and it’s serving us as athletes.
Francesco: To me, the key word is balanced. As long as you’re in balance with your diet, with your training, with your health, and everything that is in your life–as long as it is sustainable, that is going to make you a better person and a better athlete.
Can you specify a bit further about how the ratio of macronutrients (carbs, fats and protein) changes over the different periods of your training?
Wilfredo: Your nutrition should be changing just as your training changes.
In the beginning, or maybe your base building phase where you’re building your foundational strength, you’re building your aerobic capacity, you might be working up to higher mileage but probably lower intensity.
With the lower intensity and higher volume, your nutrition is still going to be emphasizing carbohydrates, but there will be a little bit more fat in the diet. That is because during longer and lower intensity efforts, the body is burning and can tolerate fats a lot better, and it can use fats as energy a lot better.
That next phase, usually in the progression of training, we see more intensity coming in. Your running volume might stay the same, but you are kicking up the number of workouts and intensity and you’re seeing your heart rate climbing a lot more. In this phase, the body uses carbohydrates a lot more easily and more often for fuel than proteins or fats, so you’ll want to increase the amount of carbohydrates you consume to match that intensity and replenish the used carbohydrates from your efforts.
Francesco: Do these ratios of macronutrients need to be the same at every meal? Or for example, would you eat more proteins for dinner and more carbs for lunch? Does it change throughout the day or does it not matter?
Wilfredo: This is a great question with a complex answer.
It shouldn’t really matter as long as you’re getting all of that nutrition in, throughout the day. If you’re decently balancing all your meals then you should be okay, I don’t think you need to be that extreme to track exact ratios for every meal.
That being said, we also don’t want to be too extreme on the other side of the spectrum, right where you’re only getting one macronutrient at each meal.
What I like to see is some degree of balance throughout the day without getting too caught up in the details and making sure everything is perfect. When you eat in a balanced way, your body digests food better, and your energy and blood sugar will be more stabilized.
Francesco: How important is the quality of the food that we eat?
Wilfredo: This is a great question.
Sometimes you’ll hear people say, “a calorie is not a calorie is not a calorie”. And what that is saying is the source of the calories you eat really matters.
We have different sources of carbohydrates, for example, from fruits, different carbohydrate sources, such as grains, and the body metabolizes these nutrients differently.
What comes to mind when I think about this question is processed food vs. whole foods. Thinking about how processed the food you eat is is a very simple way to differentiate between quality nutrition and poor quality nutrition.
With processed food, we see high calorie options but not nutrient dense, which is not what we want to focus on eating. We want to see high nutrient density foods.
These are foods that we know are whole foods like grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, to some extent pastas and breads.
The more processed the food, the more energy it takes from the body to process it. In general, what we see is the more and more processed foods in people’s bodies and in people’s diets, the more tired their body is, the more it takes for the body to break down those foods.
Francesco: Can you give us some tips and general rules to plan our meals so that they are balanced, nutritious, and high quality?
Wilfredo: I will say a general rule of thumb, for people who are wanting to eat a more balanced diet, is to increase your fiber intake.
If you are increasing your fiber, you are only doing so by making sure that you’re eating higher quality foods that are rich in fiber and generally these are whole, healthier foods.
By eating more whole foods that are rich in fiber, you have less room for the process, sugary foods that throw your nutrition out of balance.
Another good tip is to use an app or simply take photos of your meals to see what you are eating regularly and try to focus on getting that good mix of all your macronutrients–carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
Francesco: Thank you. This is really helpful in remembering to keep it simple and balanced.
Wilfredo: One last quick tip I would add is to remember to keep a positive mental state around nutrition and instead of focusing on the things you should cut out or eat less of, focus on the good things you can add like more healthy, nutritious food to fuel your lifestyle as an athlete.
Francesco: Absolutely. I think having a healthy relationship with food is so important to focus on because it is way more sustainable. Food is deeply tied to emotions, traditions, and culture which is something that is really important.
Until next time, happy trails!