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Runner Talk: Are You Sabotaging Your Training with Your Diet?

Diet and exercise go hand in hand, and how well you eat can make or break your fitness goals. This is especially important if your primary activity is running. Whether you’re running to lose weight or training to set a new personal record, too many (or even too few) calories can take you off your pace. Dawn Holmes, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, sports dietitian for the OhioHealth Sports Medicine Runner’s Clinic, explains how runners can sabotage their training by not eating well, and how to fuel your fitness to achieve results.

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Eating right to improve performance

Holmes explains that the average person needs about 1,800-2,000 calories a day to support life (thinking, breathing, pumping blood) and daily routines. “Intentional exercise like walking, running strength training and yoga requires additional calories. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ physical activity guidelines recommend 150-300 minutes of moderate activity per week, which breaks out to 30 minutes five times a week.”

At the runner’s clinic, Holmes says she works primarily with people who are preparing for long-distance runs, like half marathons or full marathons (13.1 miles and 26.2 miles, respectively). “Most of these runners are putting in four running sessions a week – three half-hour to hour-long runs, with a distance run on the weekend.”

Holmes suggests adding about 70-100 calories per mile to your daily intake, depending on your average running pace, to compensate for the fuel you burn during long-distance training, which may seem like a lot to people who are calorie-conscious. “But an issue I often see is under-fueling, people who are not eating enough to support their training, sometimes not even enough to support day-to-day activity.”

She says if you don’t replace the calories you burn, your body’s systems can begin slowing down in an effort to hang on to what little calories you’re providing. “You’ll begin to feel fatigued in your runs, and your recovery will slow. It can affect your reproductive system, menstrual cycles, testosterone levels and metabolism, even your cognition.”

“Without enough energy in your diet, your body begins burning muscle as a fuel source, which works against your goals.”

“But when we increase calories, you get better moods, better workouts and better body composition changes,” adds Holmes. “A lot of runners are initially uncomfortable with the idea of increasing their carbohydrate intake, but the research is well-established.”

Holmes covers nutrition with runners as part of their multidisciplinary clinic visit. “We discuss how to eat when training and focus on balancing day-to-day eating, getting the right mix of macronutrients – carbs, proteins and fats – and how to pair them up in meals and snacks. Hydration is also an essential component. If you apply proper nutrition and hydration before, during and after your race, you’re going to have a much better experience.”

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Eating right to lose weight

If the goal of your training is to shed some pounds, you still need to focus on the quantity and quality of calories you’re getting, but the strategy is slightly different.

“A lot of people who want to lose weight start using calorie tracking apps, but they often start you off with a daily intake goal that’s too low,” says Holmes. “If you’re cutting calories too severely, you’re cranky, hungry and thinking about food all the time.”

“The trick to losing weight is not to just cut calories through diet alone, but rather to build a calorie deficit by combining exercise with healthy diet changes.”


To determine the right daily calorie intake for patients seeking to effectively lose weight, Holmes uses the Harris-Benedict equation, a formula for determining your basal (or resting) metabolic rate that was developed in 1919 (Happy 100th anniversary)! The equation uses your height, weight, age, gender and currently activity level to find the number of calories you need to maintain your current weight. From there, she can work with patients to find a calorie threshold and exercise routine that works for them.

Here’s how it works. For our example, we chose a 34-year-old woman who is 5 feet, 4 inches tall, weighs 155 pounds, and wants to begin running three times a week to lose weight. (If you want to try this yourself, you can use this online metabolic calculator ). “Her basal metabolic rate, or BMR, is 1,454 calories, but that’s just for normal function of her body’s systems. For daily activity, her daily calorie needs would be 1,745 calories to maintain her weight.”

Holmes says she then adjust the equation to see how many calories this patient would need to accommodate her intended workout regimen, which would be around 2,300 calories. “But what we do is keep her at around 1,800. That way she’s working at a deficit and will begin losing weight, but is still getting enough calories to feel good during the day and during her workouts.”

One more tip Holmes recommends to runners trying to lose weight is to watch rewarding your workouts with food. “It can be easy to convince yourself you’ve earned a treat because you completed a workout, but you can quickly cancel out your efforts by overindulging. Keep your eye on your goal!”

Whether you want to lose minutes from your times, or inches from your waist, if running is your sport, the OhioHealth Runner’s Clinic can keep you healthy and focused on your goals.

Give them a call at (614) 566-1RUN.

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