So many articles talk about tracking your food for a few days to check what you’re eating — but tracking your calories and macros is just the beginning. Athletes, and runners specifically, can gain important insights into their diet and performance by logging.
“A food journal is an excellent tool for any athlete,” says sports nutritionist Anne Guzman. “It’s a great way to get instant feedback on what you are actually consuming and relate that to the duration and intensity of your training plan. I find logging food has a bit of a halo effect, in that most people tend to eat better if someone is going to see their journal. If you are journaling for yourself, it can also be quite eye-opening, which is the whole idea. Next, it’s important that you know what to do with the information for your particular situation. Like with anything, data is only data until you know how to make it actionable.”
You’ve collected tons of valuable information — you just need to take the time to dig in. So what are the things a runner should take away from a week’s worth of food tracking?
If you’re using MyFitnessPal in conjunction with MapMyRun to log your training, you can see how many calories you burned during your daily workouts, as well as a calculation of your estimated caloric needs for the day. Look at the total calories you would need to break even — the number of calories burned running plus the number of calories your body needs to get through the day.
Now, look at what your total daily calories are, on average. Are you eating way more than you need? Way less? You should be aiming to get close to the total number of calories burned, even if you’re trying to lose weight. Going more than 500 calories under what you’ve burned in a day should be avoided.
MyFitnessPal has a great feature to show the break down of your food in terms of macros — fat, protein and carbohydrates. “That’s a big-picture view, which can help people make adjustments for protein, fat and carbohydrate needs,” says Guzman. “These tweaks can be powerful for improved energy, performance and health.”
Everyone has a different preference for percentages they eat of each, but for runners, in general, a good starting point is roughly 50% carbohydrates, 30% fat and 20% protein, says sports nutritionist Jordan Dube. For an athlete, protein is super important, even though it’s only 20% of your diet. Aim to get around 20 grams per meal, versus trying to cram it all in with a big steak at dinnertime, Dube adds.
In addition to tracking macros, track micronutrients to look for clues to improve your immune system, avoid cramping and keep your body running smoothly. Look at whether you’re getting enough iron, calcium, essential fats and vitamin D, suggests Guzman.
With MyFitnessPal, you can also track water intake — as well as things like coffee and booze. Look at the last week and see what your water-to-coffee ratio was, and if you’re getting enough water on a daily basis. It’s pretty enlightening — and often somewhat depressing — to see how much you’re really drinking — or not drinking.
FUEL AND PERFORMANCE PATTERNS
If you’re prone to stomach cramps or other gastric distress, it might be time to look at your food log and see if you’re eating something specific before your run, like a fat-heavy lunch, that might be causing your problems. Look for patterns and see what emerges. As for your post-run recovery, this is a great time to look back and see if, in general, you’re getting some carbs and protein into your system shortly after most workouts for optimal recovery.
If you tracked your food intake properly, hopefully you also made some notes about how you felt while eating and after. When your week of tracking is over, you should be able to look back and notice any patterns around what you ate and how you felt. For example: Did you note that anytime you ate garlic, you felt gassy? If so, it might be a clue to skip the extra garlic.
JUNK FOOD VS. CLEAN EATS
Your diet doesn’t need to be perfect by any means. But a week of logging can give you great insight into whether you’re going off the rails more often than not, or if you’re generally making good choices and only indulging occasionally. You want to aim for a balance that makes eating feel satisfying and fun, while fulfilling your nutritional needs as a runner — not an exercise in deprivation. Nutritionist and researcher Nanci Guest believes wholeheartedly in the 80:20 rule when it comes to eating, and believes this approach works for the health and sanity of an athlete hoping to improve performance. (Note: When you hit the elite level, the ratio should shift closer to 95:5, but 80:20 will get you most of the way.)
“If you are unsure about any of this, this would be a good time to hire an RD or sports nutritionist to help with next steps,” says Guzman.
The first thing most nutritionists want new clients to do is to create a food log, and since you’ve already done that, you’ll be able to dig into your data and get some expert takeaways.