Watch any elite running race and you will notice a number of common features amongst the best of the best. Top runners are confident, have impeccable technique, and they are lean. Distance runners tend to be lean and light with a lower muscle mass, while sprinters at the other end of the spectrum are lean, but also muscular to produce high-intensity effort over short distances. Genetics play a part, and athletes that are naturally a certain build or body type may be more likely to succeed in events that suite their make-up. For many athletes however, specific training and nutrition strategies can refine body composition further for performances beyond genetic ability.
Why so lean?
Whether you run for speed or stamina, body composition is a key factor when it comes to performance and leanness is a goal of many runners. Lower body fat levels means there is less extra weight to carry around which can help performance, particularly when you need to keep your body moving over a long distance and over hills. Sprinters also benefit from reduced body fat levels, as this leads to improved power: weight ratio and speed.
Achieving a good balance between nutrition for fueling and recovery, and for reducing body fat can be a challenge. It can be a fine line between eating enough for training but not too much that will impact on body composition goals. It’s no surprise that runners can develop a pattern of not eating enough, and this can lead to poor physical and mental health and performance. Being lean may be important but shouldn’t come at the expense of being well nourished.
Every runner is different, but healthy functioning muscle is pretty important for running performance. Sprinters may more obviously have a higher muscle mass, but well-recovered muscle is critical for endurance athletes. In fact, distance runners can need just as much, if not more, protein compared to a well-trained sprinter. It’s amazing how much muscle damage pounding the pavement can do.
Tips for running lean
There is no one running diet that will suit everyone, however here are some tips to get you started:
- Plan food around training so that a meal or snack becomes your recovery food, rather than adding in an extra snack or meal post-run.
- Protein intake should generally remain pretty stable, but carbohydrate can be adjusted according to training and body composition goals.
- No need to go fat-free, include some healthy fats from avocado, nuts, fish, olive oil.
- Increase the proportion of vegetables in meals.
- Don’t cut food intake down too much or you risk losing muscle mass and poor performance.
- Skinfold measurements or a DEXA scan will provide feedback on changes in body fat vs muscle to help target your nutrition and training goals.
If you are finding it hard to co-ordinate your nutrition and body composition goals, or would like to accurately measure and monitor body fat levels, our Accredited Sports Dietitian Lisa Middleton can help.