The best fueling plan for endurance athletes
Stephanie Howe Violett has no use for diet fads.
“So many people are following media and social media trends,” says Violett, who received a master’s in exercise physiology at Montana State and her doctorate in nutrition at Oregon State. “To me, having a background in nutrition and knowing how to fuel for health and for sport, that is not the best way to eat.”
Diets, she says, can be too limiting.
“People think, ‘If I eat only certain foods, I am super healthy compared to if I allow myself to eat a more broad list of foods.’ Eating for lifelong health and performance is not about subscribing to a specific diet. Rather, it’s more important to think about food — what you eat — that is your diet. You can choose to eat what you want.”
Violett gives an example of going to eat at a Mexican restaurant and ordering tacos and wondering whether the chefs use chicken broth or vegetable broth in their rice. “To me that is just not looking at the big picture. The nutritional value, environmental impact and quality are no different in those two products. And even if they are slightly different, one is not better for your body than the other. I would love it if people would take a step back and not be so rigid about their eating and just ate food that made them feel good.”
Instead, she advocates eating real food — a diet focused on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and freshly caught fish and wild game — not processed food.
“Solely subscribing to a diet does not make you healthy,” she says. “I have some friends who are self-proclaimed ‘vegetarians’ who eat mostly processed foods like chips and bread. That is not a very nutritious diet, and is not healthier than someone who eats a variety of foods. Plant-based foods are very nutritious and should be a large part of everyone’s diet, but by just claiming to eat ‘vegetarian’ doesn’t automatically make your food intake sufficient. Focusing on real food, locally sourced real food, is the best way to be thinking about your diet. Anything that is not processed is a good start.”
‘Quantity and quality’ foods for all diets
Violett, of course, is a competitive ultra running athlete as well as an expert in nutrition. She has victories at Western States, Speedgoat 50K, Lake Sonoma, Bandera 100K and other races.
Recently I’ve poured over research, read various books about nutrition and diets, and weighed various options as to how I am going to fuel my body — from rest days to training to races and everything else.
There is a lot of information to — ahem — digest. So I called in an expert, Violett, to consult.
Since diets are individualized, Violett recommends that runners should track their food intake and then compare it to see what worked for good workouts, or what didn’t when GI distress occurred.
“It’s about both quantity and quality to me,” she says. “You can get poor quality food in any type of diet. Large manufacturing farms tend to not be of a very high quality. They also tend to be foods that Americans eat in high quantities.”
Violett recommends creating a template for the athlete’s specific sport of what nutrients are required, and from there focusing on foods that make the athlete feel good and perform well. Regardless of the specific foods, athletes should aim for 50-60 percent of total calories coming from carbohydrates.
“That’s going to look different for me versus someone else,” she says. “We do know that the majority of your diet should go toward carbohydrates because they are going to support high-intensity exercise, recovery and long-term health in general.”
Of course, the trick is to vary it, based on what your body needs in various training cycles.
“When you are coming in to a high volume of training or a race season, you want more carbohydrates,” Violett explains. “You are going to need it for more repair and more fueling. When you are in a down season, you don’t need quite as much. Instead of recommending athletes to not eat as much, I encourage them to eat more protein and fat during these times than at the time of a heavy recovery period.”
When it comes to race week and race day, the diet recommendations get even more specific.
“I tell people — and I do this myself — to shift into more digestible carbohydrates 48 hours leading into a race. I don’t recommend a lot of kale or cruciferous vegetables. Go for white rice or bananas. They are going to give you that energy and digest well. They are not going to sit in your stomach and cause GI distress.”
As we age, getting proper protein becomes even more important.
“The loss of muscle mass as you age is something that happens, becoming more mindful about getting more protein is important,” she says. “That said, most Americans get more protein than they need. You need to make sure that you are getting it on a regular basis. And it is possible to get it on a plant-based diet. You just need to be mindful of it.”
It’s tougher of course, for endurance athletes, especially when it comes to getting enough iron.
Violett herself has experienced low iron and ferritin. She combats this by eating red meat — hunted by her husband — a couple of times a week. “It’s helped me feel stronger in training cycles and helped keep my iron and my ferritin at reasonable levels.”
Besides elk meat, her other staples are nut butter and sweet potatoes. Her favorite nut butter varies, though “right now, I am on an almond butter kick. I make it myself with cinnamon or coconut. I eat it daily. It has good unsaturated fat.”
Violett respects those following plant-based diets but recommends they ensure that they are still getting enough macronutrients. Diversity in the gut is important, she says, adding that there are many sources for quality protein like lentils and beans.
“You have to be mindful of the quality of your food, and that goes for plant-based products, too,” she says. “Tofu is a great example. You can get tofu that is GMO and super processed. The quality really matters. You don’t want to get plant-based foods from anywhere.”
Those subscribing to a plant-based diet usually eat really healthy, focusing on vegetables, fruits and whole grains. However that can be too much of a good thing.
“It can overwhelm the gut so that those nutrients are not absorbed because there is just too much in there,” Violett says, recommending pairing high-quality protein with simple carbohydrates to aid digestion. “For example, pair beans with white rice, rather than brown rice. That will make it a lot easier on your gut, and likely more bioavailable to the body.”
So what does she eat?
Violett says that she eats everything that is food. “Processed food is not food. I wouldn’t eat Twinkies because that is not food. Or McDonald’s because I don’t consider that food.”
In addition to her plant-focused diet, Violett gets her fat from homemade ghee as well as avocados and olive oil. She doesn’t shy away from chocolate, wine or ice cream. While at home, the only animal protein she eats is the eggs from the chickens she raises with her husband or what he hunts or fishes.
And that’s a primary distinction in the meat they consume compared with what the average American eats. Their meat is wild salmon caught in Alaska, or elk and deer hunted in the Pacific Northwest.
“A lot of animal products are not good to eat in the quantity that Americans consume them,” she says. “If you are getting high-quality animal products, that isn’t as much of an issue. For example, compare animals that are raised without hormones, with those kept in a feed lot and eating grain to fatten them up. That makes a huge difference in the quality of the product.”
Advice for athletes
Oftentimes, athletes push themselves just as hard at mealtimes as they do during workouts. That can lead to eating disorders, which is challenging for coaches, parents, partners, friends and others to recognize and handle.
“It’s super tricky and I come across this a lot working with people,” Violett says. “A lot of times, the majority of times, someone has a diet they follow for restrictive reasons. So coaches, friends or parents can ask the reason behind it. Everyone has a different reason.”
She recommends asking open-ended questions to learn more about the reasons behind the diet and why the athlete is restricting certain foods. From there, a conversation can ensue.
“When people understand the dangers of restrictive eating for long-term health, even for performance, they start to really think about it,” she says. “It’s easy to ignore the impact on long-term health. But understanding how food can impact health is one way to really show why adequate calories and nutrients are crucial for the body to operate.“
Getting those with disordered eating to talk with a nutritionist is a great approach. “I work with a lot of people who have suboptimal relationships with food,” she says. “In addition, I make sure they are also addressing the psychological aspect. But learning about food, and developing a healthy relationship with eating is a huge step to overcoming some of these issues.”
She also says that young women — and men — with eating disorders should have healthy role models to emulate.
“Having role models who are realistic in how they approach food is very important. I don’t like glamorizing eating disorders. Instead, let’s focus on strong, healthy women who have good relationships with food. Let them be our role models.”
It’s easy for her to spot false nutritional statements hidden in popular diet labels.
For example, the keto diet or low-carb, high-fat diet. “They claim you can rely solely on fat as fuel while running, which is absolutely false,” Violett explains. “This has not been proven by science. Sports nutrition has come a long way, but there are no quick, short cuts to gaining health or a performance benefit.”
She says the brain needs a minimum of 130 grams of carbohydrates a day to stay alive. When it doesn’t get enough, it converts other forms of fuel to keytones, a substitute the brain can use when carbohydrates are not available. “It’s not a healthy, long-term solution. It’s just a means to keep the body alive.”
It comes down to making good choices and staying away from extremes, she concludes.
“I think everyone is a little bit different in how they need to fuel their body to feel good,” Violett says. “Within that, there are no extremes — if you cut out all of a certain nutrient, that’s not healthy. I would encourage people to feel it out, to explore different foods. Don’t be afraid to try things to find out what works for you. Just because a diet is trendy right now doesn’t mean it’s healthier or that it is going to be good for you. Just find your own diet, the one that is the best way to fuel for the long haul.”
Name: Stephanie Violett
Hometown: Bend, Ore.
Number of years running: 10
How many miles a week do you typically run: 80
Point of pride: I do many other sports, including nordic skiing, cycling, mountain biking, cyclocross, paddling, yoga, etc.
Favorite race distance: I like them all for different reasons!
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: An ocean roll from Sparrow Bakery.
Favorite piece of gear: My Nathan VaporHowe 4L pack. The new one is white and purple!
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I don't usually listen to music, but I like upbeat happy music.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Take chances.
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Website: stephaniehoweviolett.com
• Twitter: @StefanaMarie
• Instagram: Stephaniemarieviolett