Runners can have complicated relationships with food. Everyone seems to have a different opinion about what diet is best, and we live in a culture that simultaneously celebrates and fears food.
In an effort to achieve what many runners think is the ideal body type—lighter equals faster—runners sometimes turn to disordered eating habits.
Magda Boulet, a professional ultrarunner and 2008 USA Olympic Marathon Team member, sees food and nutrition as a “powerful tool” for longevity in the sport. Now the vice president for research and development at GU Energy Labs, Boulet leads the company’s quest into creating the best nutrition products for runners.
“Runners need to see food as a powerful tool to stay in the sport for a long time and do it the right way,” she says. “Get up close and personal with your food and what you put in your body. It’s critical. It will allow you to feel better and stay in the sport by staying consistent and healthy, and you will have a lot more fun by getting to know the options that are out there and how much food can do for you.”
We talked with Boulet to learn more about nutrition for endurance athletes, how she fuels for the ultramarathon distance, and what it means to have a healthy relationship with food.
Herewith, our interview:
What does nutrition mean to you?
I see daily nutrition as the foundation and key to athletic performance, overall health and longevity as a runner and human being. I care deeply about what I put in my body because what we eat really matters.
My nutrition provides me nutrients to support the demand I put on my body. It depends on what I’m training for, but I focus on nutrition for energy levels throughout the day, to keep mentally sharp, keep my immune system healthy so I can stay consistent, and to help me recover. I’m fortunate that I have a good relationship with food. I grew up in a household where we cooked together and sat together as a family. I try to instill that into my family now.
Food can be very powerful and beautiful. It’s really all about getting people together at the end of the day and sitting at the dinner table. That’s the foundation. Healthy food makes me feel really good and I love sharing it with people in my life.
What do you eat before an important workout, and why?
Something light, higher in carbs, easily digestible and available for you during the workout is the strategy for me. Instant oats are easily digestible. Maple syrup or nut butter is a great meal. Once you get into the training session, continue with hydration. This allows your source of food to digest faster, and you maintain a good hydration level. Try toast with nut butter and jam or a stroopwafel with nut butter. Focus on carbs and sugars. Give yourself time to digest, so it’s available when you go out for a run.
Nutrient timing is extremely important, too. When you eat, what you eat, and in what amount. I focus on eliminating high fat, high protein and fiber close to workouts so I can have a productive session. With a high intake of fat, it takes higher effort to digest those. So, increasing carb intake before a workout is key for me. In terms of fiber, it takes longer to break down and forces you to use the bathroom sooner. Eliminate fiber before a workout, and that will lead to a more successful session. Only consume nutrients that will support a given training session.
Then, you increase consumption of fat, protein and fiber for the rest of the day following the workout. It really means that on certain days when you train at a high intensity and high volume, you eat a lot more. Focus on supporting those days. On rest days, the demand on your body is a lot less, so I eat less. It’s about tailoring nutrition to the demand put on the body that day.
How do you know if you’re getting enough calories while training?
I don’t count calories. I focus on training as my top priority. So on heavy load days when I have a long run or double sessions, I eat a lot more on those days. I focus on getting a ton of plants in my diet. Whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruit. Healthy fat, like olive oil, olives, avocado, and a lot of fermented foods. On those days I eat more because I’m hungry.
When I run 20 mile days, I eat frequently throughout the day to promote recovery and muscle repair, but I don’t count calories. I just go by how hungry I am. I don’t stress so much on rest days. I tend to be less hungry. I’m not as deliberate about eating every few hours. I listen to my body.
My number one priority is to get a lot of vegetables and good grains. I love to cook, so that’s part of the joy of looking for meals that will support the demand that I put on my body every day. I make it fun.
People say that you shouldn’t use food as a reward-- that it creates an unhealthy relationship with food. What do you say about that?
There’s this philosophy of, “I did a hard workout, and now I can reward myself with bad food.” Don’t do it. It’s not worth it. There are so many great and healthy indulgent foods that you can make. But if you put junk food in your body, it’s junk in, junk out. In the long run it’s not worth it for your overall health.
If you want to be in the sport for a long time—and I do; I want to still be doing this fifty years from now and still moving on the beautiful trails—you must really care about what you put in your body.
What is your approach to recovery? Do you do something special to celebrate all the training?
Recovery is important, and we often don’t talk about it enough. Start with a recovery drink. Focus on carbs and electrolytes with 20 grams of protein. That’s my go-to combination immediately after a big workout and after a race. Slowly my stomach warms up to eat real food. It’s important to focus on high carbs and good protein and fat.
I'm a vegetarian, so I eat a lot of tofu and legumes and occasionally fish and eggs but still continue on the trend of lots of plants. I love grain bowls. That’s one of my favorites. You can fill up a bowl with whatever grain you prefer and mix in lots of vegetables and protein. I add avocados and salt. I crave salt. Definitely, with all the sweating you do, you lose sodium through sweat. So, replacing that throughout the day by salting my food is key.
Training for an ultra race takes four to five months to responsibly prepare. I see the race as the celebration of the training that I do. It’s not something I have to do. I get to do it because I trained so hard for it. It takes the pressure off. After an ultra race, I take two weeks of complete disconnect from structured training.