For a number of long-distance runners, the idea of the perfect post-run meal isn’t one relating to leafy greens and vegetables. Instead, the mind conjures up images of heaped plates of pasta to lasagna, a burrito and the not-to-be-underestimated humble potato chip. Though these foods certainly aren’t bad in moderation, if you’re someone who believes they have free rein on their diet simply because of your exercise habit, you might want to reconsider. Without question, the morning 10km burns a significant amount of calories that need to be replenished for optimal functioning, but if simply logging miles is your excuse for stocking up the grocery cart with the kind of foods that would even have The Rock re-evaluating his Cheat Day meals, it’s time to take a harder look at the science.
Though runners tend to be healthier than the general population and typically have great cardiovascular health and lower rates of diabetes and heart disease, science suggests this isn’t simply due to running alone, but rather reflects a healthy diet. According to Sara Mahoney, Ph.D,., chair of department of exercise science at Bellarmine University, the fact that runners display such good health is often a consequence of the fact they take care of their bodies by eating well and resting, two things that are critical for longevity in the sport. But for those runners that still think they can eat what they want and live on doughnuts and burgers, running might mitigate the negative health effects of that lifestyle in the short-term. But over decades, exercise loses its protective abilities.
Runners World cites the example of longtime Boston marathon director Davce McGillivray, 63, who ran the Boston course every year and logged 90 to 120 miles a week in his heyday. Every year on his birthday, McGillivray even runs his age in miles. But just four years ago on what should have been a routine run, he began feeling short of breath and an angiogram revealed he had severe coronary artery disease. With a family history of chronic cardiac illness, McGillivray had also been eating like a teenager for most of his life. “As a runner, I just felt that if the furnace was hot enough, it would burn whatever you put in,” he told the publication. “So I would eat anything and everything I wanted.”
A recent survey of recreational runners found many follow McGillivray’s line of thinking, with 62 per cent responding that they don’t follow the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendations for nutrition, despite knowing about them. As McGillivray’s physician, Aaron Baggish, M.D., director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Massachusetts suggests, just because the number on the scale seems healthy, it doesn’t mean your diet isn’t doing serious damage on the inside. Overindulgence in sugar is one of the most common dietary transgressions made by endurance athletes, specifically runners. This can be found in white bread, white pasta, white rice and refined sugars. “Eat large portions of these, and the body turns them into bad molecules, bad types of fat, bad oxidative sugar species - things that do a lot of damage to the heart vessels,” explains Baggish.
The takeaway? You can’t outrun a bad diet. Well, you might in the short-term, but eventually it catches up to you as the damage from a bad diet can take a while to register and as Baggish notes, people don’t feel symptoms until the disease is already quite pronounced and progressed.