Let’s cut to the chase: nutrition is a key part of your training and can have a huge impact on your performance as a runner. You need to fuel your body with nutrient-dense foods that fuel your runs and also help you recover from them, so you can clock those miles with adequate energy stores to support you. But, with so many food options to tempt you, it can be difficult to know what to eat to support your individual training needs.
That’s where the Mediterranean diet can help – an often-recommended eating plan that’s ranked as the best overall diet for the seventh year in a row. US News and World Report. With this in mind, could the Mediterranean diet be your gateway to improved health and improved running performance?
We spoke with Marisa Moore, a culinary and integrative dietitian, and Lori Russell, a pediatric dietitian at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to provide some answers.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
As it turns out, the Mediterranean diet is not a strict food-specific ‘diet’ that you try for a short period of time to achieve immediate health goals. Instead, it incorporates a broad compass of foods and is intended to be more of a lifestyle – a longer-term change in your eating habits.
‘Consistent with popular belief, there is no one Mediterranean diet,’ says Moore. ‘Instead, this way of eating incorporates the foods from the Mediterranean region including countries from Spain to Greece to Tunisia, for example.’
Apart from food, this lifestyle includes plenty of physical activity and – yes – a moderate intake of wine.
Why is the Mediterranean diet considered so healthy?
In a 2022 review of clinical trials published in the journal Nutrients, researchers have found that the Mediterranean diet can be very beneficial in fighting cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease and cancer. According to the researchers, this is likely due to the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of the diet.
Many other studies show that the Mediterranean diet can have a positive effect on your heart health and cognitive function, improve the aging process and reduce your risk of hearing loss and depression. According to Russell, eating the Mediterranean way may also help lower your risk or progression of diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and type 2 diabetes.
What foods can you eat on the Mediterranean diet?
The basic concept of the Mediterranean diet is to limit heavily processed foods, red meat and refined grains. Moore encourages her clients to eat a variety of whole foods instead.
For those looking to start a Mediterranean diet, or eating healthier in general, Moore recommends first adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet, which offer plenty of fiber and antioxidants. These can be fresh or frozen – whatever you have access to.
Then maybe try different types of seafood. Sardines, for example, are cheap and packed with omega-3 fatty acids. If sardines don’t suit your palette well, you can try salmon.
For an energizing, sweet and crunchy snack, Moore then recommends eating almond-filled dates. The almonds provide a delicious dose of mono- and polyunsaturated fats, as well as plant protein and fiber for lasting energy and satisfying snacking. In fact, all the nuts, seeds and olive oil – the same on the Mediterranean diet – can add more good fats.
How can the Mediterranean diet benefit runners?
The Mediterranean diet is full of energy-giving carbohydrates, which runners rely on as their main source of fuel. It’s also accessible and tasty, and doesn’t involve any strict calorie restrictions.
‘The biggest benefit is heart health and the cardiovascular system as a whole [of the Mediterranean diet] for athletes,’ says Russell.
In addition, thanks to the high amount of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants it provides, the Mediterranean diet may increase your physical endurance and mental toughness when running – which is especially advantageous when you trying to keep your head in the game during races. or hard training sessions. Russell says the high antioxidant content may also help speed up your post-run recovery.
A 2023 study published in Nutrition Research and Practice adds to this list of benefits. The research analyzed the performance of 15 professional male athletes, aged between 13 and 18, who followed the Mediterranean diet for 15 days. At the end of the ‘diet’ period, the athletes had shown improvement across a range of skills, including vertical jump, hand grip strength and shuttle running, and their level of perceived fatigue had also decreased over time. Therefore, the researchers concluded that the Mediterranean diet is a reliable and safe way for athletes, including runners, to boost their aerobic performance and strength.
Does the Mediterranean diet work for everyone?
For most people, eating the Mediterranean way is a suitable lifestyle choice, as it can be easily adapted to suit any dietary preference. If, for example, you are plant-based, or gluten-free or dairy-free, you can still reap the health rewards and enjoy the delicious flavors of the Mediterranean diet.
That said, Russell believes that people with rare metabolic diseases or epilepsy may benefit more from a different therapeutic diet. And while the Mediterranean diet is a very flexible choice, everyone should still consider whether it is suitable for their lifestyle, energy and nutritional needs.