A Runner’s Guide to Fruits and Vegetables

What you eat is just as important as how hard you train. Here we will focus on the importance of fruits and vegetables to a runner's diet.

Crate of fruits and vegetables
Fruit and vegetables

If you ever heard the common phrase, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, it is for good reason; fruits and vegetables are an essential part of an overall healthy diet because of all of the nutrients they provide. However, very few Americans eat the recommended daily amount of fruits and vegetables. For endurance athletes, this need increases even more. Extra energy requirements of runners also means that they need extra calories, vitamins and minerals so their body can support activity demands and recovery. To make sure you are running your best, check out why eating fruits and vegetables are essential for peak performance.

Why fruits and vegetables?

Every day, our bodies work to keep us moving, breathing and healthy. The fruits and vegetables we eat provide us with the essential nutrients we need to promote healthy development, disease prevention, and overall well being. These essential nutrients include both macronutrients such as carbohydrates and micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Micronutrients, although only needed in minimal amounts, are essential because the body does not produce them on their own and we must get them through our diet (1). Many fruits and vegetables are naturally lower in fat and calories and are important sources of vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber (2). Eating a well-balanced diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables may lower your risk for disease such as heart disease and certain types of cancers. 

So we know that eating fruits and vegetables is good for everyone, but what makes them especially important for runners?

Naturally occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables can provide short term energy. Runners require fuel, mainly in the form of carbohydrates, to give them energy and keep them going. There are two categories of carbohydrates: simple (fast) carbohydrates or complex (slow) carbohydrates. These carbohydrates are identified by how quickly they are broken down by the body and taken up by cells to use as energy. Complex carbohydrates are referred to as such because they are broken down slower in the body, supplying a slow and steady supply of energy (as glucose) into the bloodstream (3). Simple carbohydrates, such as those found naturally in some fruits and vegetables, are broken down more quickly and send quick bursts of energy (as glucose) into the bloodstream (3). Fruits and vegetables can be beneficial for providing easily digested fuel during long periods of intense exercise.

Fruits and vegetables provide dietary fiber needed to keep you regular, full, and prevent disease. Fiber is an essential nutrient derived from foods that has beneficial effects on health, such as potentially lowering risk of heart disease and lowering cholesterol levels when it is part of an overall balanced diet (4). Fiber can also help food move through your digestive system, promoting regularity and helping prevent constipation (5) which can make running uncomfortable and inhibit performance.

Fruits and vegetables provide vitamins, and minerals that aid in performance and recovery. These include:

  • Vitamin C, found in citrus fruits, strawberries, broccoli and tomatoes, is important for growth and repair of all body tissues (4). This is important in aiding recovery after a run.
  • Potassium, found in bananas, potatoes and tomatoes, ensures proper function of the muscles and nerves, and is vital for synthesizing protein and metabolizing carbohydrates (6). This allows you to keep your muscles moving during long runs without cramping up.
  • Vitamin B6, found in fruits, potatoes and other starchy vegetables, is needed for more than 100 enzyme reactions involved in metabolism (7). This is important for maintaining your energy levels during training.
  • Calcium can be found in some leafy green vegetables such as kale and broccoli. The body needs calcium to maintain strong bones (8), which is important to prevent injuries during running.

How much do you need?

The amount of fruit and vegetables you need to eat on a daily basis depends on certain factors including age, sex, and level of physical activity. For fruits, the amount each person needs averages about 2 cups each day (4). 1 cup of fruit is equivalent to about 1 small apple, 1 large banana, or 1 measured cup of sliced fruit. For vegetables, the amount each person needs can vary between 2 and 3 cups each day (2). 1 cup of vegetables is equivalent to 1 large tomato, 2 cups of raw spinach, or 1 cup of measured cooked, chopped vegetables.Those who are very physically active may need to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into their diet.

Additional tips for runners

While fruits and vegetables are an essential part of a runner’s diet, here are some things to keep in mind when incorporating them into your pre and post workout meals:

  1. Because many fruits and vegetables are high in fiber, consuming a large amount of them immediately before a run may cause stomach discomfort, or leave you running immediately to the bathroom. Try to leave a few hours in between your intake and your run.
  2. If you want to eat a meal that contains fruits and vegetables before a run, consider consuming cooked fruits or vegetables. Raw fruits and vegetables may take longer to digest and could potentially lead to an upset stomach.
  3. MyPlate guidelines suggest to fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables. However, because fruits and vegetables are lower in calories, this may not satisfy a runner’s increased energy needs. To get all your fruit and veggie requirements in, consider adding them to nutrient dense meals and or opt for a snack, like this green smoothie bowl from Lifesum.
  4. Experiment with what works for you. It is important to include a variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet. However, some runners may find they have a difficult time tolerating certain fruits and vegetables. In the off season, experiment with fruits and vegetables that work for you and evaluate how they affect your run.

Eating a well balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables is essential to maintain overall health and well-being. Since runners put a lot of demand on their bodies through physical activity and training, nutrition is an important part of performance and recovery. For those runners who want to ensure they are getting the right balance of foods and meeting their energy needs, nutrition apps such as Lifesum can help you track your intake and provide suggestions on how to improve your dietary habits. As a runner, what is your favorite fruit or vegetable that you incorporate into your diet?

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All of the content and media on Lifesum is created and published for information purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Users should always consult with a doctor or other health care professional for medical advice. If you have or think you are at risk of developing an eating disorder, do not use the Lifesum app and seek immediate medical help.