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Putting It Together: The Runners' MyPlate
Katie Knight, Nutritional Sciences Master's Student at Texas Tech University (TTU) &
Marleigh Hefner, Registered & Licensed Dietitian & Nutritional Sciences PhD Student at TTU
Introduction & Welcome
Welcome back! We have already made it halfway through our Dietitian-Approved Series for Distance Athletes designed to address common nutrition questions from coaches, parents, and endurance student athletes.
If you have not already, please refer to our previous articles for important background information.
Article 1 - Nutrition Basics: Energy & Hydration
Article 2 - Understanding Macronutrient Needs
Article 3 - Pre- & Post-Workout Nutrition & Supplementation
The purpose of this article is to build upon prior nutrition knowledge from previous blog topics in a useful and practical manner using the MyPlate framework. As usual, the recommendations provided are merely a starting point and do not take into consideration unique medical conditions. Any athlete who is managing their calorie and macronutrient intake should be monitored by their registered dietitian nutritionist, coaches, teammates, and family for any unintended outcomes (e.g., weight loss or gain).
What is MyPlate?
First, let's discuss the basics of the original MyPlate before we cover the Runners' MyPlate. MyPlate is a set of nutrition recommendations made by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Essentially, MyPlate is a more modern and practical interpretation of the food pyramid you may remember from school nutrition lessons between 1992-2011. MyPlate is referenced by registered dietitians and nutrition scientists as a reliable visual guideline to help people "build a healthy plate." MyPlate is based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans which was developed by a large group of scientists based on a collective body of evidence of foods and food groups that are associated with positive health outcomes. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and therefore MyPlate, is updated frequently as the newest nutrition science becomes available.
MyPlate was developed for the average adult American, and we should note that distance high school athletes do not fall into this category. Even entry-level distance athletes have different nutrition needs than the average American who tends to live a mostly sedentary lifestyle. Because of this, we will need to reframe the MyPlate guidelines to better reflect a plate that would generally fit the needs of the average distance athlete (see image).
The main difference between the traditional MyPlate and the Runners' MyPlate is that the MyPlate for runners has more room for grains, which provide extra carbohydrates, and added protein to support muscle recovery. If you need a refresher on why distance athletes need more carbohydrates and protein than their sedentary or lightly active counterparts, make sure to read our second blog post about calculating runners' macronutrient needs. Next, let's cover the 5 main takeaways from MyPlate, but through the lens of what an endurance athlete should consider (not listed in order of importance).
#1 Fruits & Veggies: For distance athletes, about 40% of your plate should include a form of fruit and/or vegetable. Fruits and starchy vegetables (i.e., potatoes, sweetcorn, butternut squash) are an excellent source of carbohydrates, but non-starchy vegetables (i.e., broccoli, zucchini, spinach) also provide essential micronutrients. Including mostly starchy vegetables with some non-starchy vegetables from time-to-time will help ensure optimal carbohydrate intake. Whether the fruits and vegetables on your plate are frozen, fresh, or canned, the quality and quantity of the food's nutrients is similar, so eat whatever form you prefer for the sake of flavor and convenience. Some canned products contain added salt, but this is typically not a nutrient of concern for endurance athletes who have higher sodium needs due to fluid losses from sweat.
#2 Grains: Similar to fruits and vegetables, the Runners' MyPlate suggests that ~40% of your plate should include some type of grain product. Of these grains, try to aim for at least ½ of them being from whole grain sources. These products will be labeled "whole grain" or "whole wheat" or will be darker in color than the processed version of the food. For example, choose brown rice over white rice and darker bread over white bread to increase your intake of whole grains.
#3 Protein: Protein should make up the remaining 20% of your endurance athlete's plate. Protein foods can be animal (i.e., meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy) or plant-based (i.e., legumes, nuts, beans, soy). Animal protein is generally more bioavailable, meaning it is easier for the body to digest, absorb, and utilize. For optimal protein intake, we recommend consuming lean or low-fat animal products as your primary source of protein.
#4 Dairy: Dairy products are extremely nutrient-rich, providing an excellent source of protein, carbohydrate, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin A, and more. They serve as a versatile option for distance athletes, particularly for post-workout meals or snacks. MyPlate guidelines recommend 3 cups or serving equivalent of dairy per day, and we generally recommend choosing dairy that is labeled "low-fat" to save calorie space for carbohydrates and protein but not "fat free" to prevent fat intake from becoming too low.
What About "Junk" Food?
You may have noticed that there was no space for "junk" food in the Runners' MyPlate, but this does not imply every meal every day must precisely follow these recommendations. The best definition of a "bad" or "junk" food is any food that is contaminated or will cause a person to have some type of adverse reaction due to allergies or intolerance. While some foods might supply more nutrients, there should be room for moderation and balance in nutrition. Of course, a certain level of commitment should exist for athletes to optimize their potential, but nutrition and sport performance should never become obsessive to the point where an athlete feels they should be restricted from social activities with friends and family.
Implementing rigorous food rules and restrictions can lead to disordered eating habits and even clinical eating disorders in some athletes, which is a serious condition for both male and female athletes. We will talk more about this special population in a later blog post. Generally, however, parents, coaches, and other authority figures are advised to not restrict certain foods from student athletes, instead athletes should feel empowered with nutrition knowledge and desire to eat in a healthy and balanced manner intrinsically out of dedication to their sport. Nutrition recommendations should always be adjusted for athletes with special conditions, such as diabetes, a history of disordered eating, or other health concerns.
Integrating Runners' MyPlate with Prior Knowledge
The final step is to integrate the comprehensive nutrition knowledge you have acquired throughout this series using the Runners' MyPlate as a practical tool. Below is how our example 130lb cross-country athlete can meet their nutrition needs using the Runners' MyPlate as a framework.
1. Calories: ~17 calories/pound x 130 pounds = 2210 calories/day
a. Supply these calories across 3-4 Runners' MyPlate meals per day
b. Includes calories from pre/post-workout meals/snacks
2. Protein: ~0.73 grams/pound x 130 pounds = 95 grams/day
-> 0.2 grams/meal x 130 pounds = 26 grams/meal or snack
a. Fill ~20% of your Runners' MyPlate with protein to help reach this goal
b. Includes protein from pre/post-workout meals/snacks
3. Carbohydrate: ~2.5 grams/pound x 130 = 325 grams/day
a. Carbs will be supplied by the Runners' MyPlate grains, fruits, and starchy veggies
b. Fill ~80% of your plate with grains, fruits, and any veggies to help reach carb goals
c. Includes carbs from pre/post-workout meals/snacks
4. Fat: Fill in any remaining calories with fat
a. Fat is important for general health but not as much for endurance performance
b. Fat can be present in any of the Runners' MyPlate food groups
c. Nuts, seeds, and plant oils provide healthy fats
d. Choose "low-fat" but not "fat-free" dairy products to prevent fat intake from being too low
5. Fluid: 1 ml/calorie x 2210 calories/day = 2210 mL/day + 34 mL/minute/day of active training
Supply fluids in gradual increments throughout the day
Supplement with electrolytes during and after long runs lasting >1 hour
Concluding Remarks & Resources
This blog was designed to summarize and apply many of the concepts introduced throughout the series. If you are interested in accessing additional resources to supplement this content, EatRight.org is a professional nutrition academy that contains an abundance of information for those who are interested in expanding their nutrition knowledge in the field of sports nutrition and beyond. Cronometer is also a user-friendly website and app that can be used to input meals and snacks designed to meet calculated macronutrient targets. In the coming weeks, our MileSplit TX nutrition series will cover dietitian-approved recipes for endurance athletes, nutrition for runners with diabetes, running and disordered eating, and how to avoid nutrition misinformation online. Stay tuned!
Correspondence: Marleigh Hefner RDN, LD (firstname.lastname@example.org)
About the Authors:
Katie Knight, Freelance Writer, Texas Tech University (TTU) Nutritional Sciences Master's Student
Katie Knight is a nutrition graduate student at Texas Tech University studying the role of a novel adenoviral protein in liver fibrosis.
She has produced scientific writing and has written blogs, papers, and other materials for several companies.
Connect with Katie: https://www.linkedin.com/in/katie-m-knight/
Marleigh Hefner, Registered & Licensed Dietitian, TTU Nutritional Sciences PhD Student
Marleigh is a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) licensed to practice in the state of Texas. She has experience as a keynote speaker at the 2022 Cross Country Coaches Association of Texas (CCAT) conference. She also works with high school cross country teams by offering nutrition workshops designed to empower athletes with the knowledge to level up their performance using the science of nutrition. Marleigh maintains her clinical skills by working per diem at an acute care facility as an RDN, as well as continuing her research endeavors for her PhD in the area of metabolic disease treatments targeting nutrition and metabolism.
Connect with Marleigh: https://www.linkedin.com/in/marleigh-brown/