Whether you’re getting ready to run your first 5k, taking on the challenge of a 10k, or training to finish or get a personal best in the Half or Full Marathon, preparation is key. No matter what your reason is for setting a running goal, you start mapping out how you’re going to accomplish it: You sign up for the race. You download a couch-to-5k app or research a training program, you set a schedule, you dig out your running shoes, you find yourself an accountability partner, and you start logging the miles.
When I first started running, I thought that by having a goal distance and race date set, and following a training program, I’d be ready. What I didn’t think of was a critical part of my preparation: my nutrition.
I ran for several years, knocking off 5k to 10k runs, and even dragging myself through the finish line of a half-marathon. I ran partly because I loved the personal time alone with my thoughts or discovering new areas of town, partly because I love setting and achieving goals, but mainly because I wanted to be fit and wanted to lose weight. I ran regularly, several times a week, but I didn’t lose the weight – in fact, over the years I kept gaining it, and I didn’t understand why. At the same time, I got injured, and was unable to run for almost 2 years.
It wasn’t until I really started focusing on my nutrition that I started to see a difference. In the spring of 2016, I started following a nutrition program that focused on balancing macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fats) and taught me proper portion sizes. At the same time, I started running again (literally starting by alternating 1min of running with 1min of walking), I learned how to lift weights and cross-train, and found a support system that worked for me. This combination of proper nutrition, exercise and support helped me lose over 60 lbs and most important to me, helped me get back into running. I can now comfortably run 5k to 10k distances regularly, I’ve participated in countless virtual charity runs, I bring my running shoes with me when I travel, and I count time running with my dog as a highlight of my summers.
What I learned through this experience was that as much as we focus on training programs for the actual act of running, as runners (especially new runners), we tend to forget about the nutrition side of training. We focus on building our muscles, shaving off some time, extending our distances…but we forget about how we’re nourishing our bodies and minds to accomplish that work!
That’s where meal planning comes in.
Meal planning is the “training program” for fueling your body and mind so that you have the energy you need throughout the day to do your workout, to go to work, to be with your family. Without planning ahead, you leave feeding your body and mind to chance. You wouldn’t show up to a race without training, so why would you train without meal planning?
When I first tell people I meal plan, they assume that that means I follow a strict routine, my food is boring, and I eat the same thing every day. Far from it! To me, meal planning is about thinking ahead and being prepared. It’s about choosing food I want to eat, and having all of the ingredients I need to make what’s on my meal plan – and nothing else that I shouldn’t be eating. It’s about balancing my nutrition throughout my day and my week, making sure that I’m not having too much of one type of food one day, and not enough the next. It’s about making sure that treats are occasional and high-quality, instead of frequent junk. It’s about fuelling my body throughout the day, whether for a run or workout, a busy day at the office, or travel with family. It’s about making healthy eating a simple, quick and consistent part of my everyday life!
I meal plan on the weekends. I decide once what I’m going to eat for the week, when I’m rested and not hungry, so that I make better decisions and don’t have to rely on willpower when I’m hungry, tired, emotional, tempted by my environment, and probably craving things I shouldn’t have. I commit to that plan, and then I don’t (or at least try not to) think about it again – I just follow the plan!
If meal planning for a week sounds daunting, start with just thinking about tomorrow. Spend a few minutes today thinking of what you’ll have for each meal tomorrow, and take time to prepare some of this. Making my lunch the night before means that instead of rushing to do this in the morning, I have time for a quick workout, my mornings are less rushed, and I only have to blend my shake before heading off to work.
Now, planning ahead like this might sound restrictive, but it’s actually very freeing: Instead of having to ask myself every day, “What do you feel like having for lunch?” or “What can I make with these ingredients?” and trying to make healthy decisions again and again, I already know and just follow my plan. Instead of finding myself completely drained of energy mid-run, or tired and not even wanting to lace up my shoes, I’ve planned ahead and fueled my body so that I have the energy I need to follow the training program I’ve committed to.
It can be hard at first to change your mindset when you’re used to making food choices every day, but if you keep telling yourself to check your meal plan and follow it, it will become a habit. Meal planning also helps you make better decisions when you have to adapt – you’ll know what your plan was, and so what type of foods you can order when you go out for lunch with colleagues, or you forgot to pull something out of the freezer, or need to grab a quick snack on your way to your kid’s soccer game.
I don’t eat the same thing every day, but I have a series of staples that I rotate through that I know I enjoy and that are healthy for me. I know how my body will react to them, so there are no surprises when I’m going for a run or cross-training. I also actually look forward to my meals and have an easier time turning down other temptations because I’d prefer to eat what I’ve got planned.
Now, start a note on your phone, grab a piece of scrap of paper, or open your weekly planner, and let’s plan our meals together!
HOW I MEAL PLAN…STEP BY STEP:
Step 1: Map out the week’s activities
- What activities are you committed to? When are you working? Which evenings are going to be busy and need a quick dinner? Are you traveling? When are you planning to run? Will you want to have certain foods the night before a big run, or snacks available right afterward?
Step 2: Fill in my daily protein/superfood smoothie and the fruit, vegetables or other things I’m going to use to make it.
Step 3: Fill in my dinners, especially the ones that will make leftovers (based on when I will need them for lunches).
- I usually don’t meal prep and make all of my week’s food at once. Instead, I plan dinners throughout the week that will serve six to eight, then have leftovers for lunch the following day(s). By making larger batches throughout the week, it means I’m not doing a marathon cooking session on the weekend, and I’ve got a variety of meals to eat throughout the week.
Step 4: Fill in any lunches that will consist of leftovers from dinners (see Step 3).
Step 5: Fill in my snacks just to top up my required macro-nutrients.
- Snacks for me typically include plain Greek yogurt with berries or granola, plain oatmeal, cottage cheese, hardboiled eggs, fresh fruit, and snack-able veggies like cucumber, snap peas, celery with peanut butter, etc.
- I usually prepare these the night before, so that on weekday mornings when I’m working I can just scoop them into my lunch kit. Doing this at night has given me the time in the mornings to fit in a quick 30min workout before work, and bringing all of my snacks with me means that I have healthy fuel throughout my day.
Step 6: Stock up on the essentials
- Using the meal plan I’ve made, I create a grocery list and use this to buy only what I need. I watch for sales of staples that I know I’ll use, but otherwise don’t buy anything that’s not on the meal plan for that week.
Step 7: Post the meal plan on the fridge or pantry door.
- This makes your meal plan visible every time you go to reach for food and handy to reference when making dinner or preparing lunch and snacks for the next day.
Using this method, when I come home from work tired and hungry, I don’t have to think of something to eat – I look at my posted meal plan, and know what to make for dinner. When I have planned to go for a long run on Sunday morning, I don’t have to wake up wondering if I’ve fueled properly – I planned ahead and made sure that Saturday night and Sunday morning I had the right foods at the right times to have a good run. The decision was made once for the week.
Since starting meal planning, I have grown so much more confident in my food choices and have built sustainable, healthy habits based on preparation and ownership of personal choices. Meal planning has helped me get into the best health of my life, and has enabled me to get back into running consistently. If you haven’t tried meal planning before, I challenge you to give meal planning a try using the steps I outlined. You’ve got a training plan for your runs – why not having a meal plan for your nutrition?
Meghan Cartwright is a Canadian runner and health advocate.