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4 Easy Ways to Optimize a Cross Country Runner's Diet

With summer running camps underway and pre-season training just around the corner, many are asking "How should I eat for cross country running?" My last blog The Six Best Foods for Runners provides half the story. But this article will highlight 4 easy way to optimize a cross country runner's diet.


1. Embrace Packaged Food Products

Most cross country runners have practice after school around 2pm, making fueling throughout the school day very important. But with early morning alarm clocks, short 20-minute lunch breaks, and rules restricting food in some schools, it quickly becomes an issue to fuel appropriately before practice.

Packaged products often get a bad reputation nutritionally, but if you pick wisely, they can be a great source of energy that can easily be eaten on the bus or in between school periods.

For example, trail mix of nuts and dried fruit is high in energy, healthy fats, and fueling carbohydrates. A 2.5-ounce package, or four quick handfuls, of trail mix can have just as much energy as a turkey sandwich; ideal for days when cross country runners are on-the-move with little time to eat.

In the same sense, packaged energy bars that have a fruit and nut base such as Larabars, Kind bars, Picky bars, or Clif bars can also be great choices to fuel a cross country runner's diet.

Though many of these brands have smaller options for kids, such as "Mini kind bars" or "Clif Kidz", remember that a cross country runner's diet requires more energy to run compared to most kids. And if racing in high school or college, they're not kids anymore! Teenage runners should always fuel with the full "adult" size bars. Heck, pack two in that backpack while you are at it, just in case! Embrace the convenience of these energizing and fueling products to support your needs on busy school days.

2. Fuel and Hydrate at the Same Time

A cross country runner's diet should always include beverages for hydration. However caloric beverages including milk, chocolate milk, sports drinks, 100% fruit or vegetable juices, or smoothies are a double win as the calories provide energy at the same time as the fluid provides hydration. They are also easily digested for runners with sensitive stomachs and are ideal when there is little time to sit, eat, and digest.

For early mornings, beverages such as Carnation Instant Breakfast or Orgain Nutritional Shakes can be a quick and nutritious option to drink while getting dressed for school, or even while walking to the bus stop. They come in both powder form and ready-to-drink bottles. The ready-to-drink varieties are ultra-high pasteurized meaning they don't require refrigeration, so a second nutrition shake can be brought to school and drank in between periods or right before practice.

3. Make Easy Meals with Whole Food Ingredients

When not in a rush, a cross country runner's diet should focus on whole foods and less processed ingredients to balance out all those packaged and convenience snacks. Each of the above recommendations can easily become hand-mixed trail mix, home-made granola bars, and fresh-made smoothies with yogurt, fruit, vegetables, and milk or juice. Besides being healthy foods for teenagers, these simple recipes are great for young athletes to learn before heading off to college when they will need to feed themselves, grocery shop, and potentially even cook on their own!

Check out these easy to make recipes with healthy foods for teenagers or college cross country runners to easily start making at home, or in a dorm room:

When sitting down for a meal, a cross country runner's diet should include a balance of whole grains, lean proteins, fresh fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats. An easy way to know if the meal is “balanced” for a runner is to follow the images of an ideal athlete’s plate based on various training days:

Most cross country runner’s diets should follow the moderate or hard training day while in-season.

For more information on sports nutrition for young athletes and guidance on how to fuel for running, check out my free e-books "Fuel Your Runs" (for runners) and "Fueling Your High School Runner" (for parents of young runners).

4. Fuel up at Lunch

Breakfast is notorious for being the most important meal of the day, but with 2pm practice lunch is the last opportunity for a cross country runner to fuel up for success.

Mimicking the "moderate" or "hard training" images above, a cross country runner's diet should focus on energizing and easy to digest carbohydrates, moderate protein and fat, and fluids before practice.

If packing a lunch, check out these “brown bag” lunch options to fuel a cross country runner’s diet:

  • Whole wheat bagel, almond butter, apple, plantain chips, and ultra-high pasteurized milk.

  • Whole wheat or corn tortillas rolled up with peanut butter and jelly, cashews and raisins trail mix, and 100% vegetable juice.

  • With an ice pack: 100% whole grain bread with deli turkey breast and swiss cheese, pretzels and carrot sticks with hummus, and 2% fat yogurt.

  • With an ice pack: Cold quinoa with cherry tomatoes, feta cheese, olive oil, with 2 hard boiled eggs and watermelon.

If relying on school lunches, the National School Lunch Program stays within federal nutrition guidelines and provides a convenient fueling option for young runners. However, depending on the runner, it may not be enough food.

Consider packing extra snacks from home such as pretzels and string cheese, PB&J, or apple and peanut butter packet to supplement the lunch, or be eaten as pre-practice fuel. You can also check to see if your school supports athletic programs and after-school meal services to provide an additional fueling option.

National School Lunch Program & After-School Meal Services References:

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