Properly fueling your runs and recovery is an important way to boost your performance. But every runner has different dietary needs, so it can take some trial and error to find the dietary method that works for you.
One suggestion often touted as a universal way to eat healthier is the Mediterranean diet. Recently, the Mediterranean diet was ranked number one for best overall diet of 2021 by U.S. News and World Report.
But is this diet best for everyone, and can it help your running performance? We tapped Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD, Culinary and Integrative Dietitian, and Lori Russell M.S., RD, CSSD, CPT to find out.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet is not actually a “diet” that you try out for a little while to achieve short-term health goals. Instead, it’s intended to be a lifestyle shift of your eating habits.
“Contrary to popular belief, there’s no one Mediterranean diet. Instead, this way of eating incorporates the foods from the Mediterranean region including countries from Spain to Greece to Tunisia for example,” says Moore.
The lifestyle also includes a moderate intake of wine and plenty of physical activity, says Moore.
Why is the Mediterranean diet considered to be so healthy?
There have been many studies on the Mediterranean diet that show it may have a positive impact on heart health, brain health, cognitive function, and aging. Eating this way has been linked to improving hearing loss and depression, and it can help you get faster. It also helps improve diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Type 2 diabetes, says Russell.
“There are many reasons that could explain this, including high fiber and antioxidants from abundant fruits and vegetables, the omega-3s from seafood, and good fats from nuts, seeds, and olive oil,” says Moore.
Plus, it’s flexible. You can start with familiar foods you might already have on hand, such as pasta, and add vegetables, legumes (such as chickpeas), and more.
What foods can you eat on the Mediterranean diet?
Moore encourages her clients to add in a variety of wholesome foods. And, the basic concept of the diet is to limit heavily processed foods, especially those heavy in meats, refined grains, and alcohol, says Russell.
For those looking to get started on the Mediterranean diet or eat healthier overall, Moore suggests starting by adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet—and they can be fresh or frozen, whatever you have access to. Then, experiment with different types of seafood; for example, sardines are inexpensive and packed with omega-3 fats. If that’s not a fit for your taste preferences, you can try salmon.
For an energizing, sweet, and crunchy snack, try almond-stuffed dates, says Moore. The crunchy almonds deliver a dose of good fats plus plant protein and fiber for lasting energy—two keys to a satisfying snack.
How can this diet benefit runners?
This way of eating allows for plenty of carbohydrates in a runner’s diet, which provide quick-burning fuel athletes need. It’s also accessible and flavorful, and there are no calorie restrictions, says Moore.
“The boost to heart health and the cardiovascular system as a whole is the biggest benefit for athletes,” says Russell.
One study found that short-term adherence to this way of eating improved 5K times when compared to eating a standard Western diet. The high amount of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants obtained from eating the Mediterranean way can also potentially boost endurance energy and a person’s ability to stay mentally strong in performance, says Russell. The high antioxidant content also may be beneficial for a quick recovery.
Additionally, the Mediterranean diet can even boost the health of the families of runners, according to a 2021 study in the International Journal of Obesity. Relatives of those who stuck to the diet for two years were more apt to lose weight, too.
Does this diet work for everyone?
Those with rare metabolic disease or epilepsy might benefit more from a different therapeutic diet, says Russell. For most anyone else, eating in a Mediterranean way is appropriate as it is flexible and can be adapted to fit any dietary style including plant-based eating, gluten-free, or dairy-free diets.
And while the it is a very flexible option, each person should evaluate whether it’s the best fit for their lifestyle, energy, and nutrition needs, says Moore.