In winter, how should runners adapt their food choices to optimize performance?


by Tara Postnikoff

At this time of year, optimizing running performance often has a lot to do with being consistent. Consistency in both training and eating habits will help runners stay healthy, avoid extended time off due to illness and reduce the risk of injury. These are all important ways to stay on track for your spring race goals.

To reduce the risk of illness and injury, we need to supply the body with foods that provide the nutrients needed for success. One way to do that is by focusing on a plant-based diet. Plant-based eating doesn’t have to exclude meat; it means to emphasize the consumption of foods coming directly from plants, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and even grasses and grains.

Monika Grabkowska / Unsplash

Vegetables are typically neglected in runners’ diets, because many tend to think only about calorically dense foods in order to help meet energy needs. But by thinking more about foods containing high amounts of micronutrients (e.g. vitamins and minerals), runners can ensure they are focusing on foods that will keep up with the demands they are placing on the active body. Runners should aim to eat a rainbow of  7 to 10 cups of vegetables per day to give them a variety of vitamins, minerals, fibre, antioxidants and immune-boosting phytonutrients.

Root vegetables such as sweet potatoes (yams), beets, carrots, pumpkin and squash offer a fantastic source of complex carbohydrates that won’t weigh runners down. They also provide antioxidants called carotenes, which support the skin and respiratory system. Root vegetables are excellent when roasted with a little olive oil and sea salt.

Veggies such as Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower are plentiful at this time of year. Brussels sprouts contain protein, fibre, vitamin A, iron and calcium. In addition to containing vitamins A and C, broccoli is a source of magnesium and potassium, two important minerals. It offers the same amount of protein per cup as corn or rice, but at one-third of the calories. Cauliflower can be roasted, baked or boiled and is high in potassium along with vitamins C and K.

Including healthy fats at mealtime will help keep runners feeling warmer and more satiated. Turn to olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds as your choices of fats. Nuts are rich in magnesium, which can help with muscle aches and recovery. Pumpkin seeds are rich in zinc, while Brazil nuts are rich in selenium, two key minerals for the immune system. Try adding olive oil when roasting vegetables, or top off soups and purees with pumpkin or sunflower seeds.

Dried legumes are an amazing source of protein and complex carbohydrates, all rolled into one food. They also contain B vitamins and fibre. Examples of legumes include: adzuki beans, black beans, kidney beans, lentils, lima beans and pinto beans. Try these in cold or warm salads or as the base for vegetarian burgers. To ease the preparation and cook time of legumes, prepare large batches using a rice cooker or slow cooker.

Herbs and spices will add flavour to your winter dishes, plus they are rich in antioxidants and have immune boosting properties. Cayenne has a warming and stimulating effect, whereas cinnamon is noted for balancing blood sugar and being a digestive aid. Ginger root and turmeric root have potent anti-inflammatory and immune boosting properties. Try adding them to a smoothie or stir-fry to spice up your meal.

By emphasizing the plants in your diet instead of focusing solely on calories, you’ll have a better chance of meeting all your nutrition needs, staying healthy and reducing your risk of injury this winter. That means better training and better preparation to perform your best in the upcoming race season.





Tara Postnikoff is a Registered Nutritional Consultant, certified Personal Trainer and triathlon/running coach in Toronto. She is an avid distance runner and triathlete, and a regular guest speaker for Running Room training programs. To learn more, visit her website at

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