Many runners, coaches, athletic trainers, and support crews—including parents, partners, and siblings—spend a significant number of mealtimes on the road, traveling from one running event to the next, be they training sessions, track meets, or road races. With food budgets being tight and encounters with affordable (but often less-healthy) foods being ubiquitous at every gas station and convenience store, the ease of grabbing questionable sports meals and snacks can weaken one’s will to search elsewhere for higher quality sports foods.
Without a doubt, eating a decent sports diet becomes a challenge when healthful food options are scarce. Regardless, runners who travel by car deserve to be optimally fueled to be able to perform at their best. That means being creative—and also planning ahead.
The following tips can help you eat a reasonably well-balanced diet from a gas station or vending machine— or at least, eat better than if you were to have no plan at all. Bigger gas stations and those closer to a main highway or busy towns tend to have more offerings of nutrient-dense foods than the small-town gas station’s shelves stocked with just a few bags of pork rinds and some candy bars. Hence, you (or the team’s driver) want to keep nutrition in mind when planning fuel stops. Getting gas sooner at a bigger station is better than later, if later will be in the middle of nowhere.
Eating well on the road
For the purposes of this article, I offer the following definition of “a well-balanced sports diet”:
A “well balanced sports diet” includes foods from at least three—ideally four—of these food groupings:
1. Fruits and vegetables for vitamins and minerals to boost your immune system and help keep your body healthy.
2. Grain-based foods to fuel your muscles and your brain.
3. Protein-rich foods to build and repair your muscles.
4. Calcium-rich foods such as dairy, to enhance bone-health and also offer high-quality protein for muscles.
Please note that “well balanced” applies to your entire day’s eating, not just one meal or snack. Hence, a good breakfast, lunch and dinner can help offset a sub-optimal snack. “Balance” also includes calorie-balance. By reading the calorie information on food labels, you can determine the portion-size that fits into your calorie budget, so you avoid undesired weight loss or gain. Approximate targets could be 600-800 calories per meal for a female runner and 800-1,000 calories per meal for a male runner.
The following list of some typical gas station snacks organizes the foods according to nutrient profile. Using this template, you can manage to pick a somewhat balanced, halfway decent sports diet when you are on the road (or at a vending machine). Remember: at least three of the four kinds of food for meals and two kinds of foods for snacks.
|1. Fruits and Vegetables||2. Grain-based foods||3. Protein-rich foods||4. Calcium-rich foods / Dairy **|
|Orange Orange juice 100%-Fruit Juice Apples Applesauce Bananas Raisins Canned fruit (peaches) Salsa V-8 juice||Triscuits, Wheat Thins Graham crackers Peanut butter crackers BelVita Biscuit Popcorn/ SmartFood Corn chips, Tostitos scoops Pretzels Clif Bars Powerbars Nature Valley Granola Bar Muffin (bran, corn) Cereal cups (Raisin Bran)||Peanuts Almonds Mixed nuts Trail mix Sunflower seeds Jerky (beef, turkey) KIND bar Clif Builder’s Bar Canned tuna Egg, hard boiled Milk Yogurt|
|Milk, dairy or soy Flavored Milk: Chocolate Strawberry, Vanilla Yogurt, regular Yogurt, Greek Cheese sticks Cheese sticks Pre-sliced Cheese (Individually wrapped)|
** If you are lactose intolerant, cheddar cheese is virtually lactose-free — but you might want to travel with Lactaid™ Pills. Other low/no-lactose, calcium-rich foods such as soy milk or calcium-fortified orange juice can be harder to find on the road. Calcium-fortified almond milk might be available—but other than calcium, almond milk is a nutrient-poor choice.
Turning convenience foods into a balanced sports diet
When you are at home, a well-balanced diet that includes all four food groups in a meal might look like this:
Granola + milk + banana + hard boiled eggs
Whole wheat bread + turkey + cheese + lettuce/tomato and an apple
Brown rice + chicken + broccoli + yogurt (for dessert)
When you are eating from the gas station/vending machine, your balanced diet might resemble these tasty (hahaha) meals:
Orange juice + popcorn + protein bar + yogurt
Salsa+ corn chips + almonds + milk
Banana + peanuts + Wheat Thins + cheese sticks.
Fresh fruits and vegetables can be the hardest foods to find when you are on the road. You are unlikely to suffer from malnutrition if your traveling diet is low in fruits and veggies for a week or so because your body stores vitamins in the liver. A healthy person’s liver stores enough vitamin C to last for at least three weeks. That said, you will want to re-stock your liver’s diminished supply when you return home! Make an extra effort to enjoy fruit smoothies, colorful salads, and generous portions of fresh fruits and veggies whenever you get the opportunity to do so.
Traveling with a cooler
A wise alternative to “dining” at gas stations is to travel with a cooler (and re-freezable ice packs). Stock the cooler with sandwiches (PB&J, ham & cheese, hummus), water, 100% orange juice, chocolate milk boxes, yogurt, and other wholesome sports foods. A pre-trip food-shopping spree at a BJ’s, Costco, or large supermarket can save a team a lot of money. Portable food suggestions include:
Perishable items: Oranges, fruit juices, baby carrots, peppers (eat them like apples); yogurt, sliced cheese, milk chugs; ham, hard boiled eggs, hummus; tortillas, wraps, mini bagels.
Non-perishable items: tuna in pop-top cans, small jar of peanut butter, almonds; granola bars, graham crackers, Fig Newtons, dried fruit, V8 juice.
Note: your teammates might come begging for food from your personal cooler, so pack extra —or better yet, encourage them to pack their own food!
The Bottom Line
Performance starts with good nutrition. If you make the effort to travel to running events, you want to make the effort to eat a winning sports diet. No amount of training will over-ride a poorly fueled travelling athlete.
Nancy Clark, MS, RD CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels active people at her private practice in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). For more information about Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook and her online workshop, please visit nancyclarkrd.com