While there’s nothing wrong with falling back on key healthy training foods like pasta and yogurt, if you can recite your daily menu by heart, you may be in need of a grocery cart shake-up. Mixing things up will not only excite your taste buds, but also help your body get the nutrients it needs to boost health and running performance. To get out of the food rut, try these six palate-pleasing, just-as-easy-to-use-in-the-kitchen substitutes for well-loved runner staples.
If you like: Yogurt
Like yogurt, kefir – a sour, fermented dairy product – brims with live probiotic bacteria. Probiotics are important for digestive health and are also thought to strengthen the immune system. In fact, the British Journal of Sports Medicine reported in 2008 that probiotics can activate immune cells in distance runners, reducing the severity of respiratory illnesses, such as colds. Because these bacteria break down much of the lactose, kefir shouldn’t cause problems for the lactose intolerant. Beyond good-for-you critters, this great white originally from Eastern Europe is plump with muscle-building whey and casein protein, vitamin B12 for energy metabolism and a third of your daily requirement for bone-strengthening calcium per cup.
Need to know: Opting for lowfat and unflavoured versions will keep saturated fat and sugar in check.
Find It: In the dairy section of health food stores and some larger supermarkets. It also comes in drinkable forms.
Use It: If you find kefir too sour, try mixing it in a blender with milk, banana, frozen berries and a dollop of nut butter for a serious article-run smoothie.
If you like: Pasta
Try: Soba noodles
Crafted from wheat flour and gluten-free buckwheat flour, chewy Japanese soba noodles have just as much energizing carbohydrate as pasta. The phytochemical rutin in buckwheat has been found to halt the expansion of bodyfat cells, positively impact blood cholesterol levels and regulate blood glucose. Plus, a greater intake of nutrient-rich whole grains such as soba reduces abdominal fat better than refined grains, according to Penn State University researchers. They praise the extra fibre and antioxidants in whole grains, which help control inflammation and insulin (a hormone that can tell your body to store belly fat).
Need to know: Greyish-brown soba noodles often have more sodium than pasta. But use this to your advantage following a sweaty run, where sodium losses can be significant. For those sensitive to gluten, 100 per cent buckwheat soba noodles are available.
Find it: Look for soba at health food stores, Asian markets or the specialty section of some supermarkets.
Use it: Soba can be prepared like pasta and used as you would pasta in almost any recipe. Replenish energy stores after a run by mixing it with cooked chicken (or tofu), edamame, cherry tomatoes, olive oil and chopped cilantro.
If you like: Whole wheat bread
Try: Sprouted bread
Made from sprouted whole grains and legumes, no bread has more muscle-friendly protein – about 8 grams per slice. Sprouting also makes it jam-packed with vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre and a wonderful nutty flavour. Higher protein and the sprouting of the grains also results in a lower glycemic index bread. This is significant, as a study in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism determined that eating a low-glycemic meal three hours before a run can increase the time to exhaustion compared to a high-glycemic meal, such as one with refined white-flour bread.
Need to know: Beyond bread, you can now find sprouted cereal, pasta and bagels.
Find it: Look in the refrigerated section of health food stores and the natural foods section of larger grocers.
Eat it: For a pre-run snack, try sprouted bread with some almond or peanut butter and sliced banana.
If you like: Sports drinks
Try: Coconut water
Each serving of refreshing, slightly sweet coconut water packs in 14 grams of natural sugars and plenty of potassium (600 milligrams per cup, about 50 per cent more than a banana), along with some calcium, magnesium and sodium. It’s great drink alternative for runners looking for a change from commercial sports drinks.
Need to know: Tangy coconut water has none of the saturated fat found in coconut milk, which is made from the grated pulp of mature coconuts.
Find it: Fortunately, you can skip the flight to the tropics for a fix as coconut water is available in tetra packs at many health food stores.
Eat it: Try it article-run to quench thirst and replenish carbohydrates and electrolytes.
If you like: Salmon
Try: Arctic char
Environmental concerns have turned eating farmed salmon into a fishy business, which may have you casting your line for alternatives. Look no further than Arctic char. This traditional staple of the Inuit has a mild, light, salmon-like flavour, but a less fishy taste. Like salmon, char is chock full of top-notch protein and heart-friendly, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats. Higher omega-3 intake has been credited with lowering the heart rate during exercise, which would reduce how difficult a run feels.
Need to know: Sustainably harvested and farmed, Arctic char gets the green light from several seafood watch organizations.
Find it: A good fishmonger often has this fish on ice.
Eat it: Arctic char can be used in any recipe calling for salmon and responds well to marinades. Cook it on medium-high heat until one side is slightly brown, flip, repeat on other side and then reduce heat to medium and continue to cook until lightly pink inside.
If you like: Dark chocolate
Try: Cocoa nibs
These roasted cocoa beans that are smashed into small nuggets contain all the healthy benefits of dark chocolate bars minus the added sugar. Perks of this purest form of chocolate include plenty of satiating fibre (a whopping 9 grams in just 1 ounce) and antioxidant flavonoids that studies show improve memory and reduce blood pressure. They also contain magnesium, which, as a part of hundreds of biochemical reactions, helps maintain ideal blood pressure and muscle and nerve functions, builds break-resistant bones and enhances immunity.
Need to know: Though nibs are high in saturated fat, this is mostly stearic acid, which does not negatively affect cholesterol levels like the saturated fat present in beef and dairy.
Find it: Many health food stores have bags of cocoa nibs.
Eat it: If you find nibs too bitter straight up, mix them into yogurt, oatmeal, cottage cheese, baked goods and fruit salads. Give yourself an extra jolt by grinding cocoa nibs with coffee beans for your morning cup of joe.
Arctic Char with Citrus Kefir Sauce
Makes 2 servings
2 6-ounce fillets of Arctic char
1 tbsp canola or grapeseed oil
1 pinch of coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup plain kefir
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp water
1/2 tsp lime zest
1/2 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/4 teaspoon orange zest
1/2 teaspoon orange juice
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon honey (or to taste)
In a bowl, combine kefir, olive oil, water, lime zest, lime juice, orange zest, orange juice, salt and honey. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Cook char until one side is slightly brown, flip, repeat on other side and then reduce heat to medium and continue to cook until lightly pink inside, about 8 to 10 minutes total. Serve char topped with kefir sauce.
Matthew Kadey is an Ontario-based dietitian and writer. Find him at www.wellfedman.com or www.mattkadey.ca.