An elite runner dishes on nutrition

Tina Muir embraces the high fat/high protein fueling method, while rewarding her sweet tooth with a daily dessert.

By Henry Howard

At age 14, Tina Muir hid in the bathroom as her cross-country team was starting practice. In time she realized that she was not only good at running but actually enjoyed it.

Running is now an integral part of Muir’s life. She’s an elite runner for Saucony, community manager for Runners Connect and hosts her own podcast. (MTA’s Angie Spencer was featured on a previous episode.)

An elite runner dishes on nutrition

Originally from Great Britain, Muir moved to the United States to attend college at Ferris State University in Michigan. At Ferris State, she ran cross-country, as well as indoor and outdoor track.

“My highlight was when I finished fifth in the 10K and sixth in the 5K in 2011 when I had strained my calf and had to take a month off in January,” Muir recalled of that year’s NCAA Division II championships. “I did the cross-training and did visualization to believe that I would make it nationals. I qualified for the national championships in my first race back from the injury.”

While she was injured, she spent a lot of time in the pool and preparing herself mentally for the comeback. “The determination got me there and I was able to run well when it mattered.”

Muir is passionate about running, proper nutrition and her daily dessert. Here are excerpts from our recent conversation:

Ten questions with elite runner Tina Muir

As an elite athlete, what is your basic philosophy for nutrition?

I’m a bit more open with this than most elite runners are. Obviously, you have to put your nutrition first. You have to consider that everything you are putting into your body is either helping or hindering you. You have to make sure that you are keeping a healthy diet. I would guess about 90 percent of my calories are healthy and are helping fuel my body. On the other side of things, when it is absolutely critical for you to be knuckling down, you don’t want to restrict or deny yourself because (a) it’s going to make you miserable and (b) it’s not really that healthy. It just takes all the fun out of eating. If you are restricting yourself, then you are just going to think about it all day long.

At the time of the interview, Muir was a few days away from the California International Marathon. How do you alter your nutrition in advance of a big race?

Even right now, I am having a dessert every night. Yes, the portion size is a bit smaller. But I will have something every single day. That’s what I enjoy, and it’s my treat during times like this. But during your off-season, when you take time off from racing, you can really let yourself have what you want. So, after my goal marathon, I will go out for a burger and fries, and follow it up with a disgustingly amazing dessert. And for the next few weeks, it will be no-holds barred. I don’t mind putting on weight. In fact, I kind of encourage people to put on weight after a marathon. That’s also healthy for our minds because you know you have that time coming during those times when you have to focus on what you are eating.

(Her nutrition and training paid off. Muir finished in fifth place at the CIM with a PR of 2:36:39.)

You mentioned having a smaller portion closer to race day. Give me an example of what that would be.

One M&M (laughs). I would say two or three times a week I have a healthy dessert like almond butter fudge — a fun-size portion. The other days of the week, I would have double that. Maybe two of those, or a handful (20 pieces) of M&Ms.

What would a typical dinner or breakfast be before a long run or race day protein, carbs, etc.?

It depends on the distance of the race. If it’s a marathon, it would be more carb heavy. The night before a marathon, it usually would be one or two big baked potatoes or maybe some rice with it. Or two big baked potatoes with butter and a piece of chicken, and cheese if I am feeling brave. The morning of, I will have a sweet potato with almond butter — that’s my go-to before a race. If I am not racing, the night before I would have more on the protein side. Maybe potatoes with a bigger piece of chicken with starchy vegetables like parsnips or squash.

What about other meals during training?

I like to have what I call a recovery bowl during hard periods of training. (Find her recipes on her blog.) I also have a lot of eggs. I have a high fat/high protein diet for a distance runner. I have found that it works well for me. It helps me to feel better and happier and feel satiated during my runs. But during marathon training, I have to keep my carb levels up so I have had to find a balance. I do like to have a lot of starchy vegetables and natural sources of carbohydrates in addition to the high fat/high protein.

Do you use a fitness tracker or other method to count carbs, calories, etc.?

No. In every aspect of my life I am a “by feel” person. I don’t look at my watch when I am racing or doing workouts. I don’t use a scale. I had my husband hide my scale at the beginning of 2016 and I have to say that I feel 100 times better not knowing what I weigh. I am more focused on putting the right things in and knowing to listen to my body. I would much rather overeat than undereat.

What do you use to fuel during races and why?

I have played around with this a lot in recent years. But I have settled on Generation Ucan. I take it every 5K and I find it — with my higher fat/higher protein diet — works well with me because my body has learned to run on fat, not just carbohydrates all the time. The Ucan is a slower-burning fuel so you don’t have those highs and lows like you do with traditional gels and things. I also use Run Gum. I use to use gels about three times during a marathon. But I find with Run Gum, it just is a noticeable difference when you take it. With a gel, it takes a couple of miles for it to kick in. But with Run Gum, it almost feels like you are given a shot directly to your veins. It instantly wakes me up. I also use EnduroPacks Liquid Electrolytes. It has served me well, it really does help. Sometimes I will just spray it directly into my mouth instead of using it with a liquid. You can put it straight into your mouth or any drink.

It’s that time of the year when people are working on their New Year’s resolutions — losing weight, getting fit, etc. What would you recommend to someone whose it is to get off the couch and do their first 5K?

Remember that anything worth doing is going to be a struggle. It won’t be easy, especially if you are doing it for the first time. But the running community is wonderful and it is so inclusive. There is often the worry that people are staring at you, or judging you, but actually runners want to help you. Look around you and ask them for their advice and support because they will want to be there for you. They are probably going through similar struggles, too. There is a thought that once you get to a certain level, it’s easy. But it’s doesn’t get any easier — I know that myself. If you remember that you are not the only one struggling, you will see that you are getting better and better. The other thing is to not do too much, too fast. There is nothing wrong with walking or building up slowly. Go at your own pace and give your body time to adjust.

What nutrition advice would you give to people who are in their mid-40s aiming to do their first marathon, and does it differ between a man and a woman?

The gender would not make a difference. Men are probably more likely to go for protein sources. Women should not be scared of getting big or bulky. Protein is going to make you leaner, not put on weight, if you are doing the exercise to go with it. As for nutrition, I would recommend making little changes that you can keep. Don’t say, “On Monday, I am going to completely change my diet.” Just start crowding out the bad foods, make little changes as you go. Obviously, if you are in your 40s or older, you have been eating the same way for a long time. So you don’t want to make too big of a change because your body is going to resist it — and you are going to resist it mentally. Just make little changes often and you will notice that you will start feeling better.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned as you have dialed in your nutrition?

I have learned that even if you think something is true it is not always the case. I never used to think that high-fat foods would be good. I thought they would make me fat. You have to go with an open mind because new research will come up and you will learn new things. As long as you keep taking little steps forward and you commit yourself, that’s all that you can do.

*Editor’s Note: Coach Angie has put together a course to help you transition to a fat-adapted diet. Watch her special video introduction here.

Speed drill

Name: Tina Muir
Hometown: St Albans, England
Number of years running: 14
How many miles a week do you typically run: Can be as high as 100 (or 99 actually is my highest!), and goes down to around 50, but average around 85.
Point of pride: That I represented Great Britain and Northern Ireland in a World Championships this year, my lifetime goal.
Favorite race distance: The half marathon. It is the perfect distance that you get to enjoy a few miles before you get to work, but you don’t have to hold it for too long!
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Sweet potato with almond butter (try it, seriously, it is SO good!). I also take Generation UCAN with EnduroPacks Liquid Electrolytes.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to:  I used to love Fort Minor – “Remember the Name,” but that is a little intense for me. Right now I am loving “Hall of Fame” by the Script.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: It is very long 🙂 
Rocky Balboa:

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that and that ain’t you. You’re better than that!”
Long story short? Keep moving forward!

Where can other runners connect or follow you: 
@tinamuir on Twitter 
• @tinamuir88 on Instagram is my blog
• I would LOVE if you could check out the Run to the Top Podcast

3 Responses to An elite runner dishes on nutrition

  1. Deena February 2, 2017 at 11:37 am #

    loved the interview with Tina!

  2. Jennifer Fotheringham November 4, 2020 at 8:05 am #

    I’m just starting a running routine – beginning at a pretty unhealthy baseline with only a distant experience of running – and have been stressing about it. But on reading this, I feel a lot more motivated and positive. This article is going in my Keeper file. Thanks to both the interviewer and interviewee!

    • Henry Howard November 4, 2020 at 8:20 am #

      Thanks for reading Jennifer! I appreciate your feedback.

      Personally I have grown quite a bit as a runner and plant-based athlete since I wrote this. Plant-based eating isn’t for everyone but running has so many amazing benefits related to physical fitness, of course, but also mental well-being.

      I am excited to hear your motivation. Please reach out if I can be help in any way.

      Enjoy your journey!

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