Every year on Thanksgiving I set out to run a half marathon, by myself. I don’t need a race or PR to make the day special; I simply want to burn off as many calories as possible so I can enjoy second helpings without the guilt. I know I’m not the only one since the roads are packed with runners on Thanksgiving morning—some at annual Turket Trots, and others, like me, alone on the roads keeping the engine burning.
Like many of you, I’m thankful for the gift of running on this festive day of eating; I know of little else that has the ability to improve mind, body, and spirit while also allowing for indulgences like pecan pie and gravy. This year, in addition to racking up miles, there’s another way to enjoy every last morsel while simultaneously feeling good about the fact that you’ve improved your health. All it takes is to include some of the following foods on your table. And if these foods are already on the menu, give yourself a pat on the back and tell your guests that you’re giving them the green light on second helpings (all in the name of better health and race times, of course).
Beets: Beets are naturally rich in nitrates, which the body converts to nitrites (a precursor for nitric oxide). Nitric oxide is helpful for runners because it dilates blood vessels and therefore aids in the delivery of blood and oxygen to working muscles. Nitric oxide is also an important player in many intracellular processes such as muscle contraction. But enough about chemistry and biology—it’s the holidays, after all! Just know that dietary nitrates, like the kind found in beet juice and cooked beets, have been found to alter the energy cost of running, which means that by eating them, you can improve your running economy (and maybe even win the pie prize at this year’s Turkey Trot).
RELATED: Prep great meals (in less time!) with Meals on the Run.
Broccoli and brussel sprouts: Cruciferous vegetables like these green gems prevent oxidative stress; contain a host of valuable metabolites, which are effective in chemoprevention of cancer; contain disease-fighting and immune-boosting phytonutrients; and are rich in essential nutrients like vitamin A, vitamin C, and folic acid (while being low in calories, unless you coat them with butter and melted cheese). Broccoli is often served as a first-course soup, or you could roast some brussel sprouts and serve them alongside the bird. You might also include another cruciferous vegetable, cauliflower, mashed and mixed with potatoes (to bring down the calories of the dish while boosting the nutrient content).
Cranberry: Don’t forget to include this superfruit at your Thanksgiving feast. Coming in at less than 50 calories a cup, this filling, fiber-rich side will fill you up without filling you out. For more news on how cranberries can protect your health and therefore your training, read this.
Kale: With only 33 calories per cup, this nutrient-dense choice is chock-full of calcium (100 mg), iron (1 mg), potassium (329 mg), and antioxidant vitamins like vitamins A, C, and K. Kale is also a great source of eyesight-protecting lutein, which effectively protects the eyes against macular degeneration, oxidative damage, and the harmful blue light that tends to surround us in our daily lives. (Make sure you’re getting every possible health benefits from your food with these 5 Under-the-Radar Nutrients for Runners.)
Try it: Serve kale chips as an appetizer. Simply wash kale leaves, and toss in a mixture of olive oil and sea salt. Place in a 350 degree oven, and bake until crispy. Not into kale chips? Chopped kale mixes well with mesclun and other salad greens.
Pomegranate: Rich in infammation-fighting antioxidants, this fruit also boasts antibacterial and antiviral properties, which means that it just might help you fight off your next illness without the need for modern medicine. Studies have also found that the pomegranate contains unique antioxidant polyphenols, which may be beneficial to folks working to control Type 2 diabetes. This leads me to wonder: Can this super-fruit prevent those blood-sugar spikes and drops that plague all of us after a heavy meal? Try it out and let us know.
Try it: While the arils (the fruit-coated seeds) make a beautiful addition to any salad, the juice contains the most nutrients because the entire fruit is crushed, and the beneficial antioxidants housed in the peel are included.
Pumpkin: No Thanksgiving table is complete until this humble gourd makes an appearance. A half-cup of canned pumpkin (easy enough to incorporate into soup or bread) contains only 42 calories but still offers 4 g of fiber to keep your digestive system healthy, 953 mg Vitamin A to protect eyesight, and over 250 mg of the electrolyte potassium, which is important for heart health and muscle function. (Want more ways to cook with this fall treat? Try these two fast and easy ways to use pumpkin.)
Sweet potatoes: Avoid adding lots of butter, sugar, and marshmallows to the traditional sweet potato casserole, and you’ll feel a bit better about indulging in all of the antioxidants and other nutrients sweet potatoes have to offer.
Turkey: As a runner, your protein needs are higher than the rest of the population. Luckily this seasonal favorite, rich in all the amino acids needed to promote muscle recovery, can easily help you meet your daily needs. Along with being rich in protein, turkey also provides hungry runners with essential nutrients like energizing B vitamins, bone-boosting phosphorus, and all-important zinc (it’s hard to find a body process or body structure that isn’t impacted in some way by zinc). You might be wondering whether dark meat or light meat is a better choice. Ounce for ounce, either is a good choice; just remember to shed the saturated-fat, calorie-laden skin!
3 oz turkey light meat, skinless, roasted: 134 calories, 25 g protein, 3 g fat (0.9 g saturated), 259 mg potassium, 1 mg iron, 1.7 mg zinc, 59 mg cholesterol
3 oz turkey dark meat, skinless, roasted: 159 calories, 24 g protein, 6 g fat (2.1g saturated), 247 mg potassium, 2 mg iron, 3.8 mg zinc, 72 mg cholesterol