Free Strategy Call

How can nutrition support mental health as a runner?

Mar 20, 2024

In the race for peak performance, runners might not always recognise that their mental health is also on the line, deeply nourished by their dietary choices. This post examines how the right nutrition can enhance mental well-being, touching on the connection between diet and mental health and offering dietary tips to support running goals and life balance. As running naturally boosts mood and focus through the release of endorphins and serotonin, we'll explore how strategic food selections can amplify these natural benefits and contribute to mental resilience. Join me as we navigate the intertwined paths of nutrition and mental health, one stride and one nutritious bite at a time.

What is the prevalence of mental health disorders in athletes?

Mental health profoundly shapes our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and disruptions in this area can lead to various conditions like anxiety and mood disorders.

In Australia, mental disorders affect a staggering portion of the population, with 42.9% of people aged 16-85 years experiencing a mental health issue in their lifetime, and 21.5% within a single year, underscoring a pressing need for mental health care.

For athletes, mental fortitude is a double-edged sword; the very traits driving their success can also heighten their risk for mental health disorders. Pressures to excel, fear of failure, and intense scrutiny contribute to this vulnerability. Among college athletes, the statistics are particularly stark: 33% face significant mental health symptoms, yet only 10% seek assistance. This trend extends to elite professionals, where up to 35% encounter mental health crises. These figures reveal the hidden struggle in sports and the critical need for accessible mental health resources.

What is the link between mental health and diet?

Nutritional psychiatry spotlights the critical role of diet in mental well-being, showing that what we eat transcends physical health and deeply influences our mental state. Whole, unprocessed foods are linked to a substantial reduction in depression risk, highlighting that diet quality is inextricably linked to mental health. Rich, diverse diets support a healthy gut microbiome, which is essential for mental health, as certain gut bacteria profiles are found to correlate with mental disorders. Contrarily, diets heavy in processed foods can damage this microbial diversity and contribute to the deterioration of cognitive functions, which is associated with memory deficits and depression.

The SMILES trial, a cornerstone in this field, underscores the effectiveness of dietary intervention in mental health management. By comparing the effects of a Modified Mediterranean Diet against social support in individuals with depression, it found that dietary improvements significantly aid in the remission of symptoms, with a dose-response relationship between diet quality and mental health improvement. Additionally, it debunked the cost barrier associated with healthy eating, proving that a nutrient-rich diet could be more affordable than less healthy options. The standard, unhealthy diet averaged a weekly cost of $138AUD per person, whilst the healthy diet averaged $112AUD per person.

In sports nutrition, the phenomenon of Low Energy Availability (LEA) and Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (REDs) showcases the complexities of adequate calorie intake and its impact on an athlete's mental and physical health. Particularly in endurance sports, LEA and REDs, arising from an imbalance between energy intake and expenditure, can precipitate mental health issues. This relationship emphasises that adequate nutrition is not only a pillar of physical performance but also a preventative and therapeutic measure for mental health disorders. Recognising and addressing LEA and REDs is essential for runners' overall health, highlighting the necessity of balancing dietary habits with energy needs to support both mental resilience and peak performance.

Top nutrition tips for good mental health in runners:

Ensure Appropriate Calorie Intake: Match your energy needs with the right calorie intake. Adequate fuel is essential not just for physical activity but also for maintaining healthy bodily functions, including brain function. Monitor your intake to ensure it aligns with the intensity and duration of your training to support both your exercise performance and mental health.

Diversify Your Diet: Embrace a variety of whole foods to boost gut and mental health. The more diverse your diet, the richer your microbiome, which supports overall well-being.

Moderation with Treat Foods: Focus on a foundation of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fish, seafood, lean meats, and dairy. Treat foods should complement this base to fulfill additional calorie needs and as occasional enjoyment.

Prioritise Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Opt for omega-3-rich foods such as fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, and chia seeds. These fats are essential for brain health and may help reduce the rates of depression and cognitive decline.

Incorporate Fermented Foods: Include yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi in your diet. These foods support gut health, which is linked to brain health and can impact the structure of the brain, like the hippocampus, related to memory and learning.

Incorporate Mental Health Practices: Integrate mindfulness, ensure adequate rest, and seek help when needed. Being proactive about mental health is as important as physical training.


The relationship between diet and mental health in runners is profound, emphasising that "you are what you eat" is more than a saying—it's a guide to living well. Maintaining an adequate calorie intake is essential, not just for physical health but also as a key factor in mental resilience. A balanced diet, rich in whole and fermented foods, supports a healthy gut microbiome, which in turn can improve mental well-being. The SMILES trial highlighted the importance of diet in managing depression and showed how cost-effective healthy eating can be.

Optimal mental health is the result of a consistent and holistic approach to nutrition—where the right quantity meets quality on the plate. So, lace up, fuel well, and empower your run and your mind. Every meal is a step toward a balanced life where mental well-being is in stride with physical fitness. Keep running towards a healthier you, with every mindful bite as powerful as your every step.

Download my FREE ebook here to discover my secrets to Fuelling a PB!

If you are experiencing poor mental health, it is recommended to see your GP for assessment and a treatment plan. In Australia, free resources and support are also available through Beyond Blue and Lifeline.


Australian Bureau of Statistics 2023, 'National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing',,a%2012%2Dmonth%20Affective%20disorder

Chang, C.J., Putukian, M., Aerni, G., Diamond, A.B., Hong, E.S., Ingram, Y.M., Reardon, C.L. and Wolanin, A.T., 2020. Mental health issues and psychological factors in athletes: detection, management, effect on performance, and prevention: American medical society for sports medicine position statement. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 30(2), pp.e61-e87.

Jacka, F.N., O’Neil, A., Opie, R., Itsiopoulos, C., Cotton, S., Mohebbi, M., Castle, D., Dash, S., Mihalopoulos, C., Chatterton, M.L. and Brazionis, L., 2017. A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’trial). BMC medicine, 15, pp.1-13.

Mountjoy, M., Ackerman, K.E., Bailey, D.M., Burke, L.M., Constantini, N., Hackney, A.C., Heikura, I.A., Melin, A., Pensgaard, A.M., Stellingwerff, T. and Sundgot-Borgen, J.K., 2023. 2023 International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) consensus statement on relative energy deficiency in sport (REDs). British journal of sports medicine, 57(17), pp.1073-1097.

Reardon, C.L., Hainline, B., Aron, C.M., Baron, D., Baum, A.L., Bindra, A., Budgett, R., Campriani, N., Castaldelli-Maia, J.M., Currie, A. and Derevensky, J.L., 2019. Mental health in elite athletes: International Olympic Committee consensus statement (2019). British journal of sports medicine, 53(11), pp.667-699.

The Ultimate Guide To Running Faster & Further

Leading sports dietitian, Erin Colebatch, reveals her top secrets for better running performance regardless of age or experience level. Download your FREE copy of Erin's new ebook today and discover the latest nutrition and fuelling strategies so you can finish your next run full of pride and accomplishment.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.