I mentioned in my monthly goals check in last week that I developed a marathon nutrition plan for my Jack and Jill Downhill Marathon training cycle. So today I want to think out loud a bit and discuss marathon nutrition, in particular why I decided to track food during marathon training. Nutrition was definitely one of the areas where I could have improved during training for my first marathon; not in terms of overeating, but not fully appropriately for the demands placed on my body.
I think many of you would agree: it’s difficult to eat enough to support marathon training when eating a fruit and vegetable heavy, high quality diet. I favor intuitive eating overall, but long distance running has scientifically been shown to suppress appetite, which makes eating enough trickier.
Nutrition throughout the entire training cycle has a direct impact on athletic performance: recovery between workouts, enough energy for long runs and hard workouts, and replenishment of glycogen stores to prepare the body optimally for race day. Increasing mileage direct correlates to improving endurance for marathon training, yet part of safely increasing mileage is also eating enough to have the energy to run those miles.
As someone who practices intuitive eating, I don’t count calories. I focus on eating nutritious foods and listening to my hunger cues. Out of curiosity and after reading some studies that showed that women who run high mileage chronically miss their nutritional requirements, I decided to record a few days per week of what I ate on MyFitnessPal.
Perspective influences intuitive eating, and occasionally perspective needs to be calibrated. Think of how marathon training creates a new normal of mileage: a 10 mile run that once was a weekly long run now is just another easy run. Likewise, the same thing needs to be done as nutritional needs change to fit the demands of marathon training.
It proves difficult to maintain the right perspective as an endurance athlete living in the world of low carb diets, social media, and Runner’s World urging me to skip that bagel so I avoid the dreaded marathon weight gain.
What I Ate Wednesday (WIAW) and Instagram in particular foster a comparison trap and altered perspective when it comes to eating. I often read them and think, crap, I eat so much comparatively, especially in the amount of carbs I eat.
I decided to track food during marathon training to recalibrate my perspective on how much I need to eat to sustain my personal level of training and to run by best on race day. Between running, hiking, Pilates, and (when I do it) strength training, I exercise at 1-2 hours most days per week – which requires a lot of fueling. I have no desire to lose weight – I’m happy at the 130-135 pounds my body has settled into (I’m 5’9). I feel strong, energetic, and fast.
My objective is not to let calories or macros dictate what I eat; rather, I plan to track on my harder workout/higher mileages days to see if I am indeed consuming enough. If not, then I know I need to add some more food (most likely carbohydrates) into my day. I’d rather take the bit of effort to check now and then instead of hitting a phase in my marathon training where I’m fatigued or underperforming due to insufficient fueling over time. Plus, that’s not to mention how chronic undereating can mess up metabolic hormones.
Tracking will also serve the purpose of providing me with an estimate of how many carbohydrates I consume. In my favorite sports nutrition book, The New Rules of Marathon and Half Marathon Training, the author Matt Fitzgerald emphasizes consuming enough carbs to sustain the demands of marathon training.
Running burns calories, but we often forget that the recovery process demands carbs, fats, and protein as well. So, at the end of the day, a distance runner needs approximately 4-8 g/carbs per kilogram of body weight, depending upon the duration of a run and any other activities in the day (longer runs requiring more carbs that day, as do days in which you do Pilates, strength training, etc in addition to running).
When do you the math, that’s quite a bit of carbs…especially when you opt for complex carbs such as fruits, vegetables (including potatoes), whole grains, and legumes rather than simple carbs and sugary foods.
For example, yesterday I ran 9 miles and did 30 minutes of Pilates, my meals included oatmeal with chia seeds and fruit, leftover brown rice risotto (no cheese) with vegetables, tahini, and pepitas, Greek yogurt with cereal, and a lentil and wild rice curry with more vegetables. I ended the day with a beer as well. This was a day full of carbohydrate rich foods, a day which I sometimes wonder included too many carbs. So how did my eating that day add up?
MyFitnessPal reported I ate 285 grams of carbs (including 48 grams of fiber because I love vegetables) and 2000 calories, which came very close to my goal of 300-350 grams of carbs for the day. Granted, I’ve never had a problem eating enough carbs, but it’s comforting to know what a day of eating for a certain mileage looks like.
Daily fat consumption is also a data point which I’m interested in tracking. As I prepared the first round of my Master Your Fueling and Hydration e-Course (which is opening back up soon!), I read a study from the University of Buffalo that concluded a direct correlation between fat consumption and injury prevention. Female runners who ate 20-30% of their calories in healthy fats were the least prone to injury, while those who ate little dietary fat endured the highest rates of injury.
Beyond calories and carbs, tracking my food allows me to note any food intolerances. Last time around, marathon training did a number on my stomach (and not just on race day…I had months of stomach issues due to a sharp increase in mileage and intensity at once). I was able to determine high-lactose dairy (fermented dairy is ok) easily upset my stomach, as do black beans or chickpeas in large amounts (go figure how I can eat so many lentils). The decision to track my food during marathon training will help me pinpoint any trouble foods quickly, since I can easily review a day’s worth of eating.
Again, tracking my calories and carbs is not something I plan on doing everyday, nor will I let it dictate my choices. Tracking is merely another metric, like pace of a run, that will provide me with valuable information to assess my training progress and work on areas of improvement. And like pace, it’s a metric that must be balanced with perception and self-assessment. How I feel energy-wise, how I perform athletically, and how satisfied I feel will all also guide me in my marathon nutrition.
Are you training for a marathon this summer or fall? Learn more about my Fall 2016 Marathon Training Camp!
I should note that I do not have a history of disordered eating, so tracking calories is not a trigger for me. I am able to separate how many calories I eat from my self-worth. If you suffered from disordered eating in the past or currently struggle with it, I do not recommend tracking calories.
How do you make sure you eat enough during marathon or half marathon training?
What apps do you use most frequently on your phone?
What’s your favorite form of carbs? Potatoes. Russet, red, sweet, just give me the potatoes please.