Why I Decided to Track Food During Marathon Training

Why I Decided to Track Food During Marathon Training

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.

Why I Decided to Track Food During Marathon Training

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?

Why I Decided to Track Food During Marathon Training

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. 

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33 Responses

  1. I thought about doing something similar but it’s alot of work! I am not sure how I ever tracked my food every day a few years a go. I actually stopped at the time I started training for my first marathon, because I knew I needed to be eating alot and I wasn’t worried about eating too much. It was interesting to see the metrics but I also don’t know if I always entered the foods properly (like i I did a search and someone else had entered the food but maybe not entered the correct macros). I definitely think it is a useful tool for seeing how your body responds to foods during training, looking out for any intolerances, and making sure you’re eating enough.

    1. It is a lot of work! The new MFP now saves recent foods for easy access and verifies entries with the correct macros, which makes it so much easier – especially since I eat the same things most days so when I do track it’s just a few clicks to add the food. Although it is hard to measure foods and I usually end up estimating some things, because it’s time consuming (and a bit much) to measure.

  2. I also track on My Fitness Pal. I almost never meet my carb requirements. I guess my diet in general is more fat/protein heavy (I always go over fat. It’s healthy fats, but I always go over because I love nut butters way too much). I am trying to eat a bit more carbs, but in the end my body seems to perform OK on what I’ve been eating and I’m at a comfy weight, so I’m not changing TOO much.

    It’s also important not to take the sugar intake on MFP to heart especially if you’re eating a lot of fruit. I’ve had days when I eat a few pieces of fruit, or honey, and my sugar intake was through the roof. But it’s not like that’s from skittles or soda.

    I do agree with you on how when you eat healthy, it can be a struggle to eat enough. On the days I eat junk, I always exceed my requirements. Nutritious food fills you up and junk food leaves you empty and wanting more. And while I agree with eating healthy, sometimes it’s not so bad to treat yourself (especially Ben & Jerry’s!).

    1. What’s funny is so far my sugar has not reaching the daily max! Which is weird because I eat fruit, dark chocolate, and tea with a bit of honey. I’m sure that will change once it’s berry season though 🙂 And I definitely agree with treating yourself – although my weakness is always a good craft beer or meat, rarely ice cream 🙂

  3. I track my food during marathon training as well–I do on a semiregular basis, but particularly during marathon training. I have to make sure that I am getting enough to fuel my body, and I actually usually go “over” on purpose by not tracking certain things. This actually helps me gain good, healthy weight and muscle!

    1. I’m definitely not tracking each and everything – I think for us runners it’s good to go a bit over each day to stay healthy. Distance running can really lean one down!

  4. such an important post! I don’t track what I eat and wouldn’t even be able to accurately add up the vegetables I consume on a daily basis to enter in a tracker but I have tried to track protein which I definitely wasn’t even coming to closet to getting enough of! so I have been making an effort to up my protein (eggs/egg whites have made a huge difference)

    1. I estimate my vegetables and it’s still like, you ate twice your daily fiber lol. Protein is something I need to make a bit of an effort for also. It was funny to see how some things I thought I need to focus on like fat and iron were already met normally though – good to know!

  5. I’ve struggled with this, because I did not fuel properly when I first started running, and was at a low enough weight for MY body that I experienced another bout of amenorrhea. Because I walk to and from work (~2 miles each way) in addition to any run I do on a given day, I move my body at LEAST 6 miles daily, usually 8-10 on a weekday, and more on weekend long run days. So even though I’m petite, I eat much closer to 2500 calories a day, and needed to track that to make sure for awhile, which I didn’t know if I could do without slipping into old ED habits. However, at this point, it’s more about making sure it’s enough.

    1. That’s a lot of movement in one day so it makes sense you eat those calories! I definitely agree that for many of us distance runners food is about making sure we eat enough, especially once daily movement and cross training and factored in. That’s awesome you can walk to and from work also!

  6. I’ve never tracked my eating just because I have such a bad experience growing up with my mom who would obsess over every single thing she put in her mouth. ARGH! You eat a lot of fibre! That’s awesome. I do know that I eat a lot of dairy fat, which I can honestly say keeps my cycles regular through my high mileage training.

    1. I don’t blame you on not tracking – but it’s awesome how much fat you eat! Fat is so beneficial for handling higher mileage and the best part is that fat tastes good. And yeah, the fiber surprised me, but I guess I eat roasted vegetables by the pound so it makes sense. Still can’t do many raw veggies though 🙂

  7. I do the same thing every once in a while just to check in with how I’m eating and make sure I’m getting the right amounts. I had a poor race performance last month, when I looked back at how I ate I wasn’t fueling myself with enough carbohydrates so I’ve made adjustments now.

    1. That’s encouraging to now you do the same as an RD! 🙂 I do wonder if not eating enough carbs for my last marathon affected my recovery and performance in part. It’s a big jump in fueling for a half to fueling for a full!

  8. My favorite form of carbs is oatmeal! I’ve used MyFitnessPal before, but never consistently. I’ve never counted calories and still don’t–I just practice intuitive eating, and make sure to hydrate because I know a lot of times I feel hungry when I’m in fact thirsty.

    1. I love oatmeal also – have it every single day! Oh yes and hydration is important – that’s one think I need to be intentional about also because it’s easy to forget to drink enough water.

  9. I’m glad you’re doing it to fuel properly. That’s a good example of wanting to care for your body instead of being obsessive about numbers. 🙂

    1. Thank you! I really don’t care about the numbers, unless they show that I’m continually falling short and need to nourish my body better. But if I go over – well, food is meant to be enjoyed, not restricted 🙂

  10. Your perspective on WHY you will track is great insight. I do not have any history of disordered eating, but I do have a tendency to get way too caught up in the numbers when I have tracked my calories. I number of years ago I used MFP to track and I successfully lost ~30 pounds. At that time, I went into tracking purely out of curiousity (i.e. – I was not planning on/feeling like I needed to lose weight). When I have tried to randomly track since then, I find it get very cumbersome and time consuming. Workouts for me are typically around an hour/day (running, soccer, strength training). Many times I wonder if I am adequately replenishing myself. Like you, I know that I choose the “healthier” options but some days that can still leave us short on what our body needs to adequately recover.

    So…enough of my rambling for now. Great post today, Laura!

    1. Thank you! I think I have such a data mind that I am just fascinated by numbers and what they tell me – I like the graphs that MFP gives. If it does become too time consuming, I’ll probably stop, but at least MFP now makes it easier to add if you eat the same foods over and over again – which I do 🙂 I think habit may be another reason I need to track – I eat the same meals out of habit without thinking too much of what needs to be added as my workout habits change!

  11. I’ve never tracked food, or counted calories, or anything like that. Actually, I did track my food for a month, just to challenge myself. I didn’t do anything super fancy like that, just a paper journal where I simply recorded what I ate. This was before I was even a runner. It really did make me much more mindful about what I was putting into my body, and knowing I had to record what I ate really forced me to think about everything I chose to ate. I don’t know if I could do it again, though. It’s just too much work and I am really not good about paying attention to micro-details in my life like that. I need to be better at my eating though – I think I eat enough because I feel good during training (most weeks), but I eat a lot more processed and junk food than I should. It’s so hard not to take shortcuts during marathon training, because the running alone takes up so much time and energy.

    1. It definitely is a personal thing! It does take a lot of work which is why I’m only doing it a few days per week on harder/long run days and not really caring about other days. Plus I’m boring and eat the same foods over and over again which makes it easy. And part of the reason was sort of as you hint at here – it’s one thing to feel good during training and not need to track (why I don’t track even during higher mileage half training) and another to feeling just overly fatigued and tired all the time.
      But yes, marathon training takes up so much time and energy. Even on a working from home schedule, it’s time consuming. Dinners usually end up being easy peasy throw everything in the oven meals!

  12. I gained weigh while training for my first marathon. It’s such a balance of tracking, but not letting it be one more thing to worry about. I am an intuitive eater too and have adapted my eating habits based on my activity level since that first cycle.

    1. Marathon weight gain also can be muscle – it’s easy to gain muscle when training that much! I do think intuitive eating becomes easier after an adaptation period – the first marathon training is just tough all around!

  13. Laura, this is a great post. I also follow intuitive eating but now you’ve got me wondering if I’m hitting all my nutrition requirements. Hmmm! Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Thank you Rachel! It’s definitely something to think about! I’m sure other runners are better about it than me, I’m still a bit of a newbie marathoner since this is only my second one, but sometimes it never hurts to have that data.

  14. Love that you showed a different side of calorie counting. People are always associating it with tracking to make sure you don’t eat too much, but there are also those of us who need to track every once in a while to make sure we’re eating enough. I’ve never trained for anything like a marathon, but I do like to check in every now and then to see how my eating is doing and make sure I’m getting enough… because as someone who’s recovered from an eating disorder, I actually get super anxious at the thought of not eating enough for prolonged periods of time because I had such a hard time getting my hormones back in order that I’m not willing to do anything to mess that up again. Also… carbs are life <3

    1. Thanks, Amanda! There is a definite association in popular culture that tracking food must mean one wants to lose weight, but food isn’t just about weight loss – it’s about nourishing and fueling (and enjoyment!). And yes, carbs for life! 🙂 Thank you for hosting!

  15. This was a great post, but I especially wanted to thank you for including that bit about not tracking calories if you have a history of disordered eating. It’s always nice to be remembered and included in the running community.

    (I’m having a super difficult time trying to figure out how to fuel myself just right – I know counting calories is very triggering for me because of my history with restrictive behaviors, but I haven’t found any good app/site to track nutrients without tracking calories. *sigh*)

    1. Thank you! I found Matt Fitzgerald’s The New Rules of Marathon and Half Marathon Nutrition to help with fueling for longer distances without tracking calories. It offers a way to track diet quality (and no foods are off limits – balance is encouraged) without counting calories. I also offer an e-course for runners on fueling before, during, and after runs in a way that focuses on nourishing the body and improving athletic performance if you are interested.

    1. I agree! So many runners neglect it, when it is such as vital to training as logging miles. That’s awesome you listened to your body and nourished it properly! Better seeming like you’re eating so much but being able to breastfeed and run than not eating enough 🙂

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