This is one of those topics that people have paid a lot of attention to over the years and for much of that time the general consensus was that the secret to great performance lay in the amount of complex carbohydrates you could stuff into yourself before the race and how many simple carbohydrates you could stuff into yourself during the race. If the result of this was to leave you feeling like Paul Newman at the end of the egg eating scene in Cool Hand Luke (younger readers may wish to refer to the internet for a graphic example) then so be it. Pasta and potato bingeing pre-race was simply seen as the best way to avoid hitting the “wall” towards the end of a marathon. Carbo loading was the secret and everyone knew it.
The trouble is that what everyone knew turned out to be wrong.
Possibly as wrong as it was possible to get.
Right now I would like to declare that I am no Dietitian or Nutritionist. I am a keen but ploddy veteran of thirty seven marathons and six ultras of various kinds. Over the last thirty years I have tried all sorts of versions of carbo loading and a few other ways of fueling myself for races. I don’t pretend to be the fount of knowledge on this subject but I have at least tried lots of things that certainly didn't work for me and a few things which have. What follows are my opinions but this general view is starting to become much more like the new accepted wisdom for many racers and their dietary advisers. Anything that becomes the accepted wisdom is, of course asking for a kicking from the world at large but something has to be the norm. Perhaps in another thirty years this will be debunked in turn but perhaps not.
Race day nutrition is in fact a bit of a misnomer. Real race nutrition starts a long way before the start line. Generally a varied diet rich in protein, healthy fats and a large intake of vegetables is a good way to build a healthy body and maintain fitness. I would say that I aspire to subscribe to the Paleo hypothesis that says we are evolutionarily good at digesting and processing certain kinds of food such as veg, oily fish and unprocessed meats. The idea is intuitively sensible sounding and appeals to me on the level of “It feels right”. Actual definitive proof and evidence is alas a little less plentiful than I would like. As mentioned earlier though I have tried some other options and so decided that this was worth a good shot.
Does this mean that I live an exemplary life and that my hypothetical personal food diary would show me taking care to only introduce my gut to the most benign substances? Not remotely. I do try however to keep away from pasta and lots of processed foodstuffs. I fail miserably at some things. Bread consumption is down but still higher than I would like and I definitely indulge a sweet tooth more than is good for me and no amount of reading has allowed me to find a loophole that says dark chocolate hobnobs were around twenty thousand years ago.
For me the secret is to not let perfect be the enemy of good. My diet now is better than it was a few years ago. Increasing the amount of fresh veg and real food whilst cutting down on the crap has lost me a bit of weight and gained me some extra energy.
So the first thing really is to view race day as another day in training. Not special and not one where you have to drastically change your eating habits.
For the short term build up however we will start from the evening before the race and work forward.
The day before.
I like to have dinner a little earlier than usual the day before a race. This ensures that the food has a bit more time to digest and leaves my body long before the start. Dinner will be something normal. I like fish and veg so more often than not fish and veg it is. Whatever you choose make sure that it is something you enjoy eating and don’t go overboard on quantity. This is dinner not an endurance eating contest. There are no extra points for carrying around a useless kilo of undigested food.
If I feel hungry later in the evening I may opt for a light snack and then bedtime.
Many people, myself included don’t sleep particularly well the night before a race. This was a big problem for this year’s Belfast 24 hour race where an uncomfortable bed, noisy room and busy mind conspired to keep me awake well into the wee small hours but normally, so long as you are well rested and don’t let it worry you this is not massive problem. In fact I find that my traditional light sleep before a race can be helpful at pre-marathon breakfast time as I have gotten into the habit of rising early to eat about four hours before the race starts. This means often that I will leg it to the kitchen sometime between four and five in the morning to eat that which I have laid out the night before. At home I go for a couple of poached or scrambled eggs and a slice of toast, some tea and maybe yoghurt. If I am staying in a B&B or a hotel then it will be more like yoghurt, nuts, water and fruit. Away from home I have to be much quieter so as not to awaken my wife and young daughter so the menu tends toward simple. The early start is again simply to give things time to settle and digest. After a quick, light breakfast I just go back to bed until the appropriate rising time. What you eat is up to you just make sure that it is something you like and don’t stuff yourself. There really is no need. The long queues for toilets before and after the start of most marathons are testament to the fact that many people put more effort into filling their stomachs than to making sure they are appropriately empty before the running starts.
During the race.
We have been fed a lot of marketing and advertorial information from companies selling high carbohydrate gels for distance running and other endurance sports. The evidence for their efficacy is a bit sketchy but we have tended to go along with it as it seems to make sense. In a similar vein there can be very few sugary drinks on the market that haven’t been reincarnated in a flashily expensive “sports” version. I have found that using this stuff causes me a few problems. One is that I end a race feeling like I need to shave my teeth. They really are very sugary. My stomach tends to feel pretty queasy after the recommended number of energy gels washed down with Lucozade or the like and even though I have a sweet tooth it is ages before I can look a post-race chocolate in the eye again.
Nowadays my norm is to drink water during races. If the day that’s in it happens to be extremely hot and my pale Scottish skin is exposed to genuine sunlight then there may be a need to supplement the water with an electrolyte in order to replace lost salts. In Ireland in the autumn however this is a situation which is highly unlikely and so water alone is going to be enough to keep almost everyone suitably hydrated during the average marathon. If I get carried away and drink too much I gurgle along and promise to drink a bit less the next time. It is easy to think that because someone is handing you a drink that you have to consume it. It is common to see runners doing a short session on the road or trail carrying drinks bottles with them. Why? The purpose of training is training. One aspect of that is to train your body to rely less on constant fill ups of food and water. Get used to training without refueling and you will be much better at racing without refueling.
During a race I almost never consume energy gels nowadays. Even to my unrefined palate they have the taste of overly sweetened drain cleaner and I find that they sit poorly in my stomach. The world is full of chocolate and jelly sweets that actually taste nice. They supply a sugar hit, are no better for you than gels but don’t taste awful and they rarely pretend to be performance enhancing or nutritious. On big city marathons there are often people, God bless them who stand at the side of the road for hours handing out sweets to the runners and I have taken pot luck on many occasions.
For me the point of feeding during a race is to convince my brain that I am feeling OK and give myself a little bit of instant feelgood. For that to work it has to be something that tastes pleasant. Nowadays if I am considering what to eat during a race I ask “Would I eat it if I wasn't running a marathon”? If the answer is negative then I don’t eat it at a time when I’m putting my body through a bit of strain. If something is a chore to eat then don’t eat it. Life is too short for that.
For longer races I often have a couple of bean burritos with avocado in my bag but in a marathon this level of extra feeding doesn't seem required and the odd piece of fruit or chocolate bar does the job.
During a race I can honestly say that I have never met a calorie that wasn’t my friend.
Post race recovery.
Once upon a time this meant stuffing my face with anything and everything I could get my hands on. Then I went through a period of drinking chocolate milkshakes after races and now I tend to view the post race period as a chance to enjoy a nice meal with friends and fellow runners and get back to my normal style of imperfect, not particularly Paleo eating. You could in fact look upon the post-race period as being pretty much the same as the pre-race period. Eat well. Enjoy what you eat and don’t feel that you have to go crazy with the calories. If you eat ordinary quantities of food that you like and come back to training slowly and carefully you may well find that the post-race days are nothing more than a return to a comfortable routine.
From my current vantage point I feel that I have probably spent too much time in the past recovering from inappropriate eating rather than recovering from the race itself.
As I mentioned earlier this is a personal view. I don’t in any way claim to be an expert in this area but I am fascinated by the field and the way that “Energy” drinks and foods have become part of everyday life for non-endurance athletes as well as a valuable business for some companies. Hopefully you found at least some of it interesting and useful. I would love to hear what readers of this piece have experienced. What works for you? What food successes and disasters have you experienced?
If you want to explore this topic further the internet is full of articles on the Paleo diet and they are very easy to find. As well as this an Irish company, Primal 3 run intensive workshops on the subject of diet and training and the courses are very interesting. See Primal3.org for details.
Thanks for reading.
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