Marathon training: sorting your food # 1

Running. It burns a lot of calories. But maybe not as many as you think. The energy cost of running is one of the reasons people are attracted to training for a half or full marathon, as the training can keep fitness and food goals on track.  Yes, we all have performance goals, be it to compete or complete, but the added benefit of the training is obviously to keep in shape. Having an event to focus on can free your mind from the decision of whether you’re going out in the rain at 5.30am to do a 45 min easy run before work – the programme has decided that for you, you’re going out regardless.*

Along with a plan for training, people often also focus on their food intake. Sometimes the threat of lugging around additional dead-weight when training is the impetus to be mindful of food choices. Or perhaps the increase in activity naturally makes you gravitate towards healthier food choices because they make you feel better both physically and mentally. Both of these can help people lean up prior to their scheduled event. On the other hand, sometimes the increase in training can almost open the floodgates on the food. Whilst this can in part be related to the oft-heard ‘it doesn’t matter what you eat, as you’ll burn it off in training anyway’ mentality, for others it’s almost a subconscious process they aren’t even aware is happening. Where once they more often than not said ‘no’ to a scone with your coffee, now you will more often than not say ‘yes.’ While we all know people who seem to eat this way and successfully maintain a good body composition, others struggle to maintain their weight or lose body fat despite the increase in miles. I see many people in my clinic who have signed up for an event, started the training and are frustrated that they’re not seeing the results they thought were inevitable once they’ve started putting in the miles. A lot of people can end up gaining weight while training for a half or full marathon. I know I did when I first trained for one.

For some people, despite the good choices they make throughout the day, unwanted fat gain could well be the additional food consumed to support the training. Two pieces of honey on toast, a couple of sports gels throughout, then a sports drink, protein shake or a handful of jelly lollies to finish up adds a significant amount of refined sugar and calories you would otherwise not be consuming. And whilst you have just completed a 2h run, the amount of energy that you’ve burned might be a lot less than what you have estimated. Further, your ability to continue to burn fat afterwards is compromised with the influx of sugar that is readily burned instead of your own fuel stores. Finally, there is a potential for your energy levels to be lower later in the day from the food choices made specifically to fuel your run. This can lead to making food decisions that are geared towards instantly increasing energy levels (an increase in caffeine, sugar….) to combat a crash due to a sugar-fuelled fest.

Avoiding a sugar crash (or unwanted weight gain) is easier when you can rely less on sugar for energy and more on your own body fat stores. As I said last week (and as you’ve undoubtedly read elsewhere), your ability to use fat as a fuel source is compromised when you dump sugar into your system. The more you can move away from this, the better you’re able to tap into your fat stores  and utilise these more for your training. Regardless of your goal (compete, complete, improve or maintain body composition goals) most endurance athletes would benefit from trying something different with their pre and post training nutrition if they are currently struggling with energy levels, with maintaining weight, or with trying to shift towards a leaner body composition. Despite what you read in magazines geared towards running, it’s possible (and preferable) to train effectively for an event without adding in sports drink, gels, energy bars or other highly refined products to your everyday diet.

Training fasted is one way to encourage your body to utilise fat stores instead of carbohydrate for training. If you haven’t got a session that requires a lot of top-end power, (say, an easy 45 minutes) then this is a good opportunity to do so. Further, choosing to do your long, easy run in a fasted state is an extension of this concept. If you’re new to fasted training, then try going out fasted for your easy runs during the week and one long run every other weekend as you adapt to using fat as fuel. Depending on the length of the long run, take on board fuel after 75-90 minutes. You will feel sluggish at first, and maybe experience dead legs afterwards, but you will adapt. For body composition goals, this will help reduce the amount of dietary energy going in on a day-to-day basis if you’re currently eating before every run.

If you train in the afternoon then having a snack before training (or your lunch meal) that doesn’t promote an insulin spike (and thus a reliance of carbohydrate for fuel) is ideal. I encourage clients to choose a snack incorporating fat and/or protein along with some carbohydrate – particularly if they are eating just before heading out the door. Some of these foods might be

  • Small handful raw nuts
  • Piece of fruit and nut butter
  • Full fat greek yoghurt with seeds and a few berries
  • Cottage cheese with a sprinkling of cranberries and pumpkin seeds
  • Hardboiled egg and piece of fruit

Whether or not you require a snack is individual – some might feel fine going out after work if they feel adequately fuelled from lunch. If this is you, training four hours after lunch could also be considered a fasted session.

For those who struggle to maintain their weight and feel that they have to eat constantly to maintain a feeling a fullness then becoming more fat adapted will, also be of benefit. If you train in the morning, then instead of going out in a fasted state or trying to get down a snack such as those above, a number of clients have found that having a black coffee with coconut oil in it before heading out (1-2 tablespoons) does the trick in terms of energy for the session and overall calorie intake. Another option could be a couple of tablespoons of coconut butter. Both of these will provide calories without the associated insulin spike that occurs with carbohydrate (and some dairy). If neither of these options appeal, then a smoothie made with coconut milk, unsweetened almond milk and perhaps some berries is another idea.

These may look like dishwash tabs but actually it's coconut. Liquify dessicated coconut in blender and pop in an ice tray for it to solidify.

These may look like dishwash tabs but actually it’s coconut. Liquify dessicated coconut in blender and pop in an ice tray for it to solidify.

There are many ways in which to tap into fat stores, and nutrition before training is the first place to start. Ideally over the course of the day your food intake will gravitate towards changing the proportion of energy coming from refined carbohydrate to a more even balance of protein, fat and good sources of carbohydrate. I’ll talk more about that next week.

*yes I know there are some slackers amongst us who always hit the snooze button. I’m not talking about them. 

Training for a marathon?

With spring in the air and July almost behind us, now is the perfect opportunity for me to talk about one of my favourite topics. Running. I love running. Love it. When I read one of those motivational quotes about running it’s like someone has written down my most innermost thoughts on how I feel about running. Not only was the recent trip to Gold Coast to take part in the half marathon a winner in terms of discovering an awesome Spanish omelette (to which I made my own version), it has done wonders for my running mojo, which had been lacking in recent months thanks to a couple of injuries.



I’ve completed close to 8 marathons. Seven and 41/42.2 to be exact. It wasn’t an injury that stopped me from crossing the finishing line in Christchurch in 2010 in the coldest conditions I’d ever experienced during a race; it was dignity. My nutrition plan for the race was the undoing of an otherwise well executed run. I had a plan to eat my normal pre-race breakfast then take a carbohydrate gel every 30 minutes during the event. Carbohydrate is used to fuel the body during exercise and we have a storage capacity that is limited to around 90 minutes of moderate intensity activity before we run out (generally speaking). Sports nutrition guidelines recommend 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour (or 1g/kg body weight) in order to keep a steady supply of glucose in the blood stream the body can draw on for fuel. How much glucose that is tolerated is quite individual, though I had no fears of having any gastrointestinal (GI) issues  – my claim to fame was a stomach of steel. I once consumed an entire mixing bowl of green gooseberries with no negative issues, and prior to other marathons managed to put away a simple carbohydrate feast of no less than five white buns with jam, an orange juice and a banana to hit the start line ready to run. Suffice to say, I backed myself, nutritionally speaking.

However a gel every half an hour combined with very little fluid throughout the run (due to the near-freezing temperatures) ended up being my undoing. To half way I felt absolutely fine. It wasn’t until around 27 km (what I like to term ‘no mans land’ in a marathon – too far in to back out, not far enough to be able to see the finish line) that I started experiencing a few stomach cramps. Nothing major, I thought – and soldiered on. I got to 31 km and, despite that I was beginning to feel a bit bloated, I took my gel on schedule. Thirty-four kilometres in was where it all unravelled. I was in need of a Portaloo, yet made the fatal error of thinking that I could hold it together to 42 km as it was only an ‘8k time trial’ to the end. How wrong I was. I’d never before experienced the ‘runs’ during a run and there was nothing I could do to stop the consequences of too many gels and not enough fluid. There was no bush to dive into and I’m no Paula Radcliffe; stopping and dealing to it on the race course was not an option. From 37-41 km I had an internal battle of whether to finish the run or not and in the end dignity stopped me from crossing the finish line. I pulled the pin at 41 km, jogged to the nearest public toilet to try and clean myself up before catching a lift back to the hotel for a much-needed shower.

Thanks Marathontalk. Awesome podcast. Wicked picture.

Thanks Marathontalk. Awesome podcast. Wicked picture.

If I learnt anything from the experience it was that relying too heavily on gels didn’t work for me in this instance. While muscle carbohydrate stores are certainly the limiting factor in endurance events, we are far better off trying to tap into an almost unlimited supply of energy and teach our body to burn more fat than carbohydrates, so we don’t have to rely so heavily on exogenous fuel sources. GI distress is one of the three main problems that clients come to see me about –and a lot of it is due to the overconsumption of carbohydrate gels or food when training or racing.

Very simply put, your body burns either fat or carbohydrate at a given intensity. At a lower intensity (at rest, walking, light aerobic activity), we burn proportionately more fat than carbohydrate. However as the intensity of the exercise increases, the fuel substrate shifts to burning predominantly more carbohydrate. Of course, across the spectrum of exercise intensity, you will likely burn both fat and carbohydrate, and the amount that you burn is influenced by a few factors. Three main ones are:

  1. Training history. Well trained athletes are able to burn more fat at a higher intensity than someone new to the world of endurance sport.
  2. What you eat before training. If you follow conventional sports nutrition principles then the standard high carbohydrate, moderate-to-low protein and low fat fare will provide you plenty of fuel to start your run with. When we digest carbohydrate, the body responds by releasing insulin, a hormone responsible for delivering that fuel to the working muscles. The only problem is that insulin is the fat storage hormone. Not a problem whilst your running (you’re very unlikely to be storing fat at this point!) However insulin switches off your ability to burn fat. Instead you are setting up an environment in the body whereby the reliance for carbohydrate is increased, yet (depending on the intensity) our body can’t absorb glucose at the rate at which we require it – increasing the risk of either GI issues (as I experienced) or of hitting the wall.
  3. Daily diet. Cereal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, pasta for dinner, and snacks of rice cakes, muesli bars and dried fruit has been standard fare for many an endurance athlete. Many of these foods are digested quickly by the body and produce the insulin response that I mentioned earlier. The subsequent fall in blood sugar levels as the insulin rapidly deals to the sugar that is released into the bloodstream can lead to low blood sugar levels and cravings for simple, easily digested carbohydrate foods that will drive your blood sugar levels up again – it’s an evolutionary response that was a useful survival mechanism back in ancestral times. The rollercoaster blood sugar response to carbohydrate impacts on your energy levels, mood, ability to concentrate and hunger. For a lot of people coming to see me, this eating pattern is often devoid of nutrients that endurance athletes are in need of: good quality fats, protein and non starchy carbohydrates that deliver micronutrients essential for repair and recovery. It’s not that carbohydrate for endurance training is not important; it’s the quality that matters. And the timing. If you’re eating in response to an energy crash it’s likely that you’re not reaching for a baked kumara to combat the blood sugar low.

I could go on. And I will, in future posts – the promise of spring and the upcoming marathon schedule gives me plenty of excuses to write about nutrition related to running (and other endurance sports). And, if the idea of going for a run makes you want to put a fork through your eye, stay tuned also –the principles associated with nutrition for sport apply to nutrition for life. In four words: just eat real food. And I’ll talk more about that in detail soon.


Further to last week…

This week a client emailed me this week to say she enjoyed my post last week and, despite my encouraging her to stay away from the scales, she felt panicked over their refusal to budge from 54kg. And those clothes I mentioned that could be used as an alternative measure? They still don’t fit. One of the reasons she came to see me in the first place was her inability to lose the last couple of kilograms she felt were hindering her training ability and subsequent race performance. And as we’ve worked together over the last four months, her weight has pretty much stayed the same: up 300g, down 500g, but still 54kg. To my mind, though, her other (more major) hurdle was overcoming the daily battle that went on in her head with food. Prior to seeing me she has had a long history of bingeing and purging, coupled with a near starvation diet that used to keep her weight in check.

A typical day would begin with a fasted training session around 6am with minimal fuel throughout. Breakfast would be at around 11am (depending on the day, that could be 1-3h after finishing the session) and would consist of fruit and yoghurt (low fat, artificially sweetened) followed by two large cups of tea with Equal in it. In between breakfast and lunch, Sprite Zero and more tea would be consumed to dampen hunger pains, as lunch would be around 3pm (never earlier) and consist of a salad with 50g chicken, oil free dressing, and a piece of fruit. Dinner, at around 7pm, would be meat and vegetables. However, the gnawing hunger from a few days of minimal food would give way to a sugar binge; a couple of squares of chocolate quickly turned into a block, followed by ice cream, some cake, slice or biscuits…and an inevitable purge – either through exercise or through vomiting – to rid herself of the excessive calories and overall feeling of a lack of control around food. This pattern had been going on for years, and while it represents an extreme example of the relationship someone can have with food, I suspect that this resonates with more than a few people on some level.

For this particular client, the pattern of eating was undermining her physical and psychological health. Slowly but surely her weight crept up and over time, the binge-purge cycle was no longer effective in keeping her at the 52kg that she felt was the ‘ideal’ weight for her – and hadn’t seen for a long time. She was also unable to concentrate properly during the day, had acne, was irritable in the afternoon and early evening and had difficulty falling asleep due to the uncomfortable feeling of a distended stomach. Though she recognised her behaviour around food was not healthy, she was having difficulty in changing her habits and contacted me when she became aware of my recent shift to a whole food approach to diet.

Over the last four months the progress she has made around the food is simply amazing. She has completely changed her food intake from one of deprivation to one of abundance. She faithfully followed my instructions to eat more, to remove sugar and processed food from her diet, to not be afraid of either fat or whole food sources of carbohydrate, and to fuel herself for her training sessions. The result of this is evident when you can see the changes in her skin, her mood, and her sleep. The bi-weekly sugar binges are now (on average) once every 5-6 weeks and nothing like they used to be. When they do occur, she no longer starves herself the next day. Instead she makes sure that she eats good sources of protein, fat and vegetables to help stabilise her blood sugar levels. She is far more in tune with her psychological reactions to food and notices that during times of stress, when her stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) are elevated, she experiences more sugar cravings and actively has to resist the urge to binge. Most importantly, in the last four months she has not purged once, a record for her in the last 10 years. I’m not saying that she has conquered her demons; far from it. The rules, feelings and behaviour around food have been constructed over a number of years and they will not disappear overnight. It may take many years and it might be that, on some level, they will always be part of her. But, in her mind, the number of wins she has had with eating a whole food approach to diet has her sold on it.

Despite this, she still fights an internal battle with not falling into the same habits of eating minimal amounts of food and filling up Sprite Zero and artificially sweetened cups of tea in an effort to get her back to the 52kg that I suspect she was never meant to be in the first place. This week when she emailed, she told me she had been spending her days in tracksuit pants as they were the only thing she could wear which wasn’t a constant reminder that she is not the ‘ideal weight for her’. I realised then I should have added a caveat to the post I wrote last week about using your clothes as a measure. Only use them if they are actually clothes you are meant to wear in the first place. Don’t use them as a yardstick if they were bought one size too small in the hope you would fit them in six weeks time. Or if they were pants you wore 15 years ago and you ‘should’ still be able to get into them (according to the BMI weight charts). Or if fitting into them is only possible when you do back-to-back spin classes and live on salad and diet Coke (like you were when you bought them). If you have any of these clothes lurking in your wardrobe in the hope of one day fitting them again then I want you to honestly evaluate the goal. If you recognise that a poor diet and/or poor habits lead you to grow out of your clothes and that, with a shift in habits and change to eating better foods, you may get into them again, then keep hold of them. If you had to seriously restrict your food intake to wear them for all of four weeks before falling off the diet bandwagon, or you never really fitted them to begin with, then I recommend giving them to the Salvation Army. My advice to my client this week was to get rid of the pants that epitomise all of the habits and behaviours contributing to an unhealthy physical and psychological sense of self. And go shopping – it makes everyone feel better.

Weighing up the options

I’m weighing up whether or not to bin the scales in my clinic. I remember my days studying Phys Ed at Otago University. There were two distinct camps in one department, separated both in location (opposite sides of the road) and in ways of thinking; ruler heads and the story tellers. The ruler heads were predominantly interested in quantitative, empirical research – numbers telling the story. Performing exercise tests and collecting physical data in both field and laboratory studies, where they could attach numbers and values to outcomes to prove or disprove a method of training designed to improve performance. Think exercise physiology or biomechanics. The story tellers, as the name suggests, were firmly planted in the qualitative camp. The data they collected is based more on people’s experiences, perceptions and their view of the world and how this might relate to performance or physical activity patterns. Exercise psychology or sociology fits under this umbrella (simplistic, yes). In research, we often draw on both areas to be able to fully understand or interpret information, but depending on your school of thought, you’re going to place more importance on numbers or on stories as your measure of success.

The same thing happens in nutrition consultations, and often times the measure of success is determined predominantly by the number on the scales. An almost compulsory piece of equipment in a doctor’s or nutritionist and dietitian clinic. They can be your best friend or you wouldn’t wish them on your worst enemy. The importance that jumping on the scales places on body weight as the main outcome can be disproportionate to other, more important physical and mental health gains that can be garnered through good eating. These gains, when not reflected by the numbers on the scales, can be forgotten in a heartbeat. If that’s the case, then it makes it so much harder to convince someone that they are on the path to health, despite what the scales say.

Clients report that my scales weigh heavy and therefore they don’t like them, or they weigh light so it’s always pleasing. Often times they weigh themselves at home before coming to see me, and state that ‘it doesn’t count’ unless they see the difference in my scales. I want to see my clients succeed – in health and wellbeing and in their body composition goals. However lately I’ve been moving away from the scales as the determining measure of success. The qualitative, to my mind, is more important. Body composition changes will come, weight loss will come, the more important thing is that success is achieved through behaviour change. That wellbeing is enhanced through being able to sleep properly because stimulants like caffeine and sugar are no longer used as a crux to make it through the day; that skin is clearing up because the client has eliminated dairy from their diet; that hunger is controlled because the processed carbohydrate options like corn or rice thins eating as an afternoon snack are no longer needed as people are eating more at meal times. The blood sugar highs and lows driving hunger are no longer experienced, and therefore mood, along with energy levels, are remaining stable.

I’ve always used other measures as well, but people focus on the scales and the problem with scales being THE measure of success is that, for some people (largely women, but certainly some men), so much self esteem is tied up in the numbers on the scales that they forget what has been gained through changing their eating habits. Not everyone; I have a friend who religiously weighs himself each morning and tracks it. This, for him, is motivating as it shows while his weight goes up and down every day, over the course of a month it trends downwards. For him, it’s not an emotional journey along with a weight loss journey – they are merely numbers that track what he instinctively knows anyway. He is getting healthier. For others though, that number will determine whether they have a good day or a bad week. And it can change their whole mood in an instant. One client followed up with me three weeks after her initial consultation. A former Weight Watchers devotee, she reported that she was sleeping better, had far more energy, and realised she was no longer thinking about her next meal the moment she’d finished her last one. She wasn’t falling asleep at her desk in the afternoon anymore, and therefore had energy to exercise after work where before she was exhausted. The bloating she experienced had completely disappeared, her clothes felt looser and her skin was clearer. In three weeks. She hadn’t weighed herself. After we chatted about how much better she felt, we weighed her. The number on the scales had not changed. It was like a dark cloud had descended over the room. The confident, bubbly woman who was finally feeling a sense of control where she was lacking it had visibly transformed into a disappointed, confused and uncertain person who suddenly lost faith that her dietary approach was any better than the last one.

In that moment I lost faith that the number on the scales should be emphasised as a determining measure of success. Of course, if you are an athlete with a specific weight goal (boxer, jockey…) then it is different. For the majority of people though, how their clothes fit is a much better indicator of body composition. I also tell people to measure a piece of string around their waist then duplicate that length. Every month, remeasure with one piece of string and cut off as their waist diminishes. That way, the change in length of one piece compared to the original is a visual reminder of progress. And, obviously, body composition changes are not solely reflected in the number staring up at you from the scales. A way better indicator is the person staring back at you in the mirror. I have still been weighing clients who have wanted it – and that is fine. However I no longer offer it up as the first thing to do. In many cases they weigh themselves at home, in the gym or with their coach anyway, so it’s superfluous for me to then put them on my set of scales to give them yet another number to track. The metrics that I focus on now are far more ‘story teller’ than ‘ruler head’ The scales are still important, but they don’t tell the full story. Or even half the story. A much better story is told through the psychological effects that you can’t put a value on that come from having a good diet. Priceless.

PS. It was my birthday this week, celebrated by all of America. I made a pudding. Here it is (and, yes, at some point I am going to learn how to post recipes in a more user-friendly way so they are way easier to find).