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. 

5 thoughts on “Marathon training: sorting your food # 1

  1. Hi there, interesting article, especially as I’m training for my first marathon! How long should it take approximately to become more efficient at using fat as a fuel so when you’re doing your long runs you don’t need to use a sports drink etc till further along in your run? Thanks

    • Hi Nicola, it can take anywhere between 2-8 weeks to become fat adapted (anecdotally) so unfortunately there is no easy answer! It depends on a whole host of factors – what your diet is like now, what your pre-training nutrition is like and how fit you are also (as fitter athletes tend to use less muscle CHO compared to unfit athletes). My advice is to go out prepared – so carry with you what you might normally take with you on a long run, but consume your sports drink/gel a little later than you normally would. That’s a better idea than going out with the expectation you don’t need any CHO but then run into problems. I hope that helps! 🙂

  2. I’m very interested in this especially as im looking at fine tuning my nutrition plan ahead of an ultra im preparing for next year. My question is there is lots of interest in training ‘fasted’ at the moment, however previous advice was never to do this as the body preferred its own muscle tissue as a fuel before fat. How true is this and is there any evidence to discredit this advice?

    • Hi Rich, While this is true to some extent, I don’t think that you should worry about this.
      We are in a constant state of muscle breakdown/muscle rebuilding and endurance exercise will break down muscle tissue for fuel in the absence of muscle glycogen (our body’s carbohydrate stores). The end result (if protein needs aren’t taken care of) will be an overall negative protein balance. However this can be offset by ingesting protein to provide your body with the amino acids that it needs for repair and recovery – if you want to train fasted then you could take branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) throughout your training run, but in reality I don’t think this would be necessary as I imagine you will be ingesting fuel throughout your training anyway. Also at a lower intensity (particularly the type of training you will be undertaking for an ultra event (which sounds awesome, btw)) your body will burn proportionately more fat. At higher intensities this switches to burning glucose which will mean more protein is broken down to produce glucose through gluconeogenesis if you don’t have any glucose readily available.
      I found this article, BTW, that you might find interesting (I did!) Jeff Volek is one of the leading researchers in fat adaption for endurance athletes. His thoughts on protein and endurance athletes. Kind of removed from your comments, but kind of related…. 🙂 http://www.ultramarathonman.com/newsletter/Supreme_Protein_Endurance.pdf

      • Bingo!!!! Just had that lightbulb moment!! Thank you so much for both your reply and directing me to Volek’s views on protein. It kind of backs up what my body actually knew all along, occasionally after a long run my body craves a whey protein shake, when I give in and ‘treat’ myself I experience hardly any aches and pains the following day. Volek’s view backs that up nicely!!! Tuna mayo sandwich anyone?

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