Marathon training: sorting your food #3: What’s for dinner?

Right. You’ve just come in from a training session and it’s close to 7pm. Dinner. Hmm. Well, you could pick up takeaways, given you’ve just ticked off an 80 min run wth 20 minutes of tempo. Alternatively, as you’re watching your weight, a 50g serve of Tegel shredded chicken on a supermarket salad will fill the gap without undoing all of the hard work of this evening’s session. It doesn’t matter that you’re starving and you felt a little sluggish and slow in the training session – and that’s been happening quite a bit lately during training. It’s that time of year.

Unsurprisingly, the two common scenarios that I see in the clinic are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to refuelling in the evening. Some people (lean or otherwise) use their training to justify poor dietary choices, whereas others constantly underfuel themselves in an effort to drop body fat – and then wonder why they get sick, injured, or slower in training. There are times when both situations are fine and, sometimes, appropriate, given the overall goal of the session and the phase of training. No, I’m not saying a dirty burger from BK should be a mainstay in an athlete’s diet (‘Cholesterol free’ vegetable oil should raise red flags) – but equally it’s not the end of the world to include these once in a while if your overall diet is grounded in whole food with good quality nutrients. On the other hand, being strategic about your refuelling practices can be a good way to become better able to burn fat as fuel, to promote fat loss and also to enhance your muscle’s ability to adapt to the training session. However, choosing low carbohydrate (CHO), low fat meal options as your default after training could be the undoing of your marathon journey. While this can be effective at burning fat, if your overall diet is one lacking important nutrients and overall calories, you’ll experience both fat and muscle loss, increased risk of illness or injury, and less likelihood of toeing the start line. Let’s face it – the main issue for most runners is getting through the training unscathed, not the race itself.

Some of the basic considerations:

How hard was the workout or session? If it was a light jog and stretch, then focusing on sports nutrition principles isn’t necessary in most cases. However, if you’ve had a hard session and it’s appropriate to refuel for the next session, then getting on board some CHO and/or protein might be a good idea, depending on how far away dinner is.

What is your body composition goal? If you are wanting to drop some body fat prior to your event, then try and structure your food around your training. However, if you need to refuel quickly to ensure recovery before your next session (if you train in the evening, and again the following morning), then it might be necessary to take on board some CHO source directly after the session, and then focus on just protein, fat, vegetables at dinner. That way you get in the CHO necessary to replenish muscle stores in the ‘window of opportunity’ straight after training where your body is most receptive to taking on board nutrients, but don’t eat in addition to your normal intake.

How might this look when you don’t want sports drink, sports gels or other processed sports nutrition products? Have a piece of fruit / a fruit puree pot/dried fruit / 250 ml fresh juice within 20-30 minutes. Then have dinner as normal. Those who are after fat loss would be better focusing on protein (20-25g serve protein at least – see here for protein in food and if you’re not a vegetarian then ideally choose animal sources of protein for a better source of nutrients)/vegetables/1-2 serves of fat for dinner, and those who struggle to maintain weight would also include a CHO source at dinner and at least another serve of fat. A serve of fat equates to 1T oil or butter, 2T seeds, a couple of handfuls of olives, ½ small or ¼ large avocado… you get the drift. The inbetweeners? (i.e. those who are happy where they are at body composition wise), well it’s trial and error really – you might want to include additional CHO in your dinner or, those who are following a low-carbohdyrate, high fat diet would up the amount of fat consumed at dinner. At any rate, you’ll need to monitor hunger levels, energy levels and whether you are gaining or losing body fat.

Another way to promote fat loss is to create a ‘low carbohydrate’ environment that can also enhance changes in the muscle (become fitter, stronger, faster) quicker than when you always have adequate carbohydrate on board to fuel the session. This is not just for fat loss, however – and can be a useful training tactic for endurance athletes. What I’m suggesting is to do two ‘back to back’ sessions without having carbohydrate in the meal in between. The second session is a light one (ideally in the morning, before breakfast – say a 45 min easy jog). Ensure after this that you have a good breakfast that includes CHO, protein and fat to help recover (and adapt to become stronger) from the training, as the danger is to continue to restrict calories and nutrients and start digging yourself into a low energy hole that can be hard to get out of. Those wanting the training stimulus but are not requiring fat loss will need to ensure adequate fat in the evening meal, so they aren’t low in overall dietary energy, just the carbohydrates.

Strategically targeting particular workouts throughout the week to make the most of the potential adaptation for training ‘low’ is a good way to become fat adapted, focus on fat loss, and have an increased biochemical response to the training stimulus for a lower training effort (training ‘smarter’). The trade off for this though is that you won’t be able to go and smash it to the same intensity as you would if your muscle fuel stores (i.e. glycogen) were fully replenished – the high end power output is diminished. However for most people (i.e. not elite athletes) wanting to see some body composition gains  as part of the overall training effect, training low can be a really good way to adapt to the training.

Spag bol with leeks used as the pasta substitute

Spag bol with leeks used as the pasta substitute

Dinner the low CHO way

It can be difficult to think of what to have for dinner if you often rely on pasta or rice for a go-to dinner. The key is to find acceptabe substitutes so you don’t feel that something is missing.

Options instead of pasta, rice, root vegetables, bread-based dishes

  • Zucchini noodles instead of spaghetti
  • Leeks instead of spaghetti (chopped thinly – thank you HK for this; potentially steam them first to cook them, and then you can sautee them if you wish in butter, olive oil or coconut oil)
  • Layers of grilled or panfried sliced eggplant or zucchini instead of pasta for a lasagne
  • Mashed potato/kumara: Cauliflower OR brocooli and carrot OR swede mashed with seasoning, butter/olive oil and mustard
  • Chopped, roasted swede or celeriac instead of roasted potato/kumara
  • Cauliflower grated or food processor and then steamed for a couple of minutes to cook (i.e. this risotto)
  • Use cauliflower or eggplant (as per the recipe page) to create a pizza base or taco

Quick meals to combine with a quality source of CHO, or a substitute as above

  • Salmon steak sprinkled with cajun seasoning that is grilled and served with steamed or sauteed vegetables (in olive oil, butter or coconut oil)
  • White fish baked in foil in oven with lemon juice and olive oil drizzled over it
  • Cabbage, carrot sticks and broccoli stirfried with frozen prawns added near end
  • Supermarket rotisserie chicken with salad and side of avocado – throw seeds into salad and dress with an olive oil/balsamic vinegar
  • Steak pan-fried in coconut oil and served with salad or vegetables as above
  • Omelette with 2 eggs and sliced vegetables (microwaved to steam) with salmon (canned, smoked, woodsmoked) added
  • Fish in an egg wash and crumbed with almond meal, pan fried and served with poached egg and a salad
  • Red cabbage, red onion, red apple sticks sauteed in olive oil/butter/coconut oil and served with cooked, shredded chicken (this isn’t appropriate for the low carb option, given the apple
  • Spaghetti bolognese mince, served with either a pasta substitute, or on top of microwaved kumara
  • Sliced brussel sprouts, sliced bacon and broccoli stir-fried in olive oil and served on the side of fish, chicken or steak
  • Shredded chicken breast on salad with grilled haloumi and pumpkin seeds

Bon appetit

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