I’ve been training for my eighth marathon for weeks and months (has it been years? It might be years, actually), and now I’ve entered the taper period. For the un-initiated, the taper is a period of two to three weeks before your marathon where your body can’t make any further physical adaptations—you can’t get faster or stronger—so you focus on resting a bit more and letting your body repair so you’ll be strong for your race. I’m also about to enter the period where I’ll be focusing on a two-part dietary protocol to make sure that my muscles are loaded up with fuel when I hit that start line.
The folks in my marathon training group (this photo is of me chatting with the group--aren't they an attractive and fit group of people?!) and many of my clients are also about to enter this period, and this is where I encounter my greatest professional nemesis: Your friend’s uncle’s best friend’s neighbor.
I believe in science. Science tells us that carb loading—in one of about a zillion variations—gives marathon runners a tremendous benefit in our event and is a key part of a nutritional strategy to prevent hitting the dreaded wall.
Then there’s your friend’s uncle’s best friend’s neighbor. He didn’t carb load at all! He was on the road and didn’t eat anything all day the day before his event except for a giant steak for dinner, and he totally killed his marathon!
Science tells us that breakfast is non-negotiable on the morning of the marathon. Eating 2-3 hours before your event gives your body time to get digestion underway so your body doesn’t have to divert blood to your digestive system and can instead get it to your muscles. A carb-rich breakfast devoid of excessive fiber, protein and fat—all of which take a longer time to digest and don’t provide immediate fuel—is your best bet. And above all, breakfast should be something that you’ve tried and tested!
Your friend’s uncle’s best friend’s neighbor, however, didn’t even eat breakfast! He just showed up at the start line of his marathon and guzzled a Red Bull!
Science tells us that supplementing with carbohydrate during our race will allow us to work harder and will provide us fuel to help push back the wall. We should only use gels, chews and sports drinks that we’ve practiced with, and we should take them as we’ve practiced to avoid unexpected visits to the port-a-potty.
Your friend’s uncle’s best friend’s neighbor never practiced with gels or chews. In fact, he barely even trained! (Man, how cool is this guy?!) At mile 18, he picked up a cup of beer that someone had out for the racers as a joke—and he chugged it! What a card! Then he picked up some gels he’d never tried before from an aid station and downed three of them at mile 24. And then he picked up a handful of gummi bears from some people cheering from the runners. Did I mention that he totally rocked his race?
All this to say that while there are some generally agreed-upon principles that relate to marathon training and dietary adjustments, there is always an exception. There’s always someone who breaks all the rules and still gets by. There’s always a story about someone’s friend’s uncle’s best friend’s neighbor who does everything counter to the rules and slays their race.
If you decide to follow your friend’s uncle’s best friend’s neighbor, it’s possible that you may become the legend that someone else talks about years from now as they train for their first marathon. Or you may become the cautionary tale that coaches point to for years to come as what to never do. As for me? I think I’ll stick pretty close to the science.
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