What's the deal with Fat Loading and Carb Loading?

Apologies to my non-marathon-running readers and friends, because this space is going to be monopolized for the next couple of weeks with posts on strategies for the couple of weeks before the marathon.

And they’re really big weeks!

We marathon runners (and half marathon runners, too) have been training for months, but now, we’re cutting waaaaaaay back on our mileage to rest and restore our bodies after all those pounding, runs. Sadly, that means we lose the benefit of the powerful endorphins we’ve been releasing during tough workouts, and we need those feel-good fuzzies more than ever because the impending race is weighing heavy on our minds and our nerves. Speaking of heavy, one of the biggest concerns for runners during this time is weight gain. For months we’ve been feeding ourselves to fuel intense runs, and now we’re not burning calories at the same level. Try and tell that to our appetites! And then we’re supposed to carb load carefully so as not to put on weight? It’s enough to push me—I mean, someone—over the edge!

But fear not.

In the next couple of posts, I’ll break down the carb load into easy to understand concepts.

Simply put, carb loading involves eating lots of carbohydrate-rich foods before an endurance event to load up your muscles with glycogen (aka stored carbohydrates). We can only store a small amount of carbs in our muscles—90 minutes to two hours at a hard effort of exercise. We have hours of fat to burn, but using fat for fuel is far less efficient than glycogen, so we need to maximize the carbs stored before we hit the start line, or we risk a very painful finish (click for a story on a particularly painful run I had last year).

For my half marathoners: Carb loading is only effective for events lasting more than two hours. Most half-marathoners don’t need to undertake a carb-loading regiment of several days, though they definitely benefit from enjoying carb-rich foods the day before their race and in their evening meal the night before the night before the event (that wasn’t a typo: that all important carb-filled dinner happens two days before the half marathon!).

The two-phased carb load for the full marathon is a widely accepted practice (Writer/Athlete/Coach/Nutritionist extraordinaire Matt Fitzgerald has written extensively on this topic and informs my process considerably):

Step 1 is adapting a low-carb, high-fat diet of about 65% fat for several days—up to 10 if you can manage it. Your body adapts to burning fat for fuel during this phase, especially during the short workouts you’ll be undertaking without the benefit of carbohydrates.

Step 2 is the carb load, a diet of 70% or greater carbohydrates for about three days to fill up then top off your bodies carbohydrate stores.

Marathoners can opt to skip fat loading, but they tremendously benefit from a multi-day carb load. If a marathon runner waits until the day before the race to carb load, it’s already too late! Most of us need more than a day to fill those stores. 

I’ve heard quite a few questions about how much more we should be eating to carb load. That’s actually a bit of a misconception. The carb load doesn’t necessarily require us to eat lots more food—don’t forget that our bodies can only store a relatively small amount of carbohydrate. If you over do it by forcing down significantly more calories than you need, you could be carrying extra poundage to your 26.2 miler.

Carb loading is more about shifting the proportions on your plate.

Allow me to illustrate what a healthy everyday dinner plate looks like:


Should a runner opt to try the fat load (again not a requirement for every marathoner), the plate shifts to more fat, a regular sized portion of protein, and a small amount of starch vegetable or whole grain.



And for the carb load (my personal favorite illustration!), the shift is toward a larger serving of carbohydrate rich food with smaller amounts of protein and fat.

The easiest way to jump into the carb and fat load is to think of the meals and snacks you already like and to make simple adjustments to proportions and ingredients. In my next post, I’ll share practical easy swaps you can make to meet the nutrition requirements of race week.

Need help developing a custom dietary plan for your race week? Let's talk: lauren@live-full.com

The Ongoing Battle between Science vs What Your Friend’s Uncle’s Best Friend’s Neighbor Says

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.


Got questions? Let's talk: lauren@live-full.com

Fast Food-Like Substances vs Real Food Fast

Some of you may recognize the expression on my face. I went straight from work to the track tonight and did a pretty challenging workout. It felt great, but now I’m starving, and I’m walking into my kitchen long after 8pm. I passed umpteen drive-thrus, quickie marts and fast service restaurants, so, why, you may ask, didn’t I just pick up dinner on the way home or order a pizza?


I truly believe that putting together a home cooked dinner doesn’t have to be an arduous time-consuming task, and the benefits of eating a meal made with fresh ingredients are tremendous, especially after a workout. So here’s how this went down…

8:15pm: Arrived home (and took snarky photo while stomach growled loudly). Super fast shower to get off the funk.

8:22pm: Turned the oven to 400F to preheat. Lined a cookie sheet with a piece of parchment paper and grabbed a bag of pre-washed green beans out of the fridge (thank you, Wegmans!), along with a red bell pepper, a container of pre-washed spinach (thank you,MOMs!), and some bell pepper and carrot that I had pre-chopped and left in the fridge ready to go.

8:24pm: Sliced the red bell pepper into thin strips and threw it on to the cookie sheet along with the green beans. Sprinkled a tablespoon of olive oil, garlic powder, sea salt and cumin seeds over the vegetables and tossed well. Drained and rinsed a can of chickpeas and put half the can on to the cookie sheet. Popped the cookie sheet into the oven.

8:26pm: Measured out two servings of quinoa and threw it into a dry pot to toast.

8:28pm: Assembled salads with spinach, carrot, bell pepper and sliced an avocado to go on top. Added a sprinkling of granola (thank you, Michele’s Granola!) for crunch.

8:31pm: Added chopped onion (already prepped and waiting for me in the fridge) to the quinoa, poured in water and brought to a simmer.

8:33pm: Salad time! Enjoyed my salad with John (who had also come in starving). Before sitting down, I put a leftover container of coconut curry sauce I made for Sunday night dinner in the microwave. If I didn’t have that sauce, I would have looked for something jarred—a good quality of tomato sauce would have been fine—or I may have thrown together a quick sauce with tahini and lemon, or tahini, miso paste and rice vinegar.

8:56pm: Pulled the green beans out of the oven. Put quinoa on the plates, topped with the roasty veggies and topped with the sauce.

8:58pm: Sat down to enjoy the rest of dinner.

Sure, instead of taking that time to assemble dinner, I could have answered emails, maybe taken a leisurely shower, tortured the cats by crinkling paper just out of reach, but I know my body will thank me for feeding it well after a tough workout.

The Accidental 21.7 Miler and Tips for Carb Loading

Last September, while training to run the Richmond Marathon, my husband John and I rewarded ourselves with a desperately needed long weekend at Rehoboth Beach. We chose a weekend where our training plan had relatively low mileage, so we could kick back and relax a bit.

I glanced over a few maps and meticulously wrote up a route sheet that would give us about 15-16 miles around the beach and through a state park. We got a late start—hey, 15 miles is a short jaunt after tackling 20 miles the Saturday before!—and the sun was high in the sky when we headed out. I loaded up my fuel belt with a sports gel and a 12-ounce water bottle.

We ran toward the beach along the Coastal Highway, up the boardwalk and north toward Henlopen National Park, and a few miles later, we were hopelessly lost. I mean hopelessly. We were wading through waste-high weeds, getting eaten alive by bugs the size of my fist (I have small fists, but still!), running to the tops of hills to see if we could see anything familiar, zig-zagging and U-turning with no idea whether we were headed in the right direction. 


I believe this map very closely represents the actual route we took.


We found ourselves on trails, on sand, in a campsite that was definitely featured in a horror movie. We saw animal skulls. We talked to grounds-keepers in a trailer park who said “Whoa, how the heck did you get here from there?” My water was long gone and my gel was ancient history about 14 miles in, as we started making over/under bets on how many total miles we would end up running before we saw our B-and-B again.

As we finally made it back to proper roads with names we recognized, it happened. I bonked.

If you’ve ever trained for a marathon, you know what “bonking” is all too well. Marathoners train for months to build up their physical stamina to avoid a bonk. But no matter how well-trained you are, if you don’t fuel properly, a bonk is imminent. For the un-initiated, bonking is when well into a race, typically 2-3 hours in, the body runs out of stored carbohydrate, and it feels like you have literally been slammed into a wall. Your body realizes it’s about to run our of juice, and it directs all remaining stored carbohydrate to your brain and away from the rest of your body.

As I experienced on this run, not only do your legs feel like lead, you become confused and emotional. Your head throbs. You want to lie down. One may even, hypothetically, yell at one’s husband “Where the hell are we?” and “Oh my lord, I’m going to die in Rehoboth Beach!”

We hadn’t prepared for a 20-plus mile run. We hadn’t eaten well the day before, and we didn’t bring enough fuel to sustain us—not by a long shot. When events like this happen, I like to think that I can at least learn something from them. I would like to share what I learned with you:

I never, EVER want to experience a bonk in an actual race!

A bad training run is one thing, but I would hate to go through this sort of experience on race day—and I’d hate for it to happen to you, too! For those of you getting ready for a spring marathon, don’t put yourself at risk for a really lousy day. May I suggest…

•  Three days out from your event, begin carb loading (don’t wait till the day before your race to carb load—it will be too late). Aim for 70-90% of your calories from carbohydrates, eating small snacks frequently to top of the tank

•  During the carb load, if you can tolerate it, enjoy fresh fruit—including bananas, grapes, fresh dates—and dried fruit for snacks.

•  Avoid high fat snacks like nuts (which are a wonderful snack any other time of the year), since they won’t add to your carb stores and they will crowd out foods that will

•  Enjoy lots of starchy vegetables, like white potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn (making sure not to cook them in oil or heavy creamy sauces)

•  Enjoy juice and smoothies in small amounts—look for 100% real juice, avoid sugar-free options like the plague

•  Bread and pasta made with white flour is fine during these few days of carb loading

•  Avoid junk food like chips and cakes and fried foods—they’re not helpful fuel

•  When you hit your race course, don’t start out too fast—you’ve got to conserve your stored carbohydrate even if your stores are well topped off

•  Never assume that you’ll have your fueling needs met on the course. Bring the gels or “Gu” you have practiced with to your event so you can replenish carbohydrates during your race.

Looking for more one-on-one support? Shoot me an email at lauren@live-full.com or request a consult!

Carbo Loading: Fueling for your Fall Marathon (or Half!) Part 3 of 3

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “carbo loading?” You might have the image of a runner going to a nice restaurant the night before the race to eat a massive plate of pasta, two or three rolls and a dessert on top. Some runners may follow that stereotype. Many don’t, and frankly, most probably shouldn’t!

Do runners have to carb load for every race?

Actually, no. If you’re running in event that will take you LESS than 2 hours to complete, won’t get significant benefit from carbo loading.

So why would a longer-distance runner need to carbo load?

I explained in the first part of this blog series that stored carbohydrates are a very important fuel for the endurance athlete. You can access the fuel quickly, and it’s the primary fuel for hard efforts. In the 2-3 days leading up to your race, your goal is to continually top off your carbohydrate stores so that when you arrive on the start line, your stores are completely full. That means you should NOT wait till the day before your race to start thinking about carb loading!

In the 3 days before your race, you should be consuming somewhere between 70-90% of your calories from carbohydrates. That doesn’t mean that you should be eating more food over all, it just means that you should limit high fat and high protein foods and replace those foods with carbohydrates. It’s also important to remember that any foods you eat during this time should be foods that you are very familiar with and that you have eaten during your training—digestive surprises are not welcome! Some examples of how to easily incorporate more carbs into your day:

  • Do you like to snack on almonds, sunflower kernels or other seeds & nuts? Normally that’s a great option, but during this period, swap out those healthy fats for a banana or another fruit, or try crackers or pita bread
  • Do you like to put olive oil or pesto on your pasta? Again, not bad choices most of the time, but during this period, swap them out for sauces that are higher in carbs, like a tomato sauce. You could use a smaller-than-usual amount of sauce and just increase the amount of starch on your place to make up for the lost calories
  • Love a big portion of protein? Not during this time. Eat a smaller portion of protein and fill the empty space on your plate with more rice, pasta or other whole grains
  • Add starchy vegetables that you are comfortable eating to your menus, including carrots, baked potatoes, yams, squash, etc
  • Drink some of your carbohydrates in smoothies and juice using organic fruits and vegetables
  • White flour is okay in the 2-3 days before the race as long as you can tolerate it. Your body is going to snatch up those simple sugars quickly on race day.

Your biggest meal should be two days before the event and not the night before. You don’t want to start your race with a heavy feeling in your gut, and you most definitely don’t want to have to make pit stops along the course to…ahem…unload last night’s big dinner.

By the way, during these couple of days, it’s pretty broadly recommended that you should avoid alcohol (for so many reasons, I’m not even going to go into it—just avoid it!). And though I am a big fiber fan, don’t overdo it during this time.

By the time your race day arrives, you’ve had lots of practice eating breakfast before your long run. You know what works well and what doesn’t. You’ve also tested out gels and sports drinks, so you know their impact on your performance and on your gut. Don’t try anything new on race day. I cannot repeat this enough…NOTHING NEW ON RACEDAY! A few suggestions…

  • If your race is many hours after your breakfast, plan to take your breakfast on the road with you
  • 1-3 hours before the start, hydrate with 12-16 oz of water, sports drink or juice
  • Bring your own gels and/or sports drink to the event. Never expect that your fuel needs will be met by the event
  • If you can tolerate it, take a drink at every water stop, whether it’s a sip or a full cup of water or sports drink

During your race, your body will take somewhere around 30 minutes to assimilate any calories you introduce. That means you should be replenishing with carbohydrates before you feel like you need them. If you’re completely zonked at mile 24, it’s too late to get much benefit from downing a gel then. Don’t wait! Somewhere between 30 – 60 or more carbs per hour will go a long way toward pushing back the wall.

Got a question or need some more guidance? Leave me a message in the comments or get in touch through this website. Good luck, runners!! I can’t wait to hear the triumphant racing stories from running pals and clients!

Eat Quality Food! Fueling Your Fall Marathon Part 2 of 3

On your last visit, I gave you a quick-and-dirty explanation for how runners’ bodies use fat and carbs for fuel, and I promised some primo tips for making sure that you get to the start line of your race with a full fuel tank.

But before going much further, I have to give a little disclaimer: While there are a broad set of generally accepted rules and recommendations for fueling your body for exercise, what works well for someone else may not work for you. That means that your running buddy’s perfect pre-race meal or mid-race gel may cause you a miserable race with umpteen stops at the porto-potties.

That’s the concept of “bio-individuality,” and I bring it up with my clients frequently. If you know a certain food or routine just doesn’t agree with you, don’t force yourself to follow a recommendation if you can find a reasonable substitute.

Okay, so back to the question at hand:

What is the best way to eat so I’m not setting myself up to crash into “The Wall” and have a terrible, painful marathon or half-marathon?

Long before you get to the start line, there are plenty of nutritional tweaks you can make to get your body ready for the race. Can you guess the number one recommendation I make to my clients?  

Eat quality food!

Sounds a lot easier than it is. All day we’re pitched ads about supposedly healthy foods that are actually pretty junk-y. A prime example is low-fat yogurt. The women in the commercials look happy, fit and healthy, but before you trust the paid spokeswoman in a zillion-dollar advertising campaign, read the label for yourself. You may be surprised that a food marketed as a healthy choice for slim, active people may contain high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweetener like aspartame and/or gelatin made from beef hides (yes, beef hides is exactly what is sounds like).

This topic is fodder for many, many (many, many) more blogs, but I tell my clients, if it comes in a bag or a box, read the label. If the label has ingredients that are unpronounceable, or if those ingredients sound like chemicals made in a lab, this may not be a quality food.

“Why is quality food so important for runners? Isn’t quality actually less important since we burn up everything we eat anyway?”

I hear this all the time. Yes, you may be burning more calories, but that’s exactly why you need more nutrients than ever. You deserve the best fuel you can get to repair your cells and prepare you for the next workout (plus your immune system is compromised by all your hard workouts!). It’s a worn out analogy, but it’s a good one: Don’t fuel the Ferrari with the cheap gas or it will run like crap. Applies to humans, too.

When you focus on quality, you’re less likely to overeat, too. Think about it: An apple and a chocolate chip cookie each has roughly 100 calories. I bet you can only eat one apple at a time, but you could probably eat 3-4 cookies without blinking (OK, I could eat 3-4 cookies without blinking), getting four times the calories without the nutrients and fiber of the apple!

Between now and your fall marathon, the largest part of your diet should be…

1. Vegetables and Fruits. Loaded with healthy carbohydrates, vitamins & minerals and antioxidants, the produce department is your friend during marathon training season! Look for what’s in season to get the freshest produce and the best deals, or better yet, visit your farmers’ market and buy directly from the growers. That means lots of green salads, starchy fall vegetables like potatoes, squash and yams. Apples and pears are looking fantastic now.

2. Nuts and Seeds should be right behind fruits and vegetables. If a tiny walnut can grow into a massive walnut tree, imagine what it can do for your cells!

3.  and 4.   Whole Grains and Lean Proteins should be the next foods on your list. And “whole grains” doesn’t mean “whole grain flour.” It means actually eating the grains themselves, like whole oats, barley, quinoa, brown rice, farro or amaranth, all delicious and easy to cook with a bit of vegetable broth and some chopped onion with dinner, or with a bit of cinnamon and a splash of pure maple syrup for breakfast.

Remember that after your training runs, your cells are super-receptive to taking in and storing carbohydrates. Post run smoothies and energy bars are a great choice. Get a good mix of carbohydrates and protein to re-fuel your stores and repair your worked-over muscles. A smoothie made with fresh or frozen fruit, peanut (or another nut) butter and a natural protein powder makes a great recovery drink! Mix in leafy greens or dark berries for antioxidants to protect against cell damage.

I’ll be posting recipes here incorporating quality whole foods, so keep checking back!

At the bottom of your list? Refined grains, sweets and highly processed food that comes in a bag or box with strange chemically ingredients made in a lab. Still not sure how to choose quality foods? Get in touch with me for a free consultation and to see if a health coach is right for you.

OK, so let’s say that you’ve made it through most of your training, and you’re heading to the taper period. (For newbies and non-runners, the taper is a period somewhere from 1-3 weeks before the big race where runners begin running a bit less to allow their bodies to heal and recover so they’re in great shape on race day.) What do you eat during the taper to prevent hitting the wall? And what about the carbo load?! Look for my next post in the coming week….

Can’t wait till then? Or are you interested in working with me one-on-one to prepare for your race? Get in touch for a free consultation!


Fueling for your Fall Marathon (or Half!) Part 1 of 3

It seems like every year more and more folks sign up for fall half-marathons and marathons. For the uninitiated, a marathon is a full 26.2 miles (that’s 42.2 kilometers for my metric friends), which means that the brave souls undertaking a full or half-marathon have many, many weeks—months, even—of training.

I’m tackling my seventh marathon this fall, but they truly don’t get easier!

Really effective training for an endurance event (and believe me, a marathon is quite a thing to endure!) requires runners to complete different types of runs most days of the week for 16-20 weeks: A long slow run one day a week followed by a slow recovery run the next; hill workouts (my mortal nemesis the hill and I spend a lot of time together in the summer); runs with intervals of speed and recovery…you get the idea.

The Baltimore Running Festival is coming up in October, and I gave a talk to a fantastic group of runners at Charm City Run this past week. We covered a lot of ground, including some great questions…

Q: What is the goal of all this flippin’ training and careful eating? Why can’t we just do some runs here and there, eat whatever, and show up in a cute outfit at the start line?

A: You’re working to condition your muscles to work at an intense and long effort, and conditioning your body to burn fat at a high rate during running.

Follow up Q: Why is it important to burn fat when I’m running?

Follow up A: Slightly more complicated answer. Let’s dig in to how our body provides energy for running…

We draw on two sources of stored fuel in our bodies for energy:

1. Stored Carbohydrates (aka glycogen)
I like to imagine my stored carbohydrates as a tiny vial of rocket fuel that powers hard effort, like sprinting away from a bear or dropping and doing 20 push-ups. You store enough carbs to fuel about 1-2 hours of exercise at a hard effort. When you run out of carbs for fuel, your body shuts down and you hit “The Wall:” Extraordinary pain, confusion, general freaked-outed-ness, and the potential for serious problems, like conking out right on the course.

2. Stored Fat 
I like to imagine stored fats in my body as a ginormous jug of fuel with a lid. Fat is great fuel for exercise at a less intense effort where you can breathe easily, like an easy bike ride or a slow run. We have hours and hours of fat fuel to burn (even the slimmest of you!). The only catch is that turning fat into energy takes a lot of oxygen aka breathing (here's where I imagine popping off the lid of the jug to get oxygen to that fantastic fat fuel).

Because you have so much more fat available for fuel than carbs, it’s ideal to use as much fat as possible and to conserve and replenish your carb stores. You'll desperately need those carbs at, say, mile 18 or 20 (or 21 or 22 or 23 or 24...you follow me).

That means that you have to carefully pace yourself in your race, making sure that you don't go out to fast and burn up all of your carbs. The less effort it takes to run, the easier it is to breathe, the more oxygen is getting to your cells, the more fat can be converted to energy and the more stored carbohydrate (aka rocket fuel) you can conserve.

So now the big question: What is the best way to eat so I have a full store of carbs and I'm not setting myself up to go crashing head first into The Wall?

Great question! Check back for answers in Part 2 coming later in the week, or get in touch with me at lauren@live-full.com to schedule a one-on-one conversation.