Over several years of making the rounds and talking to groups of runners about optimal nutrition to support training and recovery, and to plan for race day, I've learned that many runners training for a half or full marathon (or longer race) need one-on-one support, but they don't need the full commitment of my standard 8- or 12-session package...Read More
"You ran 50 miles? Man, you can go crazy at the Thanksgiving table!"
I have heard some version of these sentences about 15 times since my 50-mile race on Saturday. So exactly how much of a caloric deficit did I create and how quickly could I blow it?
Over the course of 50 miles, someone of my size burns somewhere around 4,500 calories. There may also be a post-exercise burn where my body continues to burn calories quickly, so I'll be generous and round up to 5,000 calories burned.
By just existing--breathing, heart beating and systems running--my basal metabolism is somewhere around 1,100 calories, so we'll subtract that from the 5,000 to get the caloric deficit:
5000 - 1,100 = 3,900 deficit
Between gels, bananas, sugary drinks and other food on the race course, I at somewhere around 1,200 calories, so that gets subtracted as well...
3,900 - 1,200 = 2,700 calories. Let's spend extra those calories!
3 giant slices of greasy cheese pizza at the finish would run 1,200 calories
A slice of frosted cake would hack off another 350 calories
A big breakfast the morning after of waffles + syrup and hash browns would run around 1,000 - 1,200 calories depending on how greasy the grill was.
...and that's it. The deficit is spent, and now it's back to healthful eating in reasonable, non-maple-syrup-coated portions. Seems like that level of effort should have enabled a runner to drag out the party for days, but unless your exercise habits are like those of a professional athlete, working out for hours day in and day out, exercise doesn't really enable us to eat whatever we want and maintain or lose weight.
But if you're exercising solely so you intake more calories, you're overlooking all of the wonderful benefits of exercise:
- Building strength that will carry on well into advanced age
- Boosting energy
- Reducing stress
- Reducing symptoms of depression
- Building self-esteem (it's not just kids who need that boost!)
- Protecting our brain
- Helping us to sleep better
- Protecting our heart as HDL, the "good" cholesterol is increased, and trigylcerides--fat in our blood--are decreased, leading to better functioning of the heart
- Managing blood sugar for diabetics, both juvenile diabetes and later onset diabetes brought on by lifestyle
Many of these benefits of exercise you will be tapping into not just today but 10, 20, 30 years into the future!
And sure, with a little extra caloric deficit, exercise does afford us the ability to enjoy a treat here and there, but after a little splurge, I'm very happy to reward my hardworking body with a meal loaded with vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats. Click here for this recipe for Red Lentil Soup.
Inspired by the amazing athlete Scott Jurek, who ran the entirety of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine this spring, I challenged myself to do something big and outside of my comfort zone. This weekend, I did it. I ran the JFK 50--my first race of this magnitude--and you don't run 50 miles without some serious reflection. Here are my six big takeaways...
1. Want to do something big? Make a plan to get there, and be consistent in following it.
Over the last few months, I prioritized this race and the training for it. I was consistent--even as I dealt with an injury that slowed me down significantly for 3 weeks. I completed long run after long run, I practiced runs with my dorky (but tremendously comfortable and efficient) running vest, and I fueled my runs with the foods I knew I'd eat in the event. I cooked and ate as healthfully as I could. I read about the course and grilled people who've run it before for advice. I visualized myself running the race: Nice and slow on the first 15-16 miles on the rocky Appalachian Trail; holding a steady and consistent pace on the flat C&O Canal path for 26-ish miles, walking through every aid station; finishing the final 9 miles on the rolling roads with as much consistency as possible. I had a plan to train and a plan for the event.
2. Expect the unexpected.
In my first 50K this spring, I learned that there is much truth to the adage "the best laid plans of mice and men are often led astray," and shocker: There were plenty of unplanned-for surprises on this course. The biggest surprise of all: I had no idea how much walking I would have to do! I studied the elevation map, but the sheer length and steepness of those hills surprised me. When the entire mob of runners was walking at mile 3, I fell right in step--it was a waste of energy to race up those hills...or the next hilly road that came after a short bit on the trail...or the hills on the rocky trail itself...or the unbelievably steep hilly road that showed up like an unwelcome smell at mile 41.
Another surprise: Keeping my pace up on the flat boring miles 15 through 41 on the C&O Canal was far harder than I anticipated. Even with slow pacing on the trail beforehand, I arrived at the flat path with nearly 16 miles on my legs, and despite my plan, my running pace slowed and my walk breaks extended just a few seconds longer with each aid station.
There were many more little surprises along the way: At mile 2, a big dude came huffing and puffing from behind and clomped down on my heel with his clumsy giant Hoka-cobbled hoof,* leaving my Achilles scraped and my shoe on the road as I yanked my foot up and away. Much later at mile 34, my watch--my security blanket--ran out of juice, leaving me with no outlet to channel my neuroses. How would I monitor my pace? How would I count off the minutes of walking I had planned at aid stations? And when I was still on the road at sundown with more than 5 miles left to run down a pitch black road, I'm glad I was too tired to be upset I forgot my headlamp. With a loooooooong day like this, rolling with the punches is a must. It's something I'm learning to be better about in my non-running life, too.
3. You do you.
Everyone who has run this race warned me: "The trails are challenging--don't fall and it's a success!" If you've run with me for more than a couple of miles, especially on a trail, you know that I have a habit of falling. As I hit the Appalachian Trail, I felt pressure to keep up with the runner ahead of me or be trampled by the runners behind. About a half dozen times, I heard guys loudly chatting behind me, and then the distinct sound of scrambling that precedes a fall, followed by the "oooomph!" of the wind being knocked out of the falling runner. Once a runner biffs it, it's my experience that the likelihood of that runner or someone around them falling increases several fold.
I took on the mantra "you do you." For me, that meant intense internal focus without letting other runners rattle me. It meant running my own pace--if someone needs to pass, they'll let me know. If I need to pass someone, I'll do it with extreme care. The trail took us waaaaaay up, then brought us down in a series of dramatic switchbacks--dropping about a thousand feet over half a mile--the steepness of which, despite plenty of warning, surprised me. Sidling at a snail's pace over rocks, the word "race" completely disappeared from my mind as I directed my focus to the trail and tried not to imagine myself flying over the edge head over heals like Homer Simpson in the Springfield Gorge. For someone who can trip while crossing a smoothly paved street, amazingly I made it through the trail segment with only a couple small stumbles, a great reminder of what I can accomplish when I'm super-focused.
3. Giving up is easy.
Fatigue comes on hard and heavy and in multiple waves in an event like this. And it doesn't hit like a punch in the face; it is gentle and seductive. It encourages you to walk more, to stop at the aid stations and hang out, to pull over and stretch for a while. It helps you do the math--how much walking can you get away with and still make it to the next cut-off? This race was not about tackling 50 miles, it was about challenging my own boundaries--more mental than physical--and silencing the voice that says, Hey--relax! You don't have to do this! But there were so many reasons that I wanted to run this race, and so many reasons to train for it for months. I reminded myself of this several times over.
4. Seek out and accept help, and be grateful for it.
Some of the nicest humans on the planet volunteer for aid stations in long races. Young and old volunteers greeted me cheerily, happily refilled my water bottle and asked over and over again if they could help in any way. Even with the blaring 80's music, aid stations re-affirm my belief in humanity, and finishing the race would have been impossible without them (not to mention the sweet, sweet, caffeinated soda they offered. Running an event over 4 hours is about the only time it is reasonable to drink soda!). Help also came from fellow runners, giving shoutout’s as we played leapfrog throughout the race. We engaged in the most meaningless meaningful small talk about how hungry or unhungry we were, how many of these races we’d run before, and who was waiting for us at the finish. We joked about the shameful reflective orange vests volunteers placed on us to keep us safe as the sun set. (Man, those were shamefully orange.)
I also know there's no way I would have made it to the starting line if I hadn't asked for help during this tough training season. After days and days of denial and pain and insistence that I could manage things on my own, I sheepishly went in to see my physical therapist (the amazing Brett) and acupuncturist (the gifted Heather Johnstone), and now my only regret is not asking for help sooner.
5. Don't focus on the giant goal--break it into bite-sized chunks.
I advise my clients with weight loss goals not to focus on 10 or 20 or 80 pounds they have to lose, but instead to just focus on one step they can take now to advance toward their goal, like eating vegetables with dinner every night this week. Small, measurable, achievable goals are much easier to take on without being overwhelmed by the enormity of the big goal. I took my own advice in this event: If I let myself linger on the thought that I had 40, 30, 20 miles more to run, it felt overwhelming. But if I focused on getting to the next aid station, or taking 200 steps, or running to the next telephone pole, it was manageable and un-scary. For 10 hours and 48 minutes, I set mini goals and grew more confident as I picked each one off.
6. Achieving a goal in the face of big obstacles is all the sweeter.
There is no feeling like setting a goal, working hard toward it and achieving it. There were weeks during my training where I was in a lot of pain and thought I'd never heal in time. Other times a warm bed and snuggly puppy made it nearly impossible to get up to complete my morning training run. My busy schedule, the earlier sunset, my attempts at a social life, or just plain exhaustion were all obstacles to my training. But re-setting my expectations to be realistic in the face of challenges, and staying consistent paid off.
Thanks to all the kind messages of support for me and for John (aka Coach John of Charm City Run Timonium), who finished his 50-miler HOURS before me, but is walking equally Frankenstein-like in the aftermath.
* For the uninitiated, this is a Hoka brand shoe. I cannot understand how the trend swung from barefoot running just a couple of years ago to this insane, maxiumum cushioning today.
I had a goal this winter: Run my first ultramarathon--the HAT Run 50K. As I shared in a previous post, this was way outside my comfort zone for so many reasons, but I knew I could get there if I had a plan:
- Join a training group for guidance, accountability and a bit of fun. [Achieved this one easily by joining up with the Charm City Run crew]
- Commit to run every single long run on the training schedule.
- Commit to complete as many of my weekday training runs as possible--even if it meant dragging my butt to the gym to use the...shudder, shudder...treadmill.
- Run more on trails to prepare myself for the intense hilly course.
- Practice pushing hard up hills and recovering on the downhills.
- Eat healthfully to support my training--lots of vegetables, fruit, nuts & seeds, legumes and whole grains--without letting my ravenous appetite take over.
- Follow a strict carb load protocol in the days leading up to the event.
I had a solid plan.
However, the world had alternate plans for me. Wicked cold made running a real challenge this winter. Then the snow came. Days passed where my the roads from my house were un-runnable, and trails were buried deep in ice and snow. Did I mention it was cold? Because it was. But I stuck with my plan as best as I could and tried not to make excuses for skipping runs or eating poorly.
And then there was the race itself.
I was prepared for the brutal hills, but what I (and the other 400-something runners) did not expect was the mud. The snow and ice that was so beautiful and bright and scenic when we began turned to thick, sludgy mud as the day warmed. Miles and miles and miles of brownie batter-consistency mud worsened as the day went on. The uphills were treacherous, but it was the downhills--the places where I was counting on recovery from the 7,200 feet of incline--that were the real nightmare. Inches of wet slippery mud that provided ZERO traction, sending me careening wildly more than once, arms flailing trying to gain balance with every muscle clenched.
Runners commiserated, volunteers consoled (I cannot express how amazing those volunteers were--the best, most empathic, generous human beings I have ever encountered on a race course!!!) and plans were put to the test. Around mile 24 that wave of despondence that many long distance runners know passed over me. The mud was deep and endless, and the non-stop up-and-downs were grueling. "If I have to walk-run-slide the next 7 miles at an 18-minute pace," I began reasoning, "that would take me nearly two hours. I cannot do this for two more hours." I bargained with my quads to push harder. I pleaded with the sun to hurry up and dry out the mud. And I drew on all the work I had done this season. I got a surge of energy with three miles left to go, and cranked it up to the finish line.
Things did not go exactly according to plan. But I can't imagine how they would have gone if I didn't stick to my plan leading up to the event! I was well-fueled, I was physically strong, and I had good mental game. The world reminds me over and over that there is so much I can't control. But if I can take responsibility for what is under my control, it sure makes it a lot easier to deal with everything that isn't.
Need help developing your plan for being your healthiest self (which, by the way, does NOT necessitate running a 50K or even a 5K if that’s not your thing)? Let’s chat… firstname.lastname@example.org
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: email@example.com