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.


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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!

Taper Tips: Fueling for your Fall Marathon (or Half!) Part 2.5 of 3

Congratulations to all of the fall marathon & half marathon runners who’ve made it to the taper! For newbies and non-runners, the taper is a period somewhere from 1-3 weeks before the big race where runners begin running less to allow their bodies to heal and recover so they’re in great shape on race day.

I had to sneak in one more post before addressing the carbo load to answer another super important question:

What should you eat during the taper to get the best out of your race-day performance?

The answer is the same as in my last blog (part 2 of 3) with a caveat:

Eat quality foods, but eat less!

During the training, you’ve been torching calories, and you've probably become accustomed to eating more. Perhaps over the last 16 weeks or so you’ve gotten used to giant starchy dinners, day-long snacking, trips to the self-serve fro-yo place that result in bucket sized frozen confections topped with brownies, peanut butter cups and chocolate syrup, you know, to…ahem…top off your carbohydrate stores. Well, you’re running less during the taper, so your eating habits have to reflect that in these couple of weeks.

You may have heard horror stories from a running pal or the interwebs about someone packing on 8 or 10 pounds during the taper. It can happen. There are lots of studies out there about the pressure that extra pounds put on your joints and the negative impact on race performance. I’ve read that 10 pounds could add up to 20 seconds per mile—20 seconds! That would be nearly nine minutes either added or subtracted from your race time. That’s a lot of minutes.

Quality foods and careful portioning are your friends when you’re looking to avoid extra calories in these few days before your race. But when you’re feeling edgy and snacky, don’t deprive yourself. Just try to focus on quality, real food over junk about 80% of the time. Here's a real world example that I...I mean, a client of mine...can relate to:

Devouring four delicious Samoas (my all-time favorite Girl Scout Cookies aka Caramel de-Lites) would give me…uh, I mean…someone:

  • 300 delicious but empty calories
  • 10 grams of saturated fat (pretty cloggy stuff)
  • A nice does of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (aka Trans Fats—the nastiest fat you can put into your body)
  • 5 ½ teaspoons of sugar (it’s the #1 ingredient!) for a nice rush, followed by a not-so-nice crash
  • Less than a gram of fiber
  • No discernible health benefit
  • …and you’ll still be hungry. It’s very likely you’ll actually be hungrier after eating these delicious sugar/fat bombs.

On the other hand, a massive handful of carrot sticks with two tablespoons of delicious creamy hummus has:

  • 100-250 calories at most depending on your hummus (and how close you really stick to two tablespoons. I understand, hummus is good.)
  • Monounsaturated fats from the hummus
  • Vitamin A, which is good for your brain (which may be tweaking pretty badly during the taper)
  • Potassium, a fantastic electrolyte
  • Some protein from the chickpeas in the hummus
  • Fiber to help digestion and help you feel fuller longer.

A health coach like me can help you plan meals and snacks during this time if you’re stymied (and I’m also here to empathize. I’ve been there before, and I’ll be there again when my race comes up in November!).

In my next post, I’ll cover the all-important carbo load, which begins two to three days before your race. Can’t wait till then? Like my Facebook page for more frequent updates, follow me on Twitter, or get in touch to set up a free consult.

Happy tapering!