Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Fuelling to the finish

It’s been a while since I wrote but I’ve been busy getting my head down for work and my feet pounding for racing, getting the mileage up for the Barcelona marathon in 10 weeks time. It’s been so long since training started that I can’t remember life before ‘marathon training’

As the miles go up I find myself getting up indecently early on the weekend to shovel (healthy) fuel to ease digestion a few hours prior to going out and tackling the next big distance on the plan. I’m eating & downing the morning cuppa before heading back to bed to catch a precious few more minutes sleep and put off the wintry elements in the North.

So why is a trainee sport psych (admittedly a marathon nut) writing about nutrition? Where’s the relevance? Well, without doubt, a healthy body leads to a healthy mind. If you’re not properly prepared before a race, whether physically, or mentally, then its my belief this will impact your thinking and mental performance in the race. Come race day, you want to be in the best frame of mind to tackle the gruelling challenge ahead. And I also think the kind of food you put in you has an impact on how you perform. You could put the cheapo petrol from the supermarket in your finely tuned vehicle, but its not going to do give your car the best performance, so its worth valuing the high grade fuel in your tank, enjoy it and feel good for race day.

Last year, my friend Monica completed a great post on what are the best foodstuffs for runners to help them cope with the long slow Sunday runs, for when you’re getting over half marathon distance in training.

For breakfasts, she suggested the usual suspects of oats, wholemeal toast and egg based recipes.  I put it out to my running community of friends on Twitter (@stuholliday) to see what people ate and most actually seemed to go for toast with honey as this was cited as being easier to digest than porridge. As ever bananas were popular (a great superfood), along with tea or coffee and maybe a bit of juice.

I always find breakfast is a tricky one (as does @nickersan) before a race, as the nerves can suppress your appetite. So your body says ‘don’t feed me’ but you really have to, to ensure you don’t suffer late on in the run. Coffee can be a blessing or a curse. It’s enema like properties may be wanted to dislodge nerves, or not risked at all!

Fundamentally, I’d say that whatever dietary habits you get into for fuelling before your long runs in training, keep when it comes to race day.

When I’ve run best I’ve done this. Eating the same breakfasts, at the same time, and following the same routine, so my body can know what to expect. Similarly, for taking on carbohydrate gels, get into the habit of trying them out early in your training so that if a brand disagrees with you, it happens on a training run when it doesn’t matter, rather than in a race situation. I think my slowing down during a run this Sunday was in part caused by a new gel that was as thick as treacle and put me off my stride. Go with what you know!

Which leads me to the big meals in the days leading up to your long runs. Monica’s post has loads of different delicious dishes. Paul Martelletti (@marders) makes the point that your big meal the day before a race should be eaten at lunch to allow digestion, and best avoid red meat. My straw poll of followers gave their favourites:

I was surprised to see so many opting for brown rice! Stephen Hitchcock (@egreenfitness), Linda Byrne (@alphabetbyrne) and me all swear by the stuff. When I suggested to Charlie Dark (@rundemcrew) that brown rice was a super food last year, I initially got a bit of grief, but making him try it with green broccoli actually got a positive reaction! The most common food that people reported having though was pasta and chicken the night before a race. A good mix of protein and carbs, though a few people said that they ate white pasta. Unless I’ve read all the wrong research, I’m 99% certain that us runners should keep it strictly brown to get the carbohydrate benefit. Bleached white pasta, from what I’ve seen is criticized heavily from having little nutritional value. I know I don’t want to come a cropper at 20 miles, so I always go with the brown stuff.

I like to make a tomato-based sauce to have with my pasta. According to Science Daily, “tomatoes are the biggest source of dietary lycopene; a powerful antioxidant that, unlike nutrients in most fresh fruits and vegetables, has even greater bioavailability after cooking and processing. Tomatoes also contain other protective mechanisms, such as antithrombotic and anti-inflammatory functions.” I also like how a good tomato pasta sauce tastes!

However, according to @mrtstephens he cooks spaghetti with pesto, a chicken breast and pine nuts, after seeing it recommended by Michel Roux Jr. For me, Michel is a hero, both in terms of his cooking, mentoring and running. The Masterchef star has run over 17 marathons in his life, as well as a Michelin starred restaurant. Naturally I recommend whole-wheat pasta for his recipe.

As a rule of thumb for portions I’ve always been told that you should use (roughly) a quarter of your plate for proteins, a quarter for carbs and half for veg. Though as your carbo loading increases with your weekly mileage, more carbs should also be added. The rule of thumb is to allow between about 8 to 10 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight.

Most recently I’ve started working with a personal trainer who is getting me into the habit of adding whey protein into my morning smoothie – this also helps me manage to also digest my morning banana more easily, along with healthy berries, a dollop of honey, and a few oats that help with slow energy release. I’ve never previously topped up on protein shakes but my PT is quite vehement I should, as well as having a recovery drink after training to top up carbs and proteins that get taken out through hard work. I’ve only just started this regime, but I’m finding I’m less sluggish after my runs, though I’m keeping a watching brief as this is all new to me.

As well as that I also take a couple of gels with me for the long runs, some water and an electrolyte drink as I sweat out so much salt during exercise.

All of this is specific to me, but its worth thinking about or talking with the staff in your local running store who can better advise on different kinds of supplements, gels, etc. better than I can here. The watchword is to keep things to routine, and ensure that everything you’ve tried has been tested prior to the big day, and don't forget that you should keep well hydrated with plenty of water throughout your training. Good luck in your fuelling. Feel free to add your favourite meals for keeping body and mind together in your training and races, and advise if any of the points in here need amending.


Simon Whyatt said...

Surprised to see so many athletes still consuming wheat as part of their diet. Highly inflammatory and full of phytates, lectins and other anti-nutrients, not the sort of food you want to be consuming at the best of times, let alone if you're taking part in a demanding sport!

Here are a couple of good links for info on wheat/grain free diets for endurance athletes:



Also, one of my fav's is "Properly Prepared Porridge", here's a recipe:


Good luck with the Marathon!

Stu Holliday said...

Interesting stuff Simon. Funnily enough I was planning on having Sweet potato and hummus for dinner tonight! One of those articles you posted advocated 'wild/white' rice. Where do you stand on that? I thought given everything else they are saying, they'd advocate brown rice?

I'm now tempted to skip wheat for a week, refuel as per the article and see what difference it makes. Thanks for replying.

Simon Whyatt said...

Sweet Potato for me too tonight - Roasted in Grass Fed Beef Dripping, mmm...

Anyway, to answer your question, the issue with grains is to do with the anti-nutrients, in particular lectins (plant proteins which cause inflammation and in genetically susceptible individuals can trigger auto-immune conditions such as arthritis/MS/lupus etc, and have strong links to mental illnesses such as autism and schizophrenia), and phytates which bind to the minerals in the grain to prevent absorption, and can even bind to the minerals in other foods consumed at the same time, leading to mineral deficiencies and their associated health problems (osteoporosis, tooth decay etc).

Fortunately, in rice, all these anti-nutrients (along with all the nutrients too unfortunately) are contained in the bran, therefore are removed when the rice is shelled.

One caveat with rice - It is essentially pure starch, with no micro-nutrients whatsoever. Burning the glucose for fuel requires the metabolism of essential nutrients, so I would always advise combing rice with very nutrient dense foods (seafood, grass fed dairy, organ meats etc) to ensure you don't run into any deficiencies down the road.

Simon Whyatt said...

BTW - Give it at least 28 days to see the full effects, and also be careful to check food labels on everything as wheat/gluten are used as a filler in pretty much every food that comes in packaging!

Also, look carefully into all the research/evidence - Depending upon your genetics you might not necessarily notice any profound difference after a week or so (though most people do), but this doesn't mean its not going to cause you problems in 30 years time!