Even though I wrote up most of this blog entry in December, I hesitated to post it for a couple of reasons. First, I'm certainly not a nutrition expert. I'm making most of this sh*t up. Second, in my opinion, I think that (generally speaking) most runners overestimate their diet's impact on their running performance. So why bother dedicating a blog entry to it? You can eat like crap and run at a very high level. I confess that I tend to roll my eyes a bit when I read yet another article gushing about the virtues of the paleo diet. While I agree with some aspects of the diet (minimizing the consumption of simple carbohydrates, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables), I think it goes too far in completely excluding certain kinds of food (e.g., bread, beer, pasta, rice, dairy, etc.). I try to take a less dogmatic approach. I also roll my eyes when I flip through a Hammer Nutrition catalog and see page after page of supplement options. I mean, really? If I took every supplement they recommend I'd probably be taking over a dozen pills per day. Now, I can definitely understand the draw of supplements and special diets. And I'm certainly guilty of succumbing to my insecurities and taking a few vitamins or "superfoods"-- just in case! You work so hard in training, dedicating so much personal time, that you don't want to jeopardize that in any way. You certainly don't want to miss out on some untapped performance boost-- however small-- just because you neglected your iron levels or your ability to metabolize fat or what-have-you. Yes, I have been known to eat chia seeds and goji berries from time to time. We're all looking for that magic silver bullet.
Even though I'm skeptical that extreme diets, superfoods, and supplements will actually affect your race performance, I am constantly preaching the importance of in-race nutrition (as opposed to daily nutrition). In fact, I attribute almost all of my PRs over my three years of running ultras primarily to better nutrition while racing (i.e., consuming more calories per hour). If I had to rank the importance of various aspects of training nutrition I'd rank them like so:
- Proper in-race nutrition/hydration. The longer the race, the more important this becomes. In fact, in a 100-mile race, I'd say that it dwarfs all other "controllable" factors. I don't care how many miles/week you ran in training. If you don't consume enough calories, you're in for a very long second half.
- Proper post-workout recovery nutrition. Consume plenty of carbs and protein in liquid form immediately after hard/long workouts. This is important to maximize the quality of your workouts.
- Proper daily nutrition. Try to find your ideal body weight. Weighing less on race day will help. Just eat real, whole foods. (Avoid highly processed foods.)
- Proper pre-race nutrition. Be sure to eat enough (simple to digest) calories for breakfast a few hours before a race. This is mostly for insurance, giving you a buffer in case you don't nail your in-race nutrition.
- Experiment with bonk/depletion runs only after you've mastered #1-4. And, honestly, if you're nailing #1 does it really matter all that much if you're better at metabolizing your body fat?
- Vitamins, supplements, salt tablets, and everything else. If you must take them, treat them like insurance-- not magical performance improvers. If they help, it's probably the placebo effect-- which is fine, of course, to use to your advantage!
It's all about balance. As Charlie Papazian said, "Relax. Don't worry. Have a homebrew." Personally, I find that his oft-repeated advice is applicable not only to learning how to brew beer, but also very relevant to ultra running.
So, to sum up my humble advice for aspiring ultra runners: First, focus on staying healthy and injury free. Second, focus on the quality of your workouts. Third, focus on developing an in-race nutrition strategy that works for you. A distant fourth, focus on everything else related to nutrition. I mean, hey, we all have to eat. So you might as well spend some time considering what to eat. But don't obsess over it. And don't expect miracles.
My (mostly vague and high-level) nutrition goals for the year.
- Try to hit a 175 lb race weight rather than hovering around 180 lbs.
- Conventional wisdom: pace improves 2 seconds/mile/pound lost.
- Eat more fruit (1 per day at breakfast)
- Eat more veggies (1 salad per day at lunch or dinner).
- Eat more nuts (in oatmeal, as snacks, on salads, etc.).
- Eat more eggs (for breakfast, in recovery smoothies).
- Eat more beets (in salads, as juice).
- Eat more sweet potatoes.
- Experiment with almond butter/honey during long runs.
- Take a daily multivitamin and an iron supplement as insurance.
- Avoid highly processed foods (except soda immediately after long runs).
- I'm not giving up high GI foods like pasta, potatoes, or rice. Nor am I giving up dairy. (Nor am I giving up beer! Are you crazy?) This is not a paleo diet. It's an "eat real food; don't worry about fat; and make sure to consume plenty of fruit, vegetables, and protein" diet. (The best resource I've found that agrees with my general nutrition philosophy is The Feed Zone.)
- What does this mean for my normal daily eating routine? Not much.
- Eat heartier breakfasts (oatmeal with fruit and nuts, omelets, granola and yogurt, etc.)
- Limit empty lunch calories (e.g., chips, soda).
- Limit myself to half of a High Mountain Pies sub per day. :(
- Eat healthy snacks in the afternoon.
- Dinner remains unchanged.
- Don't bother drinking water or ingesting calories on runs <90 minutes.
- Midweek, try to run before breakfast (on an empty stomach) when possible.
- Always consume a protein-rich recovery drink immediately after hard workouts.
- Eat ~700 calories for breakfast ~2 hours before a race (e.g., fruit smoothie w/ rice).
- Don't bother pre-hydrating before a race.
- Continue to refine my homemade, maltodextrin-based energy drink formula.
- While racing or on a long run:
- 2 calories/lb/hour (~350 calories/hour).
- ~20 oz of fluid/hour.
- A little bit of protein (and/or amino acids).
- Don't worry about electrolytes (i.e., salt tablets).