Confessions from the Trail: Nutrition

Hello fellow distance runners, fitness lovers, and distance runner stans! Today we’re tackling a topic that requires a disclaimer upfront. Ready for it?

I am not, nor have I ever been a certified nutritionist, dietitian, or even remotely trained/certified in telling people what to eat.

Got all that? Cool. Don’t sue me. Any time we talk about nutrition, keep in mind that everyone is a walking chemistry set and what works for me may not work for you. Or, your mileage may vary. Literally YMMV.

Also, this will not be a post focused on weight loss all though I will touch on it. Why? One, it’s been done. Everything you need to know about nutrition can be found here. (Warning, this article has swear words; but if you’re on my blog, you’re probably ok with that.) Second, I don’t care about weight loss right now. I care about fueling my body for maximum training output.

That’s right. Food is fuel and I try to enjoy every delicious bite. And when I don’t enjoy the food, my brain hates it. (Hello, poor food choices!) And if I don’t eat enough, training suffers. (Hello slogging through runs…)

Instead, let’s focus on why nutrition is important, daily nutrition (short runs/rest days), and nutrition for the long haul (race day and long runs). Then I’ll lightly touch on running in a deficit at the end. Got all that? Excited? Then let’s go!

First off, we’re tackling why nutrition is important. Have you ever had one of those runs where you just feel off? Tired even when you had a full night’s sleep? Legs feel like lead? Fingers are swelling? Brin feels stuffed full of cotton balls?

Do you chalk that up to “it’s just a bad run” or did you ever look at your nutrition that day and the days before? No one just has “a bad run.” There is always a reason and while you can point to injury, overtraining, and dehydration, nutrition definitely plays a big role. Sad to break it to you, diets aren’t just about looking good.

People get very skittish when you mention the D word. Diets hold a negative connotation in American society: restriction, hunger, fatigue… all things you don’t want to be facing while building muscle and endurance. However, a diet is, at its very core, the type and quantity of food you eat. It’s also why I refer to it as “nutrition” not “diet.” My goal is always to roll up to the starting line with enough muscle to move me along and enough fat to carry me through without holding me back. High body fat means I’m carrying weight that isn’t working for me, but low body fat means I am more tired, more hungry, and more cold during training and the race.

Eating enough – Daily nutrition for the short runs days and rest days:

Since I don’t hold a fancy degree or certification in anything, I’ll just describe how I figure out what is “enough.” First, I’m a gadget freak; I love my smartwatches and calculators and step counters and… a whole lot of things that may or may not actually be accurate. So, I’ll track my burn for my five non-long run days to establish a rough average. For me, that’s about 2300 calories. A quick check on a site like shows me that’s about right for someone working out 6-7 days a week, maybe even a little high.

I’ve also had my Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) checked by my doctors during bodybuilding season, so I feel fairly confident that these numbers are a good average.

On a normal workout day, I plan my meals to hit around 2300 calories. A few calories over or under doesn’t hurt unless you start going over/under consistently, then you’ll see the scale move. I don’t worry much about days where I know I work harder/easier than others because it comes out in the average.

My daily diet is pretty consistent. However, on long run days, I’ll add just a little extra to cover the extra burn. But not much, remember, that already accounts for exercising every day – one hundred calories on my Friday 5k and maybe 50-75 calories per mile for a Sunday run.

And before anyone starts screeching that I’m way under-fueling my Sunday long run, I eat as I run and it’s not counted in my 50-75 cal per mile extra. This is to establish my daily intake.

Is there really such a thing as “junk food”?

Yes and no. Back to the idea that “everyone is a walking chemistry set:” each person reacts slightly differently to different foods and food combinations. I do well on a high protein, high carb (but low gluten), and low fat diet. My partner could live and run happily on high protein, high fat, and low carb every day of his life. Neither of us do well on heavily processed foods these days but whether that’s old age, training regime, or a lack of nutritional density is up for anyone to decide. I do keep track of my macros (protein, carbs, and fat) to ensure I hit a good (for me) combination and stay on my caloric target. But if I occasionally (like, once a week) have pizza it’s ok, as long as I account for the higher fats and lower protein within my other meals that day. I’m not a monk, I enjoy my food, and because I do include a lot of whole foods and nutritionally dense foods, I feel pretty good most of the time.

I won’t tell you what you can and can’t eat, but if you’re reading this and suspect that something you’re eating isn’t helping you towards your goals, try cutting it out for a week or two and see how you feel. Then make your own conclusions.

The bottom line with daily nutrition? The right diet is the one that’s sustainable.

Eating on the move – Fueling long runs and races:

Fueling during a long run… Man, I’m not going to tell you what to eat on those long runs. Self-propelled chemistry sets, remember? What works for me might have you puking in the ditch two miles down the road. All I can say is look for calorically dense foods (nut butters, candy bars, quesadillas, etc.) , things you can consume while moving, and things that have a good balance of carbs, fat, and protein with maybe a little salt.

“But Kay, what do *you* eat???”

Short runs: Nothing. Anything in the 5-6 mile range, I might carry something high in carbs like M&Ms. They’re easy to chew, can be doled out in small bits, and chocolate! Even better, the hazelnut M&Ms. Oh heaven!

Middle distance runs (6-12 miles): After an hour I start adding in nut butters like almond, hazelnut, and peanut butter. I’ve found a couple companies that make them in 125-150 calorie packs that are easy to squeeze as you run. I’ve tried making my own granola bars, but for personal reasons, I have a hard time eating granola bars. I will also start taking small amounts of caffeine in this range.

Long distance run (half marathon and beyond): Whatever the aide station has! Seriously, at this point anything that will stay down goes in: salted boiled potatoes, cookies, flat Coke, potato chips, PB&J sandwiches, gels, bananas, Stroop waffles, a hamburger… At Mississippi 50 I ate a piece of bacon at mile 27 that was the nectar of the gods. Ultra aide stations are the wild west, if you’re picky you’d better pack your own food in that drop bag!

Remember, eat things you enjoy. It also pays to have back up snacks. When you are in the mental doldrums of a long race/run, your brain will start doing weird stuff. That perfect snack you planned? Yeah, your cranky toddler of brain doesn’t want it any more and you’re forcing yourself to choke it down. I always have my favorite snacks I know will work without gastro issues, but I also carry a back up that’s very different. For example, gels have been working this season? Awesome, carry five and a small pack of cookies. Cookies are carb heavy but the taste and texture difference might be enough to bump me out of a mental rut and back on my planned nutrition.

I also take shameless advantage of the aide station food. Big commercialized road races have shit aide stations. All they care about is getting as many runners through as quick as they can because it’s profitable. Ultra’s tend to be small races, so race directors lure us in with snack. Sweet, glorious snacks. And like The Oatmeal describes, during a race, I treat my body like a fast moving dumpster.

That statement really brings us back to the two main points. Food is fuel. You are putting food in your body to fuel training and races. Ninety percent of the time, I eat right on my meal plan and exactly meet my caloric requirement with healthy, nutritious, and tasty meals. But on race day, my brain turns into a cranky toddler and I give it whatever I can choke down.

Running and the deficit:

While I don’t like talking running for weight loss, I know some of you are doing it, so I would be remiss if I left it out. Running can be a good weight loss tool. But running is just that, a single tool in your arsenal. You will get the most results from cutting calories.

Unfortunately, for most people, this means your training will take a hit. You will be tired, hungry, and cranky. You will have a hard time running as fast or as far as you would like because your body will be telling you to stop, have a donut, and take a nap. So, if you intend to lose weight and continue run, you need to accept that limitations inherent in it. You should also understand that sustainable weight loss takes time. It took me a year to lose 50lbs at a sustainable rate and I was tired and hungry most of the time. Was it worth it? Absolutely! After just the first 10lbs lost, I was already running faster. At 30lbs lost I was hitting new PRs. But it was a long, uncomfortable road, and I had to learn to suck it up and keep going.

Over the last ten years I’ve run through thick and thin but I’m finally finding the best balance of the two.

I hope this helped at least pull back the curtain for a peek into the vast amount of info that goes into running nutrition. One of my next articles will give an in-depth look at how I find balance in my desired race weight; it’s a fine line between “light and speedy” and “enough strength to finish.”

Again, I’m not an expert and most of this is based on my own personal experience. If its within your means, I highly encourage you to seek a professional to help set good macros for you based on your running and nutritional goals. If it’s not, there are a plethora of resources available on the Internet. Just be mindful that some are better researched than others and “bro science” isn’t real science. Good luck!

Happy trails!

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