Nutrition: Avoiding Sucksville

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So, let’s rehash some nutrition stuff, with maybe a little more detail than you’ve gotten before. Or want. But, it’s important to know what the hell’s going on with it all. So…

What the hell’s going on with it all: 

Here’s the quick, rough explanation: Carbohydrates are the most important energy source for us. When we eat carbohydrates, they get broken down into simpler sugars – glucose, fructose, and the one with the coolest name, Galactose. These sugars are the first source of fuel burned as energy. Leftovers get stored and are the next available source, stored as glycogen in the liver and the muscles themselves. Any leftovers from that phase become, sadly, fat (boo), and are the last available source of glycogen. Glycogen derived from carbs is the most-used fuel in any exercise.

Fortunately, on our long, lower-heart rate runs, we’re burning fat (yay), but glycogen is still important in that process to turn fat into usable fuel.

If you don’t eat well, and don’t get enough carbs and therefore don’t have enough of a glycogen store, then you start burning protein. This is no good for running, fitness, weight loss, strength, or your kidneys. Carbs also fuel your brain, which is good when you’re trying to remember where that next turn is. So…

The two nights before a long run or race, you should be eating meals weighted primarily towards complex carbs. Complex carbs (as opposed to simple carbs like simple sugars, all your “toses”) take longer to digest and get stored away, but they don’t get burned through as quickly, either. Your starchy foods like pasta, whole-grain bread, cereals, and grains are best, because starch really breaks down well into glycogen. The night before, avoid the creamy alfredo sauce, oils, and salad. Trust me.

The morning of your run:

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You want a decent, but not too large meal, weighted more towards carbs, but with some protein, as well, the morning of your run – about 400-500 calories. You don’t want to feel full, or hungry, at the start of the run – you should be experimenting with this, and you should have it figured out by the end of December, at the latest. You want to eat a good couple of hours before running. Hit some some fresh fruit, a bagel with some cream cheese, bread with some jam or peanut butter, and some water. Avoid fat and fiber.

But, now you’re on your run, and past a certain point, you’re going to burn through all that. Gatorade/Powerade are fine during races for additional electrolytes and a little sugar boost, but you can’t rely on that to get you through. I’ll occasionally provide Gatorade during our long runs, though I’d rather you get your electrolytes and hydration on a more consistent basis and not rely on the extra sugar.

So, you take the energy stuff. It contains simple sugars, which digest quickly and are accessible quickly. This is going to pick up where your dwindling glycogen stores leave off. Note, this does NOT include things like Red Bull or 5 Hour Energy.

I suggest going to Luke’s or Texas Running Company, or even REI or Academy, and picking up a small variety of gels and chews and what-not to try.

Some considerations:

  • Gels vs. chews vs. beans – Gels tend to leave an aftertaste, and some people retch at the texture, which is sometimes actually more cream frosting-like than gelatinous. Some people find chews and beans difficult to chew and breathe at the same time. Beans have the advantage that they’re kind of indistinguishable from jelly beans. But, it is easier and more efficient to tear the top off a gel pack with your teeth, squeeze the contents out, also using your teeth, than it is to dump a packet of beans into your piehole and try to chew them all up.
  • Flavors – I like Gu’s vanilla, chocolate, and chocolate mint. Gels also come in fruit flavors, which actually don’t seem to cut the aftertaste as much as I thought they might.

Always take these things with water, unless you’re extra tough. Never take them with Gatorade – you’re chasing one kind of sugar with corn syrup, basically, and it can do evil things in your stomach.

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The timing is something to experiment with, but you should plan backwards. A pack of Gu seems to kick in, especially now that they all contain caffeine, in about 10-15 minutes (some combination of true fuel and placebo effect, probably), and will probably give you 40-45 minutes of fuel. So, in a marathon, for example, I know I want them every four miles, and I’ll take some at 24 as insurance. On race day, you’re out there to race, not to lose weight. So, I’m Gu-ing at 24 (chocolate mint!), 20, 16, 12, and 8.

I have gotten lazy and/or arrogant in marathons and skipped some Gu. The thing about Gu is that it’s not so much a matter of feeling the effect, as it is feeling its absence. It’s not blow, a can of spinach, or an AC/DC song. It’s fuel. You take it for granted, and when you run out of it, you are lying in a gutter in downtown Sucksville, and the buses aren’t running. Because of the sucking.

So. Take this stuff for granted at your own peril. Seriously. You may think you’re a sleek bad-ass that has run 16 or 18 miles, or multiple marathons, and that you can eat crappily the day before that 12 miler. Maybe you get lucky. Maybe your metabolism is weird. But if you don’t eat right, you should always at least be wondering how much better things would have gone if you had…