I've targeted the Kingston marathon in October to get a new PB (target sub-3.30, current best 3.38 at Edinburgh in 2014). Over each of the next 16 weeks, I'll be addressing a different aspect of marathon training. Follow me on my journey and tell me about yours!
There's been a lot in the media recently about nutrition. Specifically, the way that many so-called nutritionists are doling out uneducated half-truths about nutrition on the back of the latest fad diet or kitchen gadget. I haven't had any formal education in this area so I won't be discussing anything remotely contentious. Instead I will stick to the basics on how to feed yourself when you're running quite a lot. Hopefully most of it is common sense, and the rest is what I’ve picked up from reading books by people who know what they’re talking about, but to clarify, I am no expert and if in doubt you should refer to a professional.
The basic rule here is to eat healthily, which almost certainly means eating more vegetables, for a start. When you're exerting your body the way you do when running regularly, you need the nutrients that vegetables provide even more than usual.
TIP: Even now I sometimes struggles to get my five a day, so throwing in some spinach on my scrambled eggs at least makes me feel like I'm heading in the right direction.
I am a huge believer in a balanced diet, a little bit of everything. Try new things to expand your dietary repertoire and eating will become a lot easier. You won't like everything (sorry brussel sprouts) and not everything will agree with your body (why don't you like me, blue cheese?!) but with a little experimentation you'll soon find out what works for you.
I’m also partial to cake, doughnuts and pizzas, and while I know they’re not good for me, I also know that in moderation they’re not that bad either. I’m so far from being an elite athlete that the odd treat isn’t going to inhibit my performance significantly.
Eating to train
Running hard and running long, both of which you're likely to do in training for a marathon, means fueling right. As carbohydrate is used as a fuel, you need to consume more of it the more exercise you do. It's really as simple as that.
Carbs have become somewhat demonised in recent times but unless you've been slowly transitioning to a low carb, high fat diet (as some ultrarunners do, for example), trying to do aerobic exercise without carbs is going to prove difficult, if not impossible. If in doubt, talk to a registered dietitian.
I've been very lucky in that I've never really had to watch what I eat in terms of putting on weight. I say lucky; I've always been very active so maybe that's at least a part of it. So historically I've never counted calories. Some apps, such as Strava and MyFitnessPal, provide a 'calories burnt' figure. I don't know how accurate they are but assuming they're close, it's given me a bit of a shock as to how much food I should be eating just to 'break even' on any given day. This is important because if you don't fuel yourself properly, you won't be able to train optimally.
When you're trying to eat healthily, getting 3,500 calories a day can be really difficult. It got to the point where I was either eating a lot of cake or stressing about not eating enough when I was already full. Clearly neither of these are good places to be so after a while I forgot about counting calories and focused on using common sense i.e. eating when hungry and eating as healthily as possible. Plenty of carbs, good proteins, vegetables and you're well on your way.
TIP: Eat or drink some protein within 20 minutes of a tough session to start the repair process. Any food is better than nothing though. There's a lot of love for chocolate milk after a hard workout but plain milk will do the job.
Nutrition for race day
Confession time. I'm not sure I've ever get carb-loading right. I've tried eating loads of carbs in the week before a race and hit the wall at mile 17 (this was my first marathon). I've eaten normally in the week before and had a protein bar halfway round and been absolutely fine (this might sound like I got it right but I'm not so sure). I do think that the more you run long distances, the better your body is at coping with the situation. Not only are you fitter, but it's used to the stresses of running a long way. Or it could just be that I need to eat food on long runs.
Quite probably I haven't been scientific enough about the amount and timing of eating my carbs before a race. What I would recommend is to try different approaches and figure out what works for you, but just be prepared for the fact that it may not go well the first time, or indeed any other time. Nowadays, I'll take a couple of gels and a cereal bar to have during the race and that seems to do the trick - just make sure you've practised with whatever you're planning to use on race day. Gels particularly can cause gut distress and the last thing you need as you're powering your way to victory is an emergency toilet stop.
TIP: Have you main meal the day before the race at lunchtime or at least not too late the night before. There's often a 'pasta party' at big city marathons prior to the race but going to bed feeling bloated isn't going to be helpful and may impact your race day poo strategy. But I'll save that treat for another post!