Marathon Training – Is it cool to carbo-load?

Carbs or Proteins.– which foodstuff reigns? In my post Marathon Training – My Friday 15 Miler, I promised I’d follow up with my two cents on protein. I will preface by saying that the whole eating-while-training issue is always a work in progress for me, especially as I age and my body composition changes. If memory serves I can actually remember every meal I ate before every marathon I have run. Pathetic, I know, and a true inditement of my geekiness. I remember the gnocchi I ate at my apartment before Boston  in ’97, the pasta with chicken prior to San Diego and the pizza I had in Dublin. (I also remember the shots of tequila I drank two nights before the Dublin marathon, because after all, I was vacationing in Ireland and needed to celebrate; however, this is something I highly recommend against doing). When I first started running in…..err…..1975 (boy I’m old), carbo loading was the only thing a runner considered doing. In fact, even now, most pre-race events are pasta parties. But I’m starting to question the wisdom. And it’s not all about the night before the race, either.

Carb meet protein: When I was working out with personal trainer extraordinaire Karrie Wood several years ago, she recommended I eat more protein than I had in the past. Why? Though I’m not overweight, my fat to muscle ratio is a little on the high side. In other words, I’ve likely lost some muscle mass as I’ve gracefully entered my forties, and I need to replenish that which I have lost. The best way to do this is via muscle strengthening workouts – free weights, weight machines, Pilates, etc. But a diet with a bit more protein is beneficial, too. After all, in the years before I got married, I ate a lot of all pasta and/or all veggie meals (especially in grad school and in Boston, when I couldn’t afford meat). So I started experimenting. I ate protein (usually chicken or fish) the night prior to long training runs, balanced with a variety of veggies. I drank protein shakes immediately before long runs (or even tennis matches, which I often find to be long and enduring since I have no tennis strategy and have to outlast opponents to win). I ate added peanut butter on toast to accompany the protein shake. You can find my recipe for shakes here). And no, I didn’t start eating steaks and bacon around the clock. I just integrated more protein, almost always ones lower in fat, into my usual carbo-loaded diet.

And the results are…. The first race in which I competed after integrating my new eating habits happened to be the first one in which I qualified for Boston (at the Chicago marathon, and if you must know, I ate spaghetti with meat sauce the night before). And though my qualifying time increased (because I turned 45), I didn’t slow down, either. I am running as fast as when I as 32. And when I ran Boston last spring, I again qualified for (this year’s) Boston.

Other benefits of protein: For one, I don’t get as hungry, both during workouts (there’s nothing worse than running 18 miles and dreaming about a pile of pancakes the entire time) and in between meals. I also think I my level of energy is sustained for a longer period of time – during and after long runs, all other conditions notwithstanding (by that, I mean no raging PMS or bad hangovers and plenty of fluids and sleep, you know, things like that).

Too much of a good thing: The night before I ran Marine Corps, I ate a big ‘ole filet mignon. And I proceeded to have the worst marathon of my life the following day. Was it the steak’s fault? Probably not. But I also may not have eaten enough carbs, either. That’s why I’ve decided a nice mix of protein and carbs is ideal for my body the night before the race. And on race day….I definitely incorporate protein in the mix. That is usually a protein shake (not one, since hotels rarely come equipped with a blender, but rather a pre-mixed fruit shake bought at the grocery store with a scoop of protein powder) and a PB&J (and also a bagel they’re handing out just prior to the race). Though a warm bowl of oatmeal or a nice cheesy omelet might taste good, it’s not likely you’ll find a gourmet restaurant open at 5 a.m. to serve breakfast (except maybe NYC, still open from the night before).

Carbs during the race: I’ve turned into the queen of power gels. The two races I have tried it, I have not bonked as badly at mile 20. I’m not talking a gel or two, but 7-8 gels. And I’ve even mastered a new technique of swallowing them whole, like pills, with a big gulp of water. That ensures you get fluids, too, and also helps prevent nausea (because we all know how bad those gels taste and how hard they are to swallow when you’re mouth is dry). I’ve tried eating energy bars, but I simply get too sick at my stomach. (P.S. I train with gels, too).

My number one recommendation: stick with the routine: Don’t save something new for race day. Make sure you experiment with different types of food and fluids before and during long training runs. How your body responds is the best way to determine how you’ll react during the race itself. And it’s also great to check out information from sources like Runner’s World. They suggest you be attentive to the types of carbs you eat, specifically ones that are rich in fiber and high in water content. They also recommend that you carbo-load, not fat load. I like Krispy Kreme, too, but I’m not sure donuts is what they had in mind (though like Suemac, I tend to use long distances as a good excuse to eat sweets).

Melinda Hinson