Endurance Athletes: How and What to Eat?

>> Tuesday, August 31, 2010

We've had many variations of the same question now. So many, in fact, that we just had to add the topic to our to-do list. The question is: How do you guys adjust your eating to fit the demands of marathon/distance training? And the answer is far from simple or one-size-fits all. So, please treat this information as a guide, not absolute fact to live your training life by.

Stephen and I both answer this question differently. Today, I'll provide my perspective . . . because we're in the final weeks of preparation, and I've fallen into my old eating slump. Hopefully writing about the "DOs" versus my "DON'Ts" will help.

When the miles creep above the 40-a-week point (and they have for several weeks now), I get lazy about my consumption. I eat pretty much everything in sight. Yes, I'm undoubtedly hungry and definitely need to eat. But cookies for breakfast? That's a little over the top, don't you think? I do.

I get this attitude during training that since I'm running so much, I can eat so much. I know I'm not alone. The truth is: I am indeed running a lot and -- as a result -- need to increase my intake. If you read our post about the mysterious marathon weight gain, you know there are several reasons for why the pounds pile up during distance training. I have gained a few, but I'm pretty sure my diet is the culprit.

So, what to do? I need to take my own advice for a change. These things can help.

1.) First, make sure you're buying quality, power foods when you're at the store. We recently did a guest post for our friend Ashley (at Edible Perspective) about the Top 20 Budget Friendly Foods we enjoy throwing in our grocery cart. When you buy the healthy stuff, you'll be less prone to order out and get those quick-fix, full-of-fat-and-sugar things on the run.

Here's a quick visual rundown.

I encourage you to check out that post for specific information on these foods (why they're good for you, what vitamins they contain, how to use them in everyday cooking, etc.).

2.) Breakfast -- yup, that's right -- is still the most important meal of the day. When I don't start my day with a hearty breakfast, I feel it by 10AM. I'm absolutely ravenous . . . and it usually means that I spent the rest of the day foraging for any food that comes my way. If that means the office party cookies -- I'll eat three. White bagels loaded with cream cheese? Don't mind if I do.

I'll eat anything I can get my hands on if it's in supply anywhere near my desk.
There's a stocked-to-the-gills vending machine near my desk.

Some good-for-you, hearty breakfast recipes include:
There are no excuses to miss breakfast during training (or ever, really). So, if you are prone to skipping, you may want to stash some oatmeal and nuts, raisins, honey, etc. at your desk so you can just add water and get your fill!

3.) Also: Eat lunch. In fact, don't skip meals at all -- and be sure to eat one or two healthy snacks if you're hungry. We don't actually track our calories during marathon training (or ever). But we know we need to eat more. How do we accomplish this goal without packing on the pounds? Packing smart.

Even an extra 15 minutes a day is enough time for you to pack a wholesome, whole foods lunch and a few snacks. This area is my downfall -- I tend to do a lot of blogging and emailing in the mornings. I also edit photos and run. Pretty busy couple hours before the day even begins.

If I take that extra time, though -- I look forward to my snacks and mid-day meal. I feel good about what I'm eating, too. Plus, whatever I pack keeps me way fuller than a single Snickers bar could.

For example, I've been a fan of the whole PB&J plus apples wrap lately. However, a sandwich doesn't fill me up. For my hunger level, I just listen to my body. I try to include a kale salad (this one's filled with sliced heirloom tomatoes, carrots, plums, and low sodium soy sauce). Some days I bring a sweet potato. Snacks include bananas, carrots, crackers with hummus.

Our favorite pack-and-go lunches are classic, easy sandwiches, spreads, and salads. Check out the "Lunch" section on our recipe page for more great lunch ideas.

4.) Eat until you are full, but listen to your body, too. From week to week, your caloric needs will change. Depending on your mileage (and whatever else is going on at the time), you'll need more or less. Try not to fall into the pattern I find myself in where any cookie is my best friend.

It goes a little something like this: "Hey, I've earned it! I just ran 20 miles." An hour later: "Let's order a pizza. Hey, I've earned it! I just ran 20 miles." Two hours later: "Maybe some beer would go well with this cheese fondue I'm making, to dip the pizza in, before we eat the cupcakes I just made. But HEY! I've earned it! I just ran 20 miles!!!"

I'm not THAT bad. But you get the picture. Calorie creep can happen when you lease expect it, and all those goodies will add up. Usually all that sugar, butter, and other processed stuff isn't what your body needs anyway. Allow you self some treats -- I sure do -- but try to keep them in check.

(Want the recipe for those delish vegan chocolate-peanut butter cupcakes? I thought so! And here's the recipe for those awesome chocolate-glazed donuts. It's OK to indulge, really! Just not ALL the time.)

As you can see, there's not really a "right" answer. We don't count calories, and I don't see that happening any time soon. What you should focus on is quality over everything else. If you think your eating is getting out of control (like me) try asking yourself: Will this food fuel my activity? Before stuffing it down your throat. Seriously, it sounds elementary, but it helps. More often than not, is the answer is NO, you'll feel better.

Chances are, you'll also perform better, too. It's a tricky balance, that's for sure, but as long as you're paying attention to how you feel, you should be alright. If you have trouble with internal dialogue, keep a food/activity journal. Note where you feel slumps in your energy throughout the day. Note what you ate -- this advice is good whether or not you're running long.

If you're looking for some numbers, we found the following guide on The Marathon Website:
  • 50 – 65% calories from complex carbohydrates
  • 15 – 25% calories from fat, unsaturated as much as possible
  • 20 – 25% calories from protein. Use the higher percentage if you are weight training
Also: Marathon time isn't the best time to try to lose weight. Your body NEEDS food . . . desperately . . . and if you're cutting back drastically, ignoring your hunger signals, etc., you'll likely burn out, get injured, or simply fall into demotivation with your training. From personal experience, my weight has INCREASED since I started racing marathons. Though I've remained the same clothing size, I am heavier. Learn more in our mysterious marathon weight gain post.

And -- above all else -- (if you are) please stop worrying about the number on the scale. If you're training for endurance events, give you body a little more credit for the awesome feats it is accomplishing.

Here are some more resources to help:
And if you're looking for more tips and tricks for your running training, check our our (never home)makers Run Wild page.

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