Nutrition + Fueling for Marathons

Last week I talked about my training for Wineglass. One of the questions I was asked was about nutrition – if I changed anything, how I fueled on runs, etc. You can have the perfect training plan, but if your diet is not meeting the needs of your body, you can get injured, sick or not make it to the start line as trained or healthy as you could be.

For many years, I had a general rule of thumb that I fueled on any run over 90 minutes. Even when I was running long in Iraq and didn’t have access to gels (during my 2nd deployment), I still found ways to fuel. I carried little packets of peanut butter or handfuls of peanuts/trail mix in bags in my sports bra.

I’m a big believer in making training harder than races. So less fuel, water, carb-intake, etc during the training cycle and during each run than I would give myself on race day. I want my body to be able to run longer miles with less fuel so that on race days, it will feel easier (or at least provide a mental advantage) when I have consistent calories and water coming in.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with this line of thought. But about 18 months ago, I began experimenting with not fueling on longer runs. Again, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with this thinking. Glycogen depleted runs are a great tool (I talked about them here).

But most experts advise you to do a glycogen depleted run every few weeks. I began doing them every single week.

The eye opening moment happened the end of February during my 1st 20 miler in the trainup for the Boston Marathon. After about 13-14 miles, I realized I hadn’t fueled yet. My stomach felt off, so I made decision to finish the run with no fuel. The last few miles were slow and painful – but I finished and I remember feeling so happy that I ran 20 miles with no fuel.

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But it was a short-lived celebration. I remember going home and laying by the fire (it was snowing during the run) and having this intense nausea hit me followed by stomach cramping. I didn’t have time to relax and recover because we were driving down to Florida for the week. So I took a quick shower and within an hour, we were on the road. For the rest of the day, I felt like I had just raced – that exhausted, can’t keep your eyes open feeling. Running was a struggle for the rest of the week. I took a few rest days and cut a tempo workout way short because I felt like garbage. Thankfully, there was no long run on the schedule the following weekend (I was racing my first 1 mile race).

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Coach and I spoke that week and he had to make some mileage and intensity changes to the plan. He told me that I had used up all of my glycogen stores by not fueling – and now my body was working hard to get them back up and recover.

I was so beyond annoyed with myself. I was six weeks out from Boston and felt like I had potentially sabotaged the previous few months of training. Thankfully, I didn’t – after another week of easier running, I felt better and was able to finish the cycle strong and PR by 6+ minutes in April.

But it was one of those decisions and experiences that you don’t forget.

This summer, things were different. Anything over 15/16 miles (depended on how I felt and what type of run it was) and I was fueling at least once, sometimes 3x. I never experienced that exhaustion after any of my long runs this cycle – even my 23 miler. I felt energized immediately after (which was great b/c we were on the go all summer!)and woke up ready for an easy 4-5 miles.

I think social media is amazing and wonderful and can offer so many tips and ideas on how to train better or more effectively. But, I’d caution you to take what you read and see with a grain of salt. Not everything that you read means that it is safe or healthy to do. And just because it works (or seems to work) for someone else, doesn’t mean it will work for you. Do all of your research, reach out to other running friends or experts and make a decision that is best for you.

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The second aspect of this post is to discuss my nutrition on a day-to-day basis.  I feel like 2015 was a big year for me for some many reasons – new job, two marathon PRs and a major diet haul. For a long time, I felt like I was restricting calories or eliminiating foods from my diet because they were “bad” foods (I think this lends itself to it’s own post and I will eventually discuss  my history with self image and food). But suffice to say, that I always felt like I was watching what I was eating – and I was never truly in a good place with food.

I’ve been at my new job for four weeks now and am thrilled that I am already known as the girl who eats all the time. Most days, I am eating something every two or so hours (sometimes less). My desk is filled with snacks – things that don’t just fill me up, but taste good too – Generation UCAN bars, Clif bars, Kind bars, almond butter, trail mix, apples, bananas.

Back in January, my husband decided he wanted to try Whole 30. I read most of the book and decided it was worth a try. But, after 36 hours, I gave up. I run, exercise and eat healthy most of the time – so I didn’t really see a need (or have a desire) to give up a few of the things that I look forward to each day – stevia and french vanilla creamer in my coffee, wine each night, popcorn, etc. My husband continued for the 30 days. During that month, I tried to make all of our meals whole-30 approved. We both loved the way we felt – no stomach pains and a lot of energy so we decided to continue with it.

Whole 30 and the paleo lifestyle taught me so much about my body and how it is affected by the foods I put into it. I know that my body reacts poorly to certain foods – and so, I’ve made the decision to eliminate them from my diet. I’m not saying I don’t ever eat them.  I know that I can eat it – and I know that if I eat “x, y or z” it’ll probably make me feel crappy tomorrow. Some days, I decide it’s not worth it. Other days, I do and so I’ll eat it and know that I’ll wake up and have a bloated stomach and feel fatigued.

And most importantly, it has helped me develop a better relationship with food while leaving me more than satisfied with food. I love meals again. Cooking is fun. I love being able to eat until I am completely full – but not walking away with stomach pains or regret with what I ate. I truly enjoy every meal.

So what does my diet really look like? I’d say we eat paleo about 80-90% of the time. I still begin my day (and afternoon!) with a large cup of coffee with lots of French vanilla creamer + stevia. I drink wine almost every night. And I indulge my sweet tooth – cookies, popcorn, ice cream, chocolate at night.

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This is generally what I eat during the week. I have no idea how many calories or grams of protein are in what I eat. I don’t count. I pay more attention to what’s in the food I am eating. And focus especially on what’s the best for my body and what makes me feel energized, nourished and satisfied.

  • 6:45am: Large omelet or egg scramble with 2-3 eggs and a ton of veggies
  • 8:30-9:00am: Banana with a packet of almond butter
  • 10:30-11:15: couple of handfuls of homemade trail mix (cashews, almonds, white chocolate and craisons)
  • 12:30-1pm: Lunch (depends – sometimes chipotle, salad bar or main entrée at lunch)
  • 2:30-3:00pm: Kind bar, apple of handful of trail mix (or combo of the above)
  • 3:30pm: Coffee
  • 7pm: dinner (veggies, sweet potatos, protein)
  • 8:30pm: snack + wine (perfect way to wind down the day)

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We’ve mostly eliminated grains, rice, beans and processed foods (so no bread, wraps, etc). I do eat pasta at least once/week – it’s my favorite meal and I’ll never be able to give up pasta altogether =)

We eat a TON of veggies and sweet potatoes on a weekly basis. We cook them the same way – coated with a mix of olive oil + coconut oil, Himalayan pink sea salt + crushed black pepper. Either roasted in oven on foil (450 degrees) or on BBQ. SO easy and they taste so delicious!

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I’m not sharing this to tell you to eat the same way I do. Just want to show you what I’ve done and the results I have seen. I’m leaner, stronger and faster than I have ever been before and I believe my diet has played a big part in that.

Please let me know if you have any questions/comments/etc about nutrition or fueling! Have a great weekend!

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    22 thoughts on “Nutrition + Fueling for Marathons

    1. Pingback: Fueling: Long Runs, Workouts, Post-Work Runs

    2. Pingback: Glycogen Depletion Runs: The Purpose, the Benefits, and the Risks

    3. Hi!! Sorry for the random comment on an older post, I just found your blog and this post was very helpful! I was hoping you could answer a few more questions regarding fueling!
      Do you eat before your runs, and if so, what do you have?
      What do you use for fuel during your runs?
      Thanks so much!!

      • Oh gosh! No worries! Glad you found it useful!

        I typically don’t eat before any runs – simply b/c I’m getting up early to run and there’s just not enough time to eat and let it digest. I drink a cup of coffee with cream and sugar, so I guess I have some calories in me beforehand!

        If I wait anything longer than about 90 min then I have to eat something – usually a banana with almond butter – it’s easy and light on my stomach and I can usually be out running within 30 minutes!

        During my runs is either a gel, chomps or Generation Ucan – just depends on how I’m feeling and what I have in my house! LOL. And water!

        Please let me know if you have any other questions =)
        nycrunningmama recently posted..Boston Marathon (2016) Training (T-14)My Profile

    4. This is a great post! Thank you for sharing! I’ve struggled (and am continuing to work through) eating issues and getting into a normal routine. It’s helpful to hear about your day to day and what works for you. I love that you found your balance and didn’t have to cut out desserts and wine!!
      Arthi recently posted..Mope & Wine.My Profile

    5. Great post, thanks for sharing all of us. It’s so helpful to read about other people’s fuelling and you can never pick up enough tips/ideas when it comes to marathon fuelling. I’m still trying to figure out what works best for me & there’s a lot of trial and error but you’ve given me some new ideas to think about. Thanks! :)
      Fiona recently posted..Time Off For Good BehaviourMy Profile

    6. Pingback: 8 Random Thoughts – The Cookie ChRUNicles

    7. Hi Michele!
      I love that you’re finding your way with nutrition through trial and error. I feel like so many people buy a book or start a diet (i.e., do what someone else says) and trust that it works for them when, in fact, there are countless & conflicting studies out there about what we should eat.

      Ultimately, my observation is that the diet approach can work for people, but success is typically short-lived. We are all so unique that we owe it to ourselves to investigate to find what works for us.

      I also love that you’ve found moderation…. and sweet potatoes (I love them, too!). cheers!

    8. Thank you so much for your nutrition tips! I feel like we all learn by trial and error and it’s great to learn from each other as well, especially from those like you who run so many races/are gifted runners. Also thank you for being honest about your snack ideas and overall nutrition- it is much appreciated! Happy running!

    9. This post was so helpful! I love your approach to food. Your relationship and attitude towards food seems so balanced. It is something I constantly struggle with – always wanting to be leaner and being ok with eating enough to support my training. If you are open to sharing more, I would love to hear more about your history with self image and food. It is a tough thing to achieve. You look great, run fast and strong – huge congrats :)

    10. Was just curious if oatmeal was something you don’t eat as well? Thanks for this post, I do know that my food is probably one of the things holding me back from looking/feeling better.

    11. Thank you for sharing! I really enjoy reading and learning from your posts!
      I was wondering if you carb load the week before the marathon or stick to a mostly paleo diet? I tried whole 30 but felt I did not have energy with some of my long runs and cross trainng… Do you attribute getting leaner, stronger and faster primarily from nutrition or a combination of strength training as well?

    12. I just gotta know. Why give up rice and beans? I know paleo doesn’t eat it, but its so cheap, nutritious and perfect for endurance runners

      • We have made it a point to eliminate processed food and any food that is considered inflammatory. Rice and beans fall into those two categories. I will add that I first was very against removing them from my diet. But after a few weeks, I noticed a major difference in how I felt. I would often finish a meal and have a distended stomach or feel heavily bloated (fingers and stomach). That doesn’t happen anymore and for that reason, alone, we have decided to continue with our current diet.
        nycrunningmama recently posted..Nutrition + Fueling for MarathonsMy Profile

    13. What do you get at Chipotle? I usually get a burrito bowl, which I already know is way better than a burrito (since the wrap can be 300-400 calories with very little ROI), but I also know there’s got to be better options. Is it possible to order a riceless burrito bowl? Is that a thing? What are your go-to picks at Chipotle?
      Lauren recently posted..26 until 26.2!My Profile

    14. Awesome post! I agree, diet is such a personal thing. I’ve tried to copy other people that I THOUGHT knew what they were doing and it often times left me exhausted and burnt out. I still experiment with my diet to this day, and change things up but I’ve finally gotten to a place where I figured out what works for me!
      Sara @ LovingOnTheRun recently posted..Resuming Workouts Post MarathonMy Profile

    15. I’m always curious about what eating habits work for runners I admire – this was really helpful for seeing what changes I might want to make! Was wondering about your running fuel(s) of choice. I’ve tried a few gels and chews, not with any terrible GI results, but I’m always wondering what other options are out there. Thanks!