2012 Portland Marathon Training – Part 3: Nutrition

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In the previous two articles of this series, we imagined an aspiring marathoner, and how she would go from being a run-of-the-mill Crossfit enthusiast to an actual marathon runner.

The overall physical training plan was to develop her technique as a runner, and then the intensity/speed of her running, and finally build up her training volume.

Our runner also found her weakness as they relate to running and distances. We built a training plan that would give her plenty of time to address her weaknesses, and to hopefully turn them into either less of a hindrance, or a strength.

As she progresses through her training plan, adjustments will be made based on her ability to recover between workloads. We’ll use each phase to introduce a progressively more challenging component, by way of races. We’re going to build her to the point where she enters her “A” race day confident in her ability, knowing that the race won’t be any more difficult than her previous training.

This physical training planning will be worthless, however, if our aspiring marathoner does not plan for her nutrition, hydration, and recovery. These things are essential to her long-term success, more so than just properly structured activity.

We’ll break down these three general ideas — nutrition, hydration, and recovery — into pre-race, in-race, and post-race.

First, pre-race. Our runner is just about to finish her first training block. She is about sixteen weeks out from her “A” race day. This gives her the opportunity to really focus on and optimize her nutrition. This means she will focus on developing good eating habits if she hasn’t already, and have those habits match the needs of her body and the intensity level of her training.

What we want for our runner is an optimal diet. Optimal is different for everyone, but the underlying concept should be the same, regardless of where on the spectrum our runner ends up, from a hyper-carnivore to a dyed-in-the-wool vegan.

The basic guiding concept is that, regardless of your dietary outline, the majority of your daily food intake should come from as sustainable, clean, and healthful sources as possible. This includes any nutritional supplements and performance optimizers that our runner chooses to take. The details vary, but the foundation is the same. Eat clean.

There are whole libraries written on the subject of optimal nutrition, but with that one concept in mind, to eat as “clean” as possible, our runner is that much closer to sustainable health. Now, like any other plan, our runner’s nutritional guidelines will probably need some tweaking based on personal preference and performance markers. Four months gives us time to ferret out any issues related to baseline, supportive nutrition.

For the purpose of this article, let’s decide that our runner chooses to follow a “Paleo-esque” style nutrition plan. She is basing her diet on sustainably raised/harvested animal proteins, fats and oils that help promote a healthful ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids, and minimally processed carbohydrates. The exact ratios will differ from athlete to athlete.

Because she is training to be an endurance athlete, she may play with increasing the percentage of the fats in her diet. She’ll do this in part to help her body recognize fats as a fuel source, as aerobic activity is driven primarily by fat. The other reason is that many hormones, and specifically androgens like testosterone, are lipid based. Testosterone, amongst other things, plays a role in bone density and muscle mass development. High-volume aerobic activity depletes fat stores, and has been shown to reduce testosterone levels. Increasing her fat intake may act as a buffer against this.

She will make sure she get gets adequate levels of protein on a daily basis. Not only will this help with the tissue repair after workouts, it will help mitigate the effects of protein catabolism that occurs after high-volume aerobic work.

What this means is that our runner is trying to avoid using proteins from her own muscle mass to repair the damage to her tissues sustained during any volume or high intensity training. As her intensity and volume ramps up, she may need to increase both her fat and protein intake.

Our runner will use carbohydrates in an intelligent manner. For the majority of her daily diet, she will be eating complex carbohydrates from leafy green vegetables. As part of her daily routine, she will also eat simpler and minimally processed carbohydrates (such as a starchy tuber like a sweet potato) as part of a post-workout meal. She’ll do this to help reduce the high levels of cortisol released in response to high intensity/volume exercise, as well as to quickly replenish the glycogen stored in her liver. Her post-workout meal will ideally take place within an hour after exercise.

Her daily routine will be just that — the majority of her meals will happen initially on a schedule, with the intention of turning that schedule into a habitual healthful practice. Ideally our runner will have settled into a daily meal pattern that offers her all the nutrients she needs. She’ll base amounts on her perception of her overall energy level and her workout results.

As she gets closer to her “A” race, around the beginning of training block 2, she will begin to tinker with in-race nutrition. Athletes participating in endurance events benefit from in-race nutrition, primarily to replenish some of the glycogen used to fuel activity. Most runners will need to start to replenish their glycogen stores an hour to an hour-and-a-half into an event.

Initially, she will decide on what sort of in-race fuel to use. As she is going to be following a Paleo-esque diet, she may balk at the use of processed sugar gels, drinks or blocks/jelly beans/gummies.

She may also want avoid using simple sugars at all as in-race fuels. While eating simple sugars provides for a nearly immediate increase in energy, it may also set her up for a sugar crash soon after her body clears the excess sugar not immediately used for energy production. This can set up a vicious cycle of sugar crashes in the course of a race. Instead, she may play with the use of fats, proteins and complex carbohydrates as in-race fuel.

Whatever she chooses, she will ensure that she brings her own to her races. She’ll be familiar with the food she uses, and there will be opportunities in her training schedule to ensure that her choices are appropriate.

The day before her race, she won’t binge on pasta at the pre-race spaghetti dinner. She’ll make sure she eats enough food the weeks prior to her race. Her taper week will be part of her final training block. If it’s done correctly, she will have recovered from her training and will have a surfeit of glycogen in her muscles and liver.
“Carbo-loading” the day before the race may not help her very much on race day, unless she has been following a high-carbohydrate nutrition plan all the way through training.

The day of her “A” race will be like any other workout day, maybe with a little more anticipation beforehand. The only different part of her routine for that day is that she will be running a marathon. She’ll eat breakfast before heading out to the race to lessen the impact of the combination of high cortisol level that corresponds to waking, as well as the heightened cortisol level from the pre-race excitement. Her execution of her plan has brought her this far.

Our runner now has a plan. This plan covers several months of physical and nutritional training. Her plan is aimed at a major goal, and the plan itself is comprised of smaller, measurable goals. She has access to a coach, is focused on healthful lifestyle choices, and is primed for success.

Obviously, there’s an enormous amount of detail left to fill in, but those details are dependent on actual people and their respective needs.

If any of the information in this or the previous two articles in is series is of interest to you, feel free to contact me for a simple conversation about hypotheticals, or a more complex one about program design and persistent coaching.



2 Comments on “2012 Portland Marathon Training – Part 3: Nutrition”

  1. Pingback: 2012 Portland Marathon Training – Part 3: Nutrition - buffer

  2. Very well written, Madoc. Although I’m not a great runner and never plan to do a marathon, I learned a good deal from this post. Thanks.

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