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Marathon Fueling: Just Eat Real Food

By Brittany O’Neill

Figuring out nutrition when you’re training (or just living) can seem difficult, and understandably so. There are a lot of things to think about in nutrition: getting enough nutrients to fuel your lifestyle, keeping the source of those nutrients lean enough that it doesn’t cause unhealthy weight gain, making sure you don’t consume additional harmful ingredients and keeping expectations real so you can enjoy your life and sometimes chill with friends and eat a burger or whatever.

In my quest to train ABSOLUTELY PERFECTLY for the NYC Marathon in less than a month, I’ve read about half a dozen books on training programs and fueling, including a recent favorite by Matt Fitzgerald, The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition: A Cutting-Edge Plan to Fuel Your Body Beyond “The Wall.”

Most of them place a lot of emphasis on a runner’s need for carbohydrates, which can often lead an athlete stocking their kitchen with crackers, breads, rice and all kinds of lame substitutes for food. What I like about Fitzgerald’s take is that he really focuses on the big picture of nutrition, not just race fueling. Sure, you want to try and get your 30-60 grams of carbs per hour during your race. But giving your body what it needs is a 24/7 process. So let’s get started.

One of the main, probably most harmful, categories of things to avoid in your diet is sugar. This is no mystery (if it is news to you, then you can read more about it here, here, or for those of you that can’t read, watch this video). The problem is that refined sugars and flours are found in many, if not most, processed foods. Like I’ve blogged about in Nutrition Labels, sugar is hidden under a number of different names, and trying to avoid refined flour by choosing “wheat” breads can still backfire — the first ingredient in those is often white flour.

Food manufacturers don’t focus on feeding you responsibly, they focus on feeding you something you will enjoy eating and want more of, so they will put their efforts into making the tastiest product as cheaply as possible. That means simple carbs galore, which leads to weight gain (specifically in belly fat, which is the most harmful fat to your health), higher risk of heart disease, decreased brain function over time and a host of other health issues. So when you’re ramping up your training and trying to pack in the carbs, choosing the wrong things can really counteract all that hard work you’re doing.

The most basic solution for this is simple: eat real food. Eat as many meals as you can that are made from whole foods. Actual, real food, not a “food product.” Buy vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, lowfat milk products like fat free plain yogurt and light cheeses, healthy whole grains like wild rice and quinoa, lean proteins like chicken breast and pork tenderloin, and a ton of herbs and spices. This will cut TONS of sugar from your everyday eating that you didn’t even know you were ingesting.

You don’t need to cut sugar out entirely, but why waste your sugar binges on processed salad dressing and tomato sauce? Dumb. If you’re gonna eat sugar, make it a real, conscious choice that you can enjoy. Like maybe 16 Handles. I don’t know. Do your thing.

FURTHERMORE, if you eat a wide variety of whole foods, then you are absolutely getting the nutrients your body needs. You don’t need a multivitamin, or protein powder supplements, or a strict regimen. Eating lots of veggies, whole grains, lean protein and fruit — and eating a wide variety of them — will take care of allllllllll the vitamins, minerals, protein, carbs (complex carbs) and healthy fats you need. It’s your best shot at being your healthiest self.

Plus, without added sugars and preservatives, your brain will get better at knowing when you’re full. Simple carbs send a signal to your brain that you need more, so you never get satiated. Cutting the majority of those out will help you feel fuller faster, helping with portion control.

So what does this mean for getting enough carbs to log those miles? Well let’s not forget, friends, that carbs are found in plenty of veggies and fruits. And if you read Fitzgerald’s book, he breaks things down in really easy categories (veggies are category 1, fruits are 2, and so on) for how to prioritize your food. And whole grains are all the way down at number 5.

Upping your carb intake doesn’t necessarily equate to upping your “breads” intake; get creative, you guys. Go for more carb-dense veggies and fruits (which are also likely to be nutrient-dense as well), like sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, butternut squash and other fall squashes, bananas, melons, apples and dried fruits. Legumes are also a great source of carbs, so go for some carrots dipped in hummus for a great healthy snack that will provide some of your carb needs.

And for those during-race carbs, there are stilly plenty of whole foods options. Mine is a mix of raw local honey and whole wheat bread; the honey melts into the bread (which has only 4 ingredients: whole wheat flour, water, honey and salt) and becomes as easy to eat as you run as a gel. Plus the raw local honey will help stave off any fall allergies you might be experiencing (which, if you’re like me, is all of them). Even your race fueling can be unprocessed.

Anytime you ramp up your physical activity, your hunger will follow in suit. If you’re reaching for processed snacks, you’re not getting the kind of nutrient density your body needs when you’re highly active. And you’ll also probably eat more of it than you would a whole foods option, because your body thinks that it needs more of it to get those nutrients, even though those nutrients will never come. That’s why eating whole, nutrient-dense foods is so important, whether you’re training for a marathon or not.

If you haven’t read Fitzgerald’s book, I highly recommend it. It’s a great read for athletes or anyone interested in sports nutrition.

Also, if you’re down to eat some whole foods meals, and just cannot get it together to make it yourself, there are some health food meal delivery services out there that can probably take care of that for you. Like my company Wholly Fit Foods. Any new clients get 50% off the first week to try it out. So … just throwing that out there, you guys.

Brittany O’Neill is a health foods chef, fitness nutrition specialist, fitness blogger at brittdoesfit.com and founder of Wholly Fit Foods, a Brooklyn health food meal delivery service. She loves running almost as much as she loves food, and loves talking about both even more.

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