An amazing thing happened today. I came home from work, had a light snack, took my time getting ready, and went for a run. And it felt great! Okay, not profoundly great. I didn’t run super far, set a new PR, or got somehow transformed into a sleek thoroughbred. No, I was sweaty, tired, and my legs burned as I sprinted down the last block towards my house, but I couldn’t help but smile.
The source of my sweaty smile and sense of accomplishment? My newly completed nutrition experiment. After analyzing what I ate, crunching the numbers, and making some simple fixes to my life, I can call this experiment a success. I’ve learned a great deal over the past few months, and I’m excited to share my new wisdom.
The goal of my nutrition experiment was to find a fix for my “bad” runs. In the past, I would go for a 4-6 mile run and feel really weak after just a mile. I would start out OK, and then quickly hit a wall–my stomach nauseous, my legs feeling like they were filled with sand, and my motivation sinking like the Titanic. Although my intentions for long training runs were good, running was miserable, and I’d frequently throw in the towel early and walk/run home with my tail between my legs.
Hoping I wasn’t the only one struggling out there, I devised an experiment! Chalk it up to living with a scientist, but I thought the cause of my weakness may not be mental fragility, but instead related directly to diet, and I was determined to identify my running strength-food connection. And over the past couple of months I have learned a ton about food, the way my body uses and reacts to what I eat, and how what I eat makes me feel. Going into this experiment, I thought upping my carb intake would help me the most. I mean, you’re supposed to carbo-load, right? Surprisingly, though, that wasn’t the secret bullet.
So, what have I learned over the past few weeks?
First off, I want to say that keeping track my food was AWESOME and I recommend that everyone tries it for at least a week. It is amazingly introspective and provides a fascinating lens into something I’d never thought of. I should mention that I am a 30-year old man with no prior weight-related issues. I eat when I’m hungry, I stop when I’m satisfied, and I’ve never dieted or worried about what I was eating.
Due to my naïve stereotypical male background, it was surprisingly eye-opening to realize that you learn so much more about who you are, and what you think you eat, versus what you really eat when you have to record it all. There are a ton of sites online to aid in the process (I used myfitnesspal.com), but simply writing it down in a journal serves the same purpose: it will really make you think about how you fuel yourself.
Of the 4 weeks of this experiment, the two weeks I felt the best were when I increased my protein and fat intakes relative to everything else. I think the most important thing I learned was that in addition maintain a healthy diet, you need to EAT OFTEN. Don’t go long stretches without eating and expect to push through with a quick snack.
Although I’ve frequently teased my wife for always carrying around an apple and a string cheese, or a bag of almonds (seriously, there is a reason her purse is so big), it turns out that by eating frequently, you gain so much more energy.
Another interesting factor that came to light during my journey was the difference between processed and more natural foods. Yes, I’ve read “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan, and yes, I have a farm share, but, not gonna lie, I love junk food and going into this, I kind of thought a carb is a carb, whether it be a baked potato, fruit, or chips. It’s all made of the same building blocks right? Not so! Processed foods, even if they claimed to be “healthy”, led to noticeably more discomfort and poorer performance, making me understand why so many ultra marathoners are health-conscience vegetable lovers (I’m looking at you Scott Jurek).
Also in line with the processed/natural divide was a distinct difference between plant- and animal-based fats. Plant based fats, like nuts and healthy oils delivered a marked improvement in how I felt and in my overall moods as opposed to animal based fats; I felt smoother and more balanced, both as I ran, and throughout the entire day. Although you’re probably expecting me to make an Eat-More-Nuts joke in here that functions as a double entandra, I’ll leave that up to you, dirty reader.
So, that’s my take home message: Keep track of what you eat (even if it’s just for a little while), eat often, emphasize whole foods, and eat some nuts.
Looking forward, I encourage everyone to remember, you are what you eat! I challenge you to track what you eat for a week, and really think about how you feel. It can make a big of difference in your running, and your life.
Image from FreeDigitalPhotos.net.