Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Nutrition, Part 1: Your Perfect Nutrition Plan

There seems to be some belief that Western states needs drug testing, because it is quite lucrative to win, even in the absence of prize money. I did score two new sponsors - Injinji and Ultimate Direction - and La Sportiva generously upped the ante on their support. I am grateful for the support, but the reality is, it won’t even cover the costs of my racing and travel this year. Basically, I haven’t seen the bags of money pouring in since Western States! What I have gotten is 500 new “friends” (in the Facebook meaning of the word) and loads and loads of questions from people. I have no training secrets and I am happy to share what works for me. Since a good deal of the questions involve nutrition, I thought I’d write a post (or two!) about the subject.

Nutrition is a lot like politics or religion: there is a lot of conflicting information available, but many people have very firm beliefs as to what is right and wrong. To me, the only true “wrongs” of nutrition are habits that cause states of poor health, such as obesity, high blood sugar, and nutritional deficiencies. However, I do certainly have my own set of beliefs on what optimum nutrition is, particularly in terms of ultrarunning performance, based largely on what has worked for me and the changes I have noticed in the past year.

The first schism amongst ultrarunners are the camps of “eat to run” and “run to eat.” Certainly when you are running all those miles it is easy to feel like you earned a beer, a burger, a cookie or whatever. Besides not smoking, staying at a normal weight is probably the best thing you can do for your health. If running keeps you at a normal weight but you are eating a lot of junk food, you are still better off than you would be by not exercising. Medical literature also shows that normal weight individuals have much better glucose tolerance and higher insulin sensitivity than overweight individuals, so normal weight individuals are better able to process junk food and return to baseline. The literature also shows that people who lose weight see improvements in glucose tolerance, insulin sensitivity, triglyceride levels and cholesterol, no matter what their diet was. My favorite example of this is the so called “Twinkie diet” where a Kansas State University professor lost 27 pounds eating a high percentage of his calories from junk food, yet, many common measures of health actually improved. So if you are a normal weight runner and want a cookie after you run, your body can probably handle it without much consequence to your overall health.

However, many runners, and ultra runners in particular, are striving to be as healthy as possible and many are looking for ways to optimize performance. But what should you eat to be as healthy as possible and perform at your best? There are so many choices out there and plenty of highly successful runners in each group: Vegan, Vegetarian, Paleo, Low-carb, Gluten-free, ketogenic... Aargh too many choices and plenty of passionate (and convincing) people advocating for each one. The reality is that the human body is quite adaptable and can thrive on a variety of diets, ranging from 90% carbs down to about 10% carbs. So there is no One Perfect Nutrition Plan (sorry!). That being said, I’ll give you what I consider the most important nutrition elements for optimum running performance.

1) Eat lots of plant derived foods. Fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds are packed with vitamins and nutrients. They are high in fiber and anti-oxidants. Diets high in vegetables lower the risk of heart disease and likely lower the risk of cancer. Plus, most vegetables are filling while being fairly low in calories.

2) Eat a lot of protein. It only takes 0.5 g of protein/kg body weight to avoid protein malnutrition - that’s only about 35 g of protein a day for your average man. But this is a minimum and not necessarily the amount that promotes optimum performance. Studies on endurance athletes suggest 3-4 times that amount may be necessary for you to be at your best. That’s because hard training damages muscles and more protein is required to build them back up and to make them stronger. Vegetarians and vegans will have a harder time getting this much protein, but I certainly don’t think meat is a necessary ingredient for optimal performance.

3) Cut out the processed carbs. White flour and sugar provide a lot of empty calories, cause insulin to spike, and create wide fluctuations in blood sugar. Additionally, most prepackaged snack foods have a lot of chemicals and preservatives that you don’t need.

4) Have a source of iron. I am not a big fan of supplements as I think a well rounded diet is the best way to get all your nutrients. Plus, new studies show supplementation with anti-oxidant type vitamins (C, E, beta-carotene) actually increased cancer risk! Iron is important as it is a major component of heme in your red blood cells, which is the oxygen carrying molecule. Not enough iron means not enough oxygen! Some iron is lost due to cell turnover and perhaps foot strike trauma in runners. Premenopausal women lose more iron than men due to menstruation. If you eat meat, you probably don’t need iron supplements (carnivorous men should NOT take iron supplements). But vegetarians may need a supplement.

Basically, this list could be incorporated into any type of nutrition plan, again underscoring that there is no One Perfect Nutrition Plan. What is best for you depends on your ethics, religion, food allergy status, motivations, and personal beliefs about food.

Last year I made a lot of changes to my nutrition which primarily addressed #2 and #3 above. I ate too many processed carbs and I needed more protein. I tried Paleo, thinking I might jump on the low carb band wagon and I hated it. It was like running in a constant state of bonk. Plus, I have a serious sweet tooth, and while I was ready to cut down on my junk food, I wasn’t willing to give it up entirely. And I didn’t have a burning desire to cut out all grains. Eventually, I settled on Carb back loading (aargh - one more nutrition label to add to the list!).

Here’s how I described it to David Hanenburg at Endurance Buzz (Check out his Rocky Raccoon preview):

The best descriptor for how I eat is 'Carb Back-loading.' Basically, I eat the majority of my carbs at dinner time with some carbs coming in the form of a recovery drink after workouts. It is a reduced carb diet as compared to the standard American diet, but it is not truly a low carb diet. And while I have tried to cut out most sugar and wheat, I am not trying to be grain free. In fact, most of my nightly carbs come from grains such as rice, polenta, and quinoa. Potatoes, squash and a couple of desserts each week account for the balance of the carbs I eat. I don't ever plan to give up dessert entirely!

This is what my food intake looked like today:
Post workout: recovery drink
Breakfast: two eggs plus red peppers and onions sauteed in coconut oil and half and avocado
Lunch: Braised cabbage with carrot puree, a small halibut fillet, and a small handful of cashews
Dinner: Quinoa salad with half a chicken breast. No dessert tonight since tomorrow is an easy workout (and I don’t need as many carbs to get through it)

I cook a lot of my food in big batches on the weekend, so it is ready to go when I need it.

Bon Apetit!

(Part 2 is Race Day Nutrition, but this took me 2 weeks to finish - I actually had it half done a week before Geoff Roes published his piece on iRunFar, which inspired me to get this done! Anyway, part 2 is coming... but don't hold your breath! I've got a trip to Texas and a hundred miles to run before that happens!)

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Lucky '13

What a year! To think all I really wanted to do was not embarrass myself at Western States!

Rather than regurgitating this year's race reports and running activities as a year in review, I thought I'd check in with last year's goals.

So here we go:
1) Run 3,000 miles. Check! Last year I ran 2,969 miles and was over 2800 the two years before that, but never broke the 3k mark. This year: 3051 miles. While my mileage was not all that different than last year, my big weeks were bigger and my low weeks were lower (or off altogether), which I think provided a "bigger bang for my buck" - basically, I was fitter with about the same number of miles. At this point, I am happy with this range and I am not really trying to push it much higher.

2) Race fewer miles. Well, by the letter, I did this: 563 racing miles in 2012 vs. 538 racing miles in 2013, but I wouldn't call this a significant difference. However, I did have a couple of races this year (Nueces and RunRabbit Run) which were not 'A' races for me and so I wasn't as drained going in or coming out. But really, this was a stupid goal - I love to race and I am going to keep doing it! Plus, I think my recovery has gotten a lot better. Good thing, as my race schedule is already packed for 2014!

3) Nail Western States. Yeah, nailed it! Fourth time is a charm. :) I feel like I finally understand how to run a 100 mile race. Will I nail them all? No, of course not, but I feel like I have a sense of what I am doing now and the idea of racing 100 miles no longer scares me.

4) Another gold for Team USA. Since the World Championships were cancelled this year, we didn't get a chance to defend our title. So this one is going to carry over to 2014 which will be August 31 in Latvia. Unfortunately, I am not even qualified for the team right now! I'll be at the  Mad City 100km national championships this April to hopefully rectify that problem.

5) Break the 200km American Record. Some goals change; this one did. This was a goal for me because I thought it was a respectable record/distance but something I thought I could easily do. I still do (my husband points out that I failed to get the record twice, so maybe it is not so easy). But I was selling myself short and I feel strongly that changing this goal to get the 100 mile track world record was the right thing for me and a much more meaningful record overall. So this goal has been tabled. Now I want to see how I stack up against the overall 100 mile world record!

6) Nutrition. I didn't have any concrete goal for this and yet, it may be the place where I made the most radical changes. I did way better with my junk food consumption, but I will likely always have a sweet tooth. But carb back loading has been a good fit for me. I cut out a lot of processed foods, plus added meat back to my diet after 17 years.

7) Do Yoga. I went about 20 times this year. It made a huge difference for me. I don't even hate it and all the stretchy people in the world anymore! This is no longer a goal, just something that is part of my training.

8) Address my lower ab/groin/hip pain. I never went to any doctors, physical therapists or other medical personnel. Basically, yoga and a few other stretches and hip mobility exercises were all I needed.

So on to 2014! Goals for this year:
1) Make the US 100km team. Help the team get another gold medal. I'd love to improve on my 5th place finish from 2012, too.
2) The 18/21 Western States/AC double. This is swinging for the fences, especially since I don't have any experience running 100's in relatively quick succession (five weeks). I feel like I could take off another 20 minutes from my WS time (18:37), but I am not sure where I'll find another 17 minutes (cooler temps??). I have nothing to go on for AC, and that may be an unreachable time, but it is a place to start for my planning. Times at both races may be significantly affected by weather conditions, so things aren't entirely in my hands, either.
3) 100 mile world record attempt - Ann Trason has a stout record which may be out of my league and that's ok, but no shame in trying.
4) Get blinds for the living room and remove the carpet from my son's bathroom. Ok, this isn't a running goal! But I try to be a model of how to juggle training, job and family and I've dropped a few other balls! Time for a few home projects to get done. And when you have carpet in a bathroom with a six year old boy... well, let's just say that's gotten to be a high priority home improvement project! And I decided three years ago we need blinds for the living room - maybe time to get on that!
5) Take a non-running vacation. My kids are at an awesome stage: they can do a lot of things we enjoy but they aren't old enough to totally hate us yet. :) Last year was a lot of fun with them and I am looking forward to another, but we probably should get to a few places just to enjoy the place itself. Yellowstone and Glacier are top possibilities right now. Time to make some reservations!

Tentative Race Schedule:
2/1 - Rocky Raccoon 100M National Championships
3/15 - Pac Rim 24hr with my daughter Megan, perhaps my best racing experience from 2013
4/12 - Mad City 100km National Championships
?? 5/11- Ice Age 50M
6/28 - Western States
July- family vacation!
8/2 - Angeles Crest 100
8/31 - 100km World Championships
12/14 - Desert Solstice

I hope you have many wonderful things to look forward to and many goals to challenge you in 2014. Happy New Year!