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!)


Andy Reed said...

Just to clarify, paleo often gets lumped into the low carb category, but it can actually contain a lot of carbs - mostly in healthful fruits and veg. The refined carbs is what we should cut. Paleo can have a lot of carbs, and certainly hough to fuel an ultra runner.

Thanks for the article.


Oona Houlihan said...

The single most important fact people would need to know to make informed dietary choices is the fact that not fats are turned into (body) fats, but carbohydrates. So low fat food is inviting people to get fatter, not leaner. Carbohydrates (sugars, starch etc.) generate all the fat in our bodies. They are either used as an energy source either right away, or, if we eat more calories than we needed in that day, are stored as fat. Only the carbohydrates are the source of body fats. All fats can only be burnt up as energy or else be discharged again. Ever since low-fat became a fashion, people got fatter. No coincidence!

Trailmomma said...

Great post. I am sure you get asked a million nutrition & training questions and have to start everything with "what works for ME is ..." :)

I am currently getting a Plant Based Certification from Cornell from T. Collin Campbell's online course and it is really eye opening in regards to protein and what people THINK we need.

The bottom line is, put down the box, bag, and six pack and just start eating more natural. Don't deprive yourself if it will mean a total binge later.

Looking foward to Part 2!