May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Fitness '97, February 1997


Bellying up to a heaping bowl of balance and a side of common sense

P a s t a   À   L a   A l l e n
Mark Allen's dietary beliefs may differ from those of his peers-still, once a triathlete, always a triathlete. Which means pasta. But Allen makes sure to add calories from sources other than carbohydrates to balance his meal, as in this, his Walnut Parsley Linguine.

Ingredients: 12 ounces fresh pasta, one-quarter cup chopped walnuts, one-quarter cup grated Parmesan cheese, one handful chopped parsley, four cloves minced garlic, one vegetable bullion cube, two tablespoons olive oil, three tablespoons fresh sage, three tablespoons chives, salt, white wine.

Directions: Combine walnuts, cheese, and herbs in a bowl. Sauté garlic in olive oil, add bullion stock and a splash of white wine, and simmer uncovered to cook off alcohol. Cook pasta al dente and rinse. Combine pasta with hot garlic sauce and walnut mixture, and then toss. Serves two to three.

Calorie breakdown: carbohydrates, 46 percent; protein, 15 percent; fat, 39 percent.

The benefits: With a solid foundation of carbos from the pasta, protein and fat from the walnuts and cheese, and an extra bit of fat from the oil, this meal provides what you need the night before an endurance odyssey. While its total fat content is a bit high for everyday consumption, the fat is mostly unsaturated and boosts the body's essential fatty acids to provide energy for long aerobic outings. Maybe not the best for weeks 1 or 16, but just what your body will be asking for come week 10.

Picking his way through the crowd at Vigilucci's, his neighborhood trattoria, Mark Allen is hailed by a pair of fellow triathletes. They're both elbow-deep in pasta, as expected. Allen shmoozes for a moment and then strides on, never glancing at his pals' rigatoni. Twenty minutes later, the reason for the pasta snub becomes apparent: Centered before Allen, defiantly, is a charbroiled cut of filet mignon. "I've been craving a good steak," declares Allen, who then, without shame, guilt, or even an over-the-shoulder glance to see whether the tris at table ten are watching, merrily carves his way to protein nirvana.

Allen's mealtimes haven't always included such carnivorous delights. For the first seven years of his triathlon career, he stuck to a vegetarian diet, believing that it best supported his training. Then one winter's day in 1989 he found himself consumed with a fantasy. "Every time I'd close my eyes, I'd see this gigantic steak," says Allen. "Finally I thought, OK, nobody's gonna know, so why not?" The next morning Allen ordered steak and pancakes for breakfast. "Almost instantly I felt this warmth in the center of my stomach," he remembers. "It was obvious that there was something in that meat, either iron or protein--probably both--that my body really needed."

Indeed, Allen had been struggling with fatigue, which he took to be a symptom of overtraining. Tweaking his physical routine couldn't shake it, so finally he started eating red meat--and making sure to consume protein at every meal--while going a bit lighter on carbohydrates. Poof: The fatigue vanished. "It wasn't overtraining," says Allen, who would immediately uncork a two-year streak in which he didn't lose a race. "It was nutritional stress."

Thus was planed the most central plank in his dietary regimen: not to have a regimen at all. While Allen's name is often bandied about in discussions of the endurance world's two warring nutritional factions--proponents of the traditional high-carbohydrate, low-fat approach and those who favor what's known as the 40-30-30 diet (meaning that 40 percent of one's caloric intake should come from carbohydrates and 30 percent each from protein and fat)--Allen holds to no rigid guidelines. Sure, he's keen on higher percentages of protein and fat in his diet, but he also says the stats are overemphasized. "40-30-30 is nothing more than a starting point," he says. "The important thing is not to worry about what the experts say you need, but to listen to what your body's telling you it needs."

Getting Started
Since Allen knows that he's far more attuned to his body than most of us and that it takes time to learn to translate one's own cravings, he recommends that you begin with a slow-and-easy base-building phase lasting about a month. Its basic tenet is simple: Minimize the crap you eat. Nix fried foods and simple-sugar products such as cookies, and cut down on products made from refined flour. Each of the above mucks around with your blood sugar, which in turn causes the body to jack up insulin production. A large release of insulin can cause excess calories to be stored as fat. By leveling out your blood sugar, you'll be able to better control what you put in your mouth next. Moreover, you'll be better able to divine what your body truly needs. "Potato chips and cinnamon rolls," Allen explains, "can mask quite a few of the body's cravings." Once you've become accustomed to eating more healthfully, he adds, the next goal is to strive for balance among carbohydrates, protein, and fat, emphasizing high-quality, minimally processed foods in each category.

Among carbos, Allen recommends foods that perform two distinct functions. First, eat slow-burning items like oatmeal, legumes, and whole grains, which your body will need to fuel long-distance aerobic workouts. Next, load up on fibrous offerings such as bran; green vegetables such as broccoli, artichokes, and spinach; and fluid-rich fruits such as cantaloupe and grapefruit. All of these slow the absorption of carbos in the bloodstream and thus guard against insulin spikes. Beyond that, he offers a word of caution: "No matter what you've heard about lowering your carbohydrate intake, it's probably been exaggerated. It's not like anyone's saying you don't need carbohydrates. Of course you do--they should still form the bulk of your daily caloric intake."

As you might imagine, any discussion of protein sets Allen into vigorous verbal motion. "When I first started training, the research said that exercise didn't increase your need for protein," Allen explains. "That didn't make sense to me, because how else are you going to put on muscle mass? Of course, the researchers have since acknowledged that endurance athletes need at least as much protein as weight lifters." But, he stresses, this isn't necessarily a protein-means-meat equation. Beans and whole grains--which when eaten together form a complete protein--not only help to build and maintain muscle, but are also terrific satiators, which will help you cut down on the amount you eat. Also seek out low-fat proteins like chicken, fish, and soy products, as well as those accompanied by unsaturated fats, such as nuts, nut butters, and avocados. Red meat, Allen notes, should be consumed sparingly, no matter how tastily prepared.

Caution, Allen warns: Stuffing a tortilla with a cup of cheese or slathering butter on a bagel isn't the idea. Fat is your body's most easily stored fuel, so you should make a concerted effort to give it the right kind, meaning vegetable oils instead of saturated fats from processed foods. But Allen insists that you not be tempted to forgo fats altogether, because increasing your fat intake, slightly and wisely (with olive oil in your salad dressing, for example), is an effective way to suppress the appetite. After all, the downfall of many a low-fat diet has been the tendency to compensate by overeating. The most important number to focus on, Allen says, is your total calorie count, which should range from about 2,000 per day for a moderately active person to upward of 4,000 for an athlete training for a distance event.

Of course, we're left with a lingering question: How can you be sure that you're rounding all those nutritional bases merely by heeding your cravings and striving for balance? On this, Allen has two pieces of advice. First, the best insurance against falling short of any nutrient is to take supplements daily. But that, he says, doesn't mean following every fad that comes along. He favors sticking with multivitamins, antioxidants such as vitamin C and beta-carotene, and, during the height of summer, trace mineral supplements to replace what you lose through perspiration. "If you're eating right," he explains, "that should be all you need." Second, over shrieks of protest from the workaday masses, he insists you should make a trip to the grocery store every day for that evening's meal, no matter how inconvenient. The rationale? "Do you know what your body is going to want tomorrow?" he asks. "The next day? The more you think about what you're putting into your body and why, the better you become at listening to it."

A B O V E   A L L   E L S E . . .
As race day nears, avoid dramatic changes in your diet. While the tendency may be to overeat to fuel up for your event, you'll have long since lowered the intensity of your training, which means you won't burn off excess calories so easily.

Consider weaning yourself off caffeine during your aerobic base-building phase. "You always push a little more after a cup of coffee than you might without it," says Allen. "And since these workouts already make you fight the urge to go hard, you don't need that temptation."

If you're craving sweets, try ... squash? Indeed, with refined sugar and flour off the menu, Allen uses the versatile gourds to satiate his midwinter sweet tooth--slicing them, steaming them, and then firing them into the oven with a dash of Parmesan cheese and a sprinkling of cinnamon. "They're kind of like cookies," says Allen, "but they're totally healthy."

Todd Balf writes frequently on the topics of competitive sports and fitness. His profile of endurance mountain biker John Stamstad appeared in the September 1996 issue.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web