Intake: How to Dodge the Wall This Fall

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1996

Intake: How to Dodge the Wall This Fall
By Lisa Twyman Bessone

With the big-city double-header of marathoning coming up--Chicago on October 20 and New York two weeks later--many runners are boosting their mileage. But in concentrating so intently on their training logs, some marathoners forget that other important tool: the training table. "Eating right won't let you exceed your physical limits," says Shelly-lynn Florence, program director for the New York Marathon Club Running Classes and coauthor of The Runner's Handbook (Penguin, $19). "But eating poorly can certainly make you fall way short."

As most athletes know, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats have different uses within the body. Proteins build muscle, carbohydrates provide quick-burning fuel (in the form of muscle glycogen), and fats provide fuel that burns longer but requires more oxygen to access--a problem for marathoners, who are already breathing hard. Still, in the quest for improved endurance, some top runners have eschewed carbohydrate-rich diets for menus high in fats.

Big mistake, says Florence. "I guarantee that any long-distance runners who depend on winning for their livelihood will advise a diet high in carbohydrates," she says. In other words, carbo-loading lives. Florence has heard the earnest testimonials about fat intake, but her dietary advice remains the same: Divide your total calories into 60 percent carbohydrates, 20 percent protein, and 20 percent fats.

Florence notes that as much as athletes yearn for a nutritional prescription, it's tough to be too specific. "There's no wonder-food that's perfect for every runner," she says. That said, here's what she recommends.

Customize Your Calories
Experiment with different foods during training. "Some athletes run more efficiently on certain foods," Florence says. So substitute one carbohydrate for another or one protein for another. Try energy drinks or energy bars. Some runners find such midworkout pick-me-ups indispensable; others can't stomach them. Take notes on how your body responds. Then, when you've found a diet that provides energy without stomach upset, stick to it.

Carbo Load And Reload
When you've tapered your mileage, boost your intake of carbohydrates to around 70 percent of your total calories. "When you up your carbo intake at the same time that you're reducing your training, you wind up saturating your muscles with glycogen," Florence explains. "This creates reserves for when you really need them during the marathon."

Top the Tank
On race day, top off your carbo loading with a full breakfast three hours before the big event--and continue nibbling. Within an hour of the start, switch to fruits, especially bananas or oranges--their high water content allows quick absorption. This is also the time to wolf a Clif Bar or packet of GU (a glycogen supplement), if you've been using them in training. Be sure to follow the directions and chase with copious amounts of water. In fact, drink plenty of water, period.

Drink In Stride
If sucking on Jolly Ranchers has helped you avert dry mouth during your training runs, pop them now. But be conservative: Ingesting simple sugars causes a quick blood-sugar high--and a subsequent low. More important is to drink religiously, four to eight ounces every ten to 20 minutes, or at every aid station at major races. In smaller marathons, you may need to carry or cache extra water bottles. Sports drinks are also good for a midrace infusion of carbos. But again, take them only if you've used them in training--they can cause stomach distress. Finally, replenish fluids and carbos immediately upon completing the race, advice that the finishers of last year's Chicago Marathon followed gleefully: The field of 12,000 downed 37 kegs of Samuel Adams beer.

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