Like many of the other topics I’ve addressed here on this blog, sometimes small changes can make a huge difference in terms of whether or not we meet our running goals. This is definitely true of our body fat percentage. Sometimes, a matter of 5 pounds or a simple lifestyle change can mean the difference between our Boston Qualifying or our “trying again next year.”
Now, please, don’t stop reading here.
I don’t mean that you should right now embark on the latest fad diet, lose 5 pounds as quickly as possible and all your dreams will come true. The fact is, some people need to GAIN weight, consuming MORE or DIFFERENT TYPES OF calories AT DIFFERENT TIMES in order to reach their ideal fitness weight. Under-fueling is just as inhibitive as over-eating. I know from personal experience – because I’ve done both.
*Before I begin, let me just remind you, I AM NOT A NUTRITIONIST. I am merely relaying what seemed to work for me. Please seek expert advice if you have questions regarding your nutritional needs as an endurance athlete.
When I first began marathon training, I believed I could basically eat whatever I wanted in whatever quantity I wanted. I mean, I just ran 18 miles. Surely, I earned that second piece of peanut butter pie. Imagine my surprise when I finally stepped on the scale to realize I had gained weight while marathon training. Sure, perhaps a pound or two came from increased muscle mass, but still, I was far from my ideal racing weight. Nevertheless, at the time, my only marathoning goal consisted of crossing the finish line without dying. Boston Qualifying wasn’t even on my radar. While in hindsight, I regret I did not live a healthier lifestyle at that time, I am glad I did not add weight loss goals on top of my marathoning goal. I say this because I had not yet learned to love running. The added pressure of weight watching at that time might have made running less enjoyable for me.
Fast forward 6 or 7 years, and I am seriously pursuing a Boston Qualifying time. I, by this point, had read enough about the correlation between body-fat percentage and racing speed to know that I could reach a more ideal racing body weight by eating more healthfully. For the most part, I did so smartly. I tried to eat the right types of foods at the right times. However, I can also remember a few instances where I did not consume enough calories. More than once, I ran with side-stitch type pain, not because I ate too much before my run, but because I did not eat enough in the hours leading up to that run. These runs ended up having little value to my training program since I did not have enough fuel to execute them properly. Lesson learned.
When I finally did Boston Qualify, I remained careful about my nutrition, but not obsessive. Here’s a few things I feel helped me maintain a healthy racing weight. I hope they help you too.
1. I followed the principals in Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald – Fitzgerald’s book provides an easy to follow explanation and guide to improving one’s diet quality as an athlete. He talks about nutrition timing — the idea that what you eat and when is important to endurance fueling and recovery needs. Fitzgerald’s book is admittedly a few years old, and I have heard at least one nutritionist say a few sentences in the book contain outdated information. Nevertheless, I believe the book’s overarching principals are not in question.
2. I bought a body-fat percentage scale – Even though I’ve up till now mostly used the term “body weight,” the actual goal should be to improve our body-fat percentage in relation to our genetic makeup. We can’t all attain Shalane Flanagan’s body type, but we can work to reduce (or increase, if need be) our body fat percentage.
3. I read labels, particularly watching out for added sugar – Do you have any idea how much added sugar is hiding in foods commonly thought to be healthful? Breakfast cereal (even the kind marketed to adults), yogurt, dried fruit, granola bars, salad dressing, . . . . the list goes on and on.
4. I chose healthy snacks – I ditched the chips and more often chose handful of nuts, or a fried egg on toast and a tall drink of water.
5. I limited eating out – After maintaining healthy eating habits for some time, I began to notice certain “red flags” after eating out. For example, the raging thirst I often felt told me my meal was most likely packed with sodium. The fact is that we rarely know exactly what we are consuming when we eat out. More often than not, it’s probably much less healthful than we think. I didn’t eliminate eating out, but I chose not to make it a habit.
6. I ate carbs and every other basic food group – It is my personal belief that in order to properly fuel your marathon training needs, you need to eat carbs. I’m sure a number of people have BQed on the Paleo Diet and claim it’s the only way to go, but seriously. . . just go eat some pasta. Endurance athletes need carbs (Again, not a nutritionist. Just my opinion).
7. I took a balanced approach to indulging – I believe it’s better to indulge your craving for a something than to fight it if you end up eating more in the long run. If I was craving dessert for example, a small piece of 70% cacao dark chocolate usually satisfied that craving.
8. I made every attempt to stay hydrated – the topic of proper hydration deserves its own post. The benefits of proper hydration are numerous — not the least of which is that is helps maintain a healthy appetite.
I hope those of you who have found this blog find the information here helpful. Please don’t hesitate to contact me with questions or comments. In an upcoming post, I will address the elephant in the room. Stay tuned.