Whether you’re a fighter jet or a long-haul Dreamliner, a sprinter or an ultrarunner, no one wants to run out of gas mid-air. But taking enough fuel on board, and making sure it’s the right kind, can be challenging.
Some time ago, I ran into this very problem. Between running, breastfeeding, and just having a busy life in general (like the rest of us!), I found myself hungry all the time. Worse, despite feeling like I was eating more and constantly, I was dropping off the wrong end of the BMI scale and at risk for secondary amenorrhea. Baffled, I kept a food diary for a couple of weeks to try and figure out what I was missing. Still no dice.
Finally I met with a nutritionist, Kelsea Gusk, who works with members of my gym, to talk about getting enough food and how to properly fuel endurance running. Here’s what I learned.
I’m probably not getting enough protein, at all or in the right doses.
After reviewing my food diary samples, Kelsea figured out I might not be getting enough protein. To build muscle mass, athletes need 1.4 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. High-intensity endurance athletes need even more. For me, that’s about 80g of protein. However, the body can use only about 20 to 30g of protein at a time for muscle synthesis, so Kelsea suggested I plan to get about that much four times a day. Good non-meat sources of protein include: buckwheat or soba noodles; quinoa; soy products like edamame and tempeh, especially as I’m lactose-intolerant to milk; and chia seeds.
I should fuel early and adequately for recovery.
90 minutes before a 10-mile run, for instance, and within about 30 minutes after, you want to replace what you spend on that run. For me, that’s a light breakfast about an hour before, and a substantial snack afterwards, like a bagel with PB plus a smoothie. 90 minutes is just a rough rule of thumb, but it’s a short window in which your body can best use replacement nutrients to recover. I was waiting too long to eat, as I’d get home from a long run, chug some water, take a shower, entertain a toddler, maybe even head out the door for an outing … and then finally dig up a snack a few hours later.
How to fuel a training cycle
The best tip I received: During those cutback weeks, instead of thinking I don’t need to eat as much because I’m running less, I should double down on getting enough food for muscle recovery. Meanwhile, many female athletes in particular are iron-deficient, and we should make sure we’re getting enough iron. Ironically, calcium, which we also need plenty of, can interfere with iron absorption. Gah!
By the time your stomach is growling, it’s too late.
What should hunger feel like? I thought that was an easy one, I wake up every morning with my stomach growling! But, Kelsea explained, by the time your stomach is roiling and you have that empty-stomach feeling, or if you’re shaky and lightheaded, it’s too late. Instead, you should eat when you’re starting to kind of long for food, or to think about where your next meal is coming from and what you’ll eat. On the flip side, being full doesn’t mean that Thanksgiving-bloated-belt-loosening feeling. You want to be pleasantly sated but not overstuffed; the edge is taken off your hunger.
Bonus: Make your own sports drink!
Switchels, a tart-sweet concoction of apple cider vinegar and maple syrup, were New England farmers’ traditional thirst-quenchers. If you’ve ever added a squeeze of lemon juice to water, they work the same mouthwatering way, but with more sugar and potassium; one recipe is here.
In the end, it’s all about balance: balance over the course of the day, as well as over a training cycle. My own takeaway from my nutritionist visit was that I know what I should be eating, but I need to plan better to actually do it. Just one more thing to pack into the schedule, right? That’s where meal prepping, or at least weekly menu planning, can help. And that includes snacks, which tend to be my personal Waterloo. I’ll listen to my body and continue to keep a food diary, at least for a while, to check if I’m falling short.
How do you make sure you’re getting enough high-octane nutrition to fuel a running life?