It was 6 AM, and I was finishing a set of 1600s on a high school track. The sun had just risen and I was feeling accomplished — peaceful even, given the beautiful sunrise. There were a few other runners and walkers near me starting their workouts. One of them approached me as I switched my racing flats out for my cooldown. “Excuse me,” the older gentleman said. “I was just watching you run and couldn’t help but wonder … how many carbs do you eat in a day?”
I was completely dumbfounded. Not only do I have absolutely no idea what “how many carbs” means — pounds? Grams? Loaves of bread? (I am aware that people count macros but I don’t — it sounds like a nightmare.) But I also wasn’t sure what kind of answer he was looking for. Did he think I ate too many carbs? Not enough? Was he going to make me feel bad about my diet after I’d just been so proud of running 1600s in 6:05? Eventually I stammered “Oh, just enough so I can feel good running! Have a good day, bye!” and took off for a cool down.
This is not the first time I’ve been asked about my diet as a runner. People tend to either assume that, since I run, I’m obsessed with a perfect diet or seeking advice about the perfect diet. Neither is true. They tend to be shocked that I drink my fair share of diet Dr. Peppers and spend the summer looking forward to September when candy corn will be sold. I remember reading a Runner’s World article about people who “squeaked” into the Boston marathon and reading the line, “They are willing to give up wine or dessert, but not both.” I read that line and thought, “Is it bad that I am totally unwilling to give up either?”
I have friends who eschew sweets and alcohol for weeks or months leading into their goal races, and while I’ll probably clean up a bit the week before a big race, I won’t give up my treats for long periods of time. Maybe it’s because I’ve struggled with disordered eating in the past or maybe because the child in me doesn’t like to be told what to do, but I don’t want to spend the already-stressful taper worrying about what I can and can’t eat. If I were an elite runner, and my livelihood depended on me being lean enough to perform well, I might feel differently. But since I’m just an occasional age-group winner, I’ll keep my nightly ice cream. I give up a lot to run: no late nights, no Saturday mornings spent sleeping in, feet that look embarrassingly awful. I don’t want to give up dietary treats either.
Running and nutrition is such a personal matter. Many runners, myself included, have sensitive stomachs and have to be selective with our pre-race and racing nutrition. I run 99% of my runs with no food beforehand, save for the occasional cup of coffee. I know, I know — I’m sure you’re gasping and shaking your fists at the computer screen. Please know that I’ve tried eating before morning runs and it always ends with cramps, nausea or sprints into the nearest porta-potty, or if I’m not as lucky, woods. And yes, I’ve tried waking up early, but if I have to start running at 5 I’m not waking up at 2 just to eat.
My tried-and-true system of a big snack before bed has worked for me for years, but is usually met with shock. Once I admit this to other runners, the suggestions come flying in. “Try UCan!” (I’ve tried it, it makes me gag), “What about bananas?” (cramps), “Maybe toast?” (ditto) “I really like oatmeal before a run!” (only if I want to spend 16 miles pooping intermittently). I think it’s hard for us to accept that other people eat differently than us, or that other runners can disregard a nutrition gold standard and still perform, but it can happen. There are even runners who don’t fuel during a race, or who chew gum or suck on hard candies instead of gels or chews, or who don’t immediately find a fuel source that consists of a 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein within the oh-so-crucial 30-minute window after a workout.
It’s true that many runners care about nutrition, both from a performance viewpoint and weight-loss perspective. But not all of us do, and not all of us are looking for nutrition advice from random strangers on the track. So when it comes to nutrition, you keep doing you and I’ll keep doing me.
What is your preferred time of day to receive unsolicited dietary advice from random strangers?