Take Your Dietary Suggestions and Shove Them

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?”

More please.

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.

I’ll give up soft pretzels when you pry them from my cold dead hands.

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?

I am a stay at home mom and group fitness instructor from South Texas. I love reading, wine, and travel. I write about trends, injury prevention and maintenance, and satire. I am training to break 1:30 in the half marathon sometime soon, and for the 2017 Boston Marathon.

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  1. “I am aware that people count macros – I don’t, it seems like a nightmare!” <<– YES!!! Omg this article is beyond true on so many levels. To each his own! And, Sherry Piers, a very accomplished sub-elite runner (maybe an elite?) fuels on nothing but candy. Eat and drink what works for you. What a concept!

  2. I’ve counted macros, it sucks. It’s been successful for my scientist husband, but he also doesn’t judge his worth as a person by his recorded food. People don’t ask me for dietary advice…they offer it. “If you did [xyz diet trend] you would lose the weight” – f that. I eat healthier and more consciously than most people who aren’t paid to do so and I still fail at weight loss despite 9 years of taking no more than three days off exercise even when I am sick. Oh, and I have to manage the damn chronic disease that is why I started doing any of this. STFU.

  3. I sometimes do count macros and for me, it’s not a nightmare at all. But I think you hit the nail on the head with “not all of us are looking for nutrition advice from random strangers on a track”. I would venture to say – ZERO of us are looking for nutrition advice from random strangers on a track. This topic is such a mine field. Nutrition is so personal – physically, culturally, socially personal. That means advice from others is often useless and can easily border on the offensive. I’m a professional research (admittedly, a political scientist, nothing to do with running) and I’ve found figuring out nutrition – whatever figuring out even means – to be the hardest piece of the running puzzle.

  4. None of the times of day! But i seem to get it ALL. THE. TIME. I get shamed weekly for my Friday donut from my co-workers. Or family shame for loading up on seconds (thirds, fourths maybe) at thanksgiving dinner. Or god forbid I drink enough wine to get drunk, and hungover… Everyone says “i thought you were supposed to be a fast runner” or “don’t you think you should give that up? you would run faster” Mind you, none of these people run.

  5. I can’t fuel mid-run/race. Just can’t. I don’t want to, and when I’ve tried to force it I’m left with extreme cramping or looking for the nearest port-a-john. A mix of sports drink and water at fueling stations serves me just fine.

  6. I feel ya girl… Last week, a co-worker stopped by my office during lunch looking for the other coach. She was like I didn’t know you eat food like that being healthy and all…. What does that even means? And what’s wrong with me having mac & cheese and steak……..

  7. I think that sort of question is just another indication of the disordered society that we live in. If you are up running, it must be because you are a professional runner who has to measure and weigh, and all of those scientific endeavors. The flip side of this of course, is that you do not exercise and eat fast food all of the time. It is the worst this time of year, because everyone is excited about not gaining weight during the holidays. My grandmother told me “everything in moderation, even moderation”. If I gain a pound or 2 in December, guess what? I have a 10-miler in April, that pound or 2 will be gone by March.
    And I hear you about your stomach. Mine has a mind of its own. I generally have a gluten free granola bar and a cup of coffee before running. Part of our practice is figuring out how it works best for us. No surveys of the peanut gallery required.

  8. Hmm. Nobody ever asks me for advice, but I’ve asked others for advice- did that guy actually want to offer you advice or ask for it? How do you feel if someone asks you about your strategy because maybe we haven’t figured ours out yet and want to try something else? Am I committing a huge faux pas? (On a side note, I’m a little stalker-ish about wavy/curly haired women- if I see one with amazing curls and no frizz, I will corner her in the elevator and beg her for the secret product/routine/full-moon dance so I too can have a frizz-free day. So maybe it’s just me).

  9. Poor guy was probably just looking for advice! But I’m with you, I don’t track anything and wouldn’t be able to give an answer other than “I eat so many I classify myself as a carbavore!”

  10. I also don’t eat before run shorter than 10 miles. I don’t need it and I have such a slow digesting stomach that I can’t handle much food before running. If I have to run in the evening, I need to stop eating 6 hours before the run so that I don’t get problems. For long distance races like half marathons and marathons, I fuel up with cake. Refined carbs and sugar are all that my stomach can digest in time.

  11. I am also a morning runner – I usually start my weekday runs between 4.30 and 5 am (directly after getting up and doing a quick warm up) and no, I will not eat beforehand. I’ve tried having even just half a banana and felt like vomitting throughout the whole run. I do make sure to have two glasses of water before my run, but that’s it. Like you’ve said, I really think it’s all about what works best for YOU. I stopped caring about what other people think they have to tell me about my running, eating, …

  12. I love this post. It makes me crazy that food has become some sort of signal of morality. I have enough things to obsess over in my life. Whether or not I eat a donut someone brought into the office shouldn’t be one of them.