Sunday, October 27, 2013

Running on empty

This afternoon, we attended the Good Food Community Fair, a great local event put on by Slow Food Urban San Diego, whose mission is "to reconnect urban San Diegans with each other, rediscover food traditions and cultural heritage, and educate our community about the plants, animals, fertile soils, and waters that produce our food." As a condo-dweller who doesn't grow food or raise animals, I make a point to know as much as I can about my food supply, and try hard to make sound choices about how I participate in the food economy. Within reason, of course. While I care very much about what I eat and where it came from, and am for the most part a very clean eater without really trying to be, I am delighted to eat anything that's been lovingly prepared in a friend's home. I've consumed with gusto some totally unrecognizable items from food stalls in southeast Asia. And for some reason, it is game on in the World Market prepared foods aisle. Hydrogenated oils and monosodium glutamate be damned.

Running fuel is an area where I really struggle when it comes to "real food" versus "manufactured food." Over the years, as I became entrenched in distance running and endurance sports culture, I let all kinds of un-food into my diet without really thinking about it: brightly-colored electrolyte drinks, carbohydrate gels, and bars chock-full of manufactured proteins. Every runner I know eats and drinks this stuff, and there's certainly all kinds of science behind it. (There was also science behind doctors' recommendations in the 1950s that we give babies Coca-Cola.) A few years ago, I began to feel pretty grossed out by all of these sports fuels, and one by one, they disappeared from my training. And again, it happened without my really thinking about it.

In an effort to understand what went wrong during training for my previous marathon, as I recovered I decided to read a couple of new books on marathoning, to see if there were any new "tweaks" I could incorporate into my training. I was startled to realize, while reading a chapter on some very basic principles of running nutrition and hydration, that at some point a couple of years ago I had stopped eating during my long runs altogether, and just hadn't noticed. As a person who borders on being obsessed with food and eating, I'm still shaking my head at this. Could it really be that my training has sucked because I'm hungry?

What is all this weird stuff?
I did some further research to figure out just how much I'm really supposed to be eating and drinking out there on those long runs, and was shocked at the recommendations. At my weight, gender, and level of training, I need approximately 150 calories and 16 oz of water or electrolyte drink per hour (on a cool day - more when it's warm). Although that sounded like a lot of eating and drinking to be doing while I'm trying to run, I decided I'd give it a try. But the thought of taking in 450+ calories in the form of fruit-flavored "Gu" was something I just couldn't abide. I did a lot of shopping around, and was able to find a lot of "natural" and "organic" options, most of which actually taste pretty good. But it still just grosses me out. I want real food in my real life, and why would that be any different when I'm running?

After a few weeks, I gave up and decided I'd just try running with food, and see what happens. Turns out: it's awesome! There are plenty of things you can buy in the regular old grocery store that are cheap, easy to digest, easy to chew, and have readily available carbohydrates: whole wheat fig newtons, dried fruit, and even some fresh fruit. And now that I'm used to it, I have no problem getting in enough calories while I run. The hitch is that real food is a lot less compact than scientifically manufactured food, and I'm still trying to figure out the logistics of carrying it all while I run. But as with the problem of running food, I'm sure than an appropriately simple solution is out there, and that I'll find it. Suggestions are welcome.

I just like food. Food's my favorite.


So what's your take on running nutrition? How do you get in enough calories and hydration while you run? What's your food of choice? Do carb gels gross anybody else out?


  1. I'm going to give you a few of the breakfast cookies I make. They have bananas, raisins, nuts, oatmeal, honey, WW flour, wheat germ and bran and I recently started adding chia seeds. And of course a few chocolate chips. Totally counts as real food. I love them for a mid morning snack. I think they'd be small and portable enough for your run. Loralisa