Reflecting on the elements that make or break our performance & goals is one of the most powerful predictors of future success. Being able to take a step back and non-judgmentally evaluate a performance takes experience, maturity, and an open mind. I believe a huge piece of my success in the Columbus marathon is just that. I am more reflective, mindful, and at times, tough as nails. (Thank you adversity in the past 7 years for building a stronger me.)
If you haven’t read my previous marathon history recap, that would be a great place to start before reading this post so you have a little more context into the elements below.
The three categories that I believe were instrumental to my success this time around include sleep, hydration, and nutrition. Not necessarily in that order, but you know I had to save the best for last!
Sleeping might just be my most favorite thing to do. And, you guys know how much I love to run, so this is a bold statement. I purposely chose the Columbus marathon because training would start when my daughter turned 1 year old, well beyond the point where I needed to be up at all hours of the night with her. Adequate sleep is one of the most powerful sport enhancing activities. Lack of sleep slows our running speed, increases our injury risk, delays recovery, and decreases our mental health and clarity. All terrible things for our training, right?! Nothing fancy here – just a reminder to get your zzzz’s. Aim for 7-9 hours per night as consistently as you can.
Training through the summer months, I knew I needed to nail down my hydration. Training for previous fall marathons, I dreaded training through the summer months. I experienced migraines after long runs in the heat. I felt awful all day after runs in the heat. I knew I was a heavy sweater but no matter how much I drank, I felt awful when I lost too much sweat. In past training, I played around with adding more salt into my gatorade and even taking salt packets out with me on long runs. (I’d pour it into a small amount of water at a water fountain and chug it down. Gross. And, not the best idea.) Honestly though, I was never fully comfortable with the guessing game of how much sodium and other electrolytes I needed. And, I definitely was far from nailing this hydration thing.
This time early on, I prioritized getting to the bottom of my specific hydration needs and coming up with a plan for training. I completed an at home sweat composition test which determined not only how much fluid I was losing but the electrolyte composition of that loss. Check out this blog post for a full recap on hydration and my sweat test. No surprise, I was losing 4 cups of fluid an hour and nearly 1 gm of salt! I switched to a higher sodium electrolyte drink, used salt tabs, and strategically added higher sodium foods to my daily diet. The biggest gain I noticed from this was my ability to push myself longer and harder in training runs. I always thought my fatigue in long runs was related to ‘not being in good enough shape.’ Dead wrong. I was dehydrated. When we’re dehydrated, we fatigue early and running effort feels 20-50% harder. The second biggest gain was in recovery. Being able to fully replace and replete lost fluid and electrolytes within hours of training, allowed me to train hard and mom harder on the daily. And lets be real guys, all you moms and dads out there, our kids show NO mercy on us after training!
Race day weather was the polar opposite of my summer training weather. My sweat test was done in 71 degrees and 92% humidity. This is drastically different than the 30 degrees and 55% humidity on race day. So, I completed a simple weigh in – run – weigh out a week before the race in similar weather to determine how much fluid I needed to plan for during the marathon. To my shock, I went from losing 4 cups per hour to less than 1/2 a cup per hour. From here, I was able to plan my fluid plan for the marathon – which was drastically different than my summer training runs. And I have to humbly say, I nailed this! But… the cool weather made that easy so I can’t take all the credit.
Lets break this down into nutrition mentality, daily nutrition, and performance nutrition. Lets also remember that everyone is very different – with different nutrition needs, nutrition backgrounds, goals, and overall health status. My struggles and successes may look nothing like yours and that’s okay. And, also why I love my job – I absolutely dig helping people individualize their own nutrition to smash their biggest and baddest goals!
Like the majority of our society, I have struggled with my relationship with food over the years. Nutrition often seemed like the source and blame of my poor body image. (Which couldn’t be further from the truth. News flash: it had nothing to do with food.) This bad relationship led me to look at my nutrition and running relationship like this…. run so you can reward yourself and eat what you want. This was the mentality I had for years and it only perpetuated that poor relationship with food. Over my time off from running marathons, while pregnant and nursing, I was able to slowly repair that relationship with food. It was no longer about restriction and omitting certain foods. It was about looking at food as supporting my goals. Going into this training cycle, my nutrition and running relationship looked completely different than ever before, more like this… what can I eat to support my running and goals. For the first time ever, I was eating more leading up to big training runs and races instead of rewarding myself and eating whatever I wanted after. (I mean, that happens too. But because I have finally given myself complete permission to choose the foods that I want to eat at all times, it was just a choice – not a reward.) Think about it. When does your body need the most fuel? First, during hard workouts. Secondly, to repair after hard workouts.
So give your body what it needs, when it needs it, without an ounce of guilt or judgement and get ready for it to ROCK your training goals!
Shortly into this training cycle after a I bombed a couple long runs, it dawned on me that my eating habits had drastically changed since I had my first kid. I used to eat a very high carbohydrate, lower fat, moderate protein diet. This is what I enjoyed and it worked for me before kids. This also worked for me training for my previous marathons. But between pregnancy and nursing, I felt like I was ALWAYS hungry (like a major case of the hangries multiple times daily), so I tinkered with my nutrition choices and started eating a lot more protein and fat because this kept me fuller, longer. When I started training, I realized I was going to have to shift this to support my long training runs. This is when I decided to incorporate my own version of nutrition periodization. Or in other words, eating to support the workouts ahead.
I loved eating a massive salad covered in nuts, seeds, tuna, dried cranberries, and full fat dressing for lunch at work. But, my GI tract didn’t like this the next morning on a long run. And, it wasn’t nearly enough carbohydrates to support a 14 mile morning run the next day. So certain days of the week, I ate a higher carbohydrate, lower fiber diet. And other days, I ate how I wanted – which sometimes meant that big old salad and other times meant sushi or pizza. It took some thought and some planning. I was putting all that sports performance meets nutrition science I studied for months to become a sports dietitian to work. But it worked, it worked really well for me!
It is really important to realize that our daily nutrition choices have a huge influence on our performance during training runs. We will get the most out of our training runs if we have the right fuel available to our body to sustain that workout and all the athletic gains that come after that workout.
I briefly touched on this in my last post about my previous 6 marathons. But my performance nutrition in the past sucked. A lot. Think about the time, energy, and effort we put into training. Why in the world wouldn’t we do everything in our nutrition power to support that hard work so we can perform and train at the highest level? I pose that question to my former self more than anyone! My performance nutrition allowed me to push and push harder throughout the entire 26.2 miles to finish with negative splits, a 12 minute PR, and overall time of 3:03:23. For the first time ever, in the last 10k of the marathon, I passed 45 runners – many of them dudes – and that was an unbelievable motivator to keep pushing. There’s a crap ton of science out there about the grams of carbohydrates distance runners need per hour to perform at their highest level and not hit the ‘wall.’ In a well trained athlete, hitting the wall is when our body runs out of endogenous carbohydrate stores (glycogen) and exogenous sources of carbohydrates (gels, chews, and electrolyte drinks.) The oxidation of fat into energy is a much slower process than turning carbohydrates into energy. Therefore, when we run out of carbohydrates and begin running mainly on fat, we cannot sustain the same pace and exertion level. This happens at different times for all athletes depending on how well those glycogen stores were stocked, training status, nutritional intake during training, level of athlete, and size of athlete, etc.
In past marathons, I took anywhere from 48-70 grams of carbohydrates TOTAL the entire marathon. (I’m fairly embarrassed to admit this! I knew better.) The recommendation for endurance athletes is 60-90 gm of carbohydrates per hour. One study in 2010 found that marathoners take in an average of 35 gm of carbohydrates per hour. So, this is a huge area for opportunity.
Kipchoge’s nutrition is challenging the current sports nutrition research on how many grams of carbohydrates endurance athletes can utilize per hour. Kipchoge used a newer technology of carbohydrates and was able to ingest (and we assume utilize) 100 gm of carbohydrates per hour when he set the marathon world record at Berlin of 2:01:39. Pre-Columbus marathon, I did the math and if I wanted to fuel like Kipchoge that meant taking in 7.7 gm of carbohydrates per mile. This worked out to 65 gm of carbohydates per hour which was more than I trained with – and you never try anything new on race day, so…. maybe next time!
This training cycle, I aimed for 50 gm of carbohydrates per hour through an electrolyte drink and chews. After much research, I decided that for me a slow intake of carbohydrates over long runs and race day was the best. This allows you to pull from carbohydrate stores slowly while also using the exogenous carbohydrates I was taking in every two miles. My theory here was that I would hopefully not completely deplete those storage forms of glucose (glycogen) until I crossed that finish line. Plus, I didn’t experience any negative GI issues when I changed to a slow intake of carbohydrates versus a big dose via a gel.
Areas for Opportunity
Some people have an incredible genetic and god given body to crush distance running. Those of us who don’t (me! me! me!) have to maximize the elements that we do have control over to continue to see performance improvements and it just so happens performance nutrition is my thing. But you know what’s not my thing, running training plans, pacing, distances, tempo runs, speed work, etc. So, I guess I should find myself a running coach if I think I’m going to continue to see improvements in my running!
Contact me if you have coach suggestions, please!! Or, if you want to work together to tackle the different areas of nutrition and hydration in your training. I’d be honored to see how we can use nutrition in your life to help meet your biggest and baddest goals.
Seebohar, Bob. Nutrition periodization for athletes: taking traditional sports nutrition to the next level. Boulder, CO: Bull publishing company, 2011. Print.
Rosenbloom CA, Karpinski C. Sports nutrition: a handbook for professionals 6th ed. Chicago, IL: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2017. Print.