Alicia (pictured above atop Mt Elbert, 14,439 ft) is a Run SMART coach and Nike sponsored athlete. She consults on Nutrition for Performance and has her BS in Nutrition from Stanford University. She is the former NCAA record-holder and two-time NCAA champion in the 10k.
Below is part 1 of our MTP Nutrition Q&A:
MTP: The manufacturers of energy gels, like GU, recommend that a packet be consumed every 45 minutes of sustained activity. Is there a way to effectively test in training whether one would need a packet every 45 minutes? I have often thought that one every 45 minutes was excessive, but was fearful of hitting the wall in training or racing, if I consumed the gels less frequently than every 45 to 60 minutes.
AS: It depends.
#1 If you have fueled well heading into the run then you will be less dependent on taking in as many calories as frequently. If you have not eaten breakfast or another meal prior to your run then you will probably want to begin consuming gels a little earlier and closer together (every 30 min would be appropriate).
#2 If you are running more than 90 minutes at an easy effort then it would be appropriate to start taking gels at 45 minutes into the run and space them apart every 30-45 minutes depending on what works best for you. This will take some practice as everyone is a little different but when you are running at an easy pace it is not as imperative to take in gels as often. If you feel like you are “bonking” on a run then you will need to either adjust your meals leading into the run and/or your frequency of gel intake. You also might feel like you don’t really need any gels for a 90-120 min run and that is fine as well. If you eat a good breakfast prior to an easy 90 min run, there is no need to force a gel if your energy levels feel fine throughout.
#3 If you are running more than 90 minutes at a harder effort like goal marathon pace then you need to dial in your gel intake a little more specifically and practice what you want to do in the race. Running at a faster pace will increase energy needs so I would recommend taking in a gel (or other carbohydrate equivalent) every 20-30 minutes starting at 40-45 minutes into the run. This a a general recommendation and you might need a little more or less but every 30 min is a good place to start. This will be a good dress rehearsal before a big race so make sure to figure out what works best for you and tweak it according to your needs. Also, DON’T FORGET TO DRINK WATER WITH EVERY GEL!
MTP: If one is consuming Gatorade every other mile or so of a marathon, is it necessary to also consume GU or some other equivalent carb supplement?
AS: One way or another, you want to take in around 200-250 calories from carbohydrates per hour. So if you are drinking Gatorade, you should know approximately how many carbohydrate calories you are taking in and adjust your gel intake to make up the deficit. With fueling products, there isn’t one magic product, it’s just important to take in calories regardless if they are from gels, sports drinks or chomps/gummies, etc.
MTP: The Nutrition for Recovery information we received quoted Michael Pollen advised for a diet that is “Food, not to much. Mostly plants.” Does this mean you would advise against the paleo diet for runners?
AS: In general, I would not recommend the Paleo diet for an endurance athlete that is training for longer events (marathons). Plants are by far the most nutrient dense foods an athlete can consume to support their training and enhance performance, recovery and general health.
MTP: For a while now I have been trying to cut back on carbs (sort of modified paleo, but not hard core) in an effort to control my weight. It’s definitely helped —I lost 20+ pounds over about 6 months —but now that my mileage is ramping up I’m wondering what you recommend in terms of carbs in a runner’s overall diet (how much and what kind of carbs). And how might that change (if it does) throughout the 18 weeks and especially as race day approaches?
AS: I wouldn’t be able to specifically recommend how many carbohydrates you should be consuming without knowing more about your personal history- age, weight, height, training volume, etc. However, I can make general recommendation that you should be eating more carbhoydrates as your training volume increases. It shouldn’t be anything drastic but a slight increase will benefit your marathon training. Stick to root vegetables.
MTP: What about alcohol? I haves 1-2 glasses of wine with most dinners. Is that going to hinder my training? Is there an alcohol “cutoff”date before race day to perform at your best?
AS: As long as you don’t feel any direct negative effects of drinking wine, it should be ok to continue to drink a glass of wine with dinner throughout your marathon training. Just keep the amount modest. Several glasses or wines or beers after a really hard workout or race will inhibit recovery but a modest amount of alcohol that is part of your normal dinner routine should be fine.
MTP: I have a horrible sweet tooth. I would love to have some healthful sweet recipes to keep my hand out of the cookie jar. I need to lay off the refined sugar.
AS: A couple good websites with healthier dessert recipes:
http://ohsheglows.com/recipage/ and http://glutenfreegoddess.blogspot.com/2008/05/gluten-free-dessert-recipes.html
MTP: What is the best ratio of carbohydrate to protein to fat for runner’s diet? E.g. 70/15/15, 60/20/20.
AS: There is no perfect ratio for all runners. Everyone has slightly different needs and feels best with a variation. However, most runners feel best and recovered somewhere around 60-70% carb, 15-20 % fat and 15-20 % protein. There is not a one size fits all formula but that is a decent recommendation.
MTP: Should runners take supplements such as calcium, vitamin d to prevent stress fractures? What about multivitamins or b vitamins?
AS: I would only recommend supplementing for something that lab work has shown to be deficient. If you are training throughout the year, I would recommend 2 blood tests/year and only supplement according to any deficiency. Some common needs of runners are low iron and Vit. D so make sure to pay attention to those values.
MTP: How should we fuel before quality workouts and how many hours before?
AS: Ideally you want to mimic what you would do before a race. For most runners that means eating a small meal of 300-600 calories 2-4 hours before of FAMILIAR foods that are mostly carbohydrates. Some common favorites are oatmeal and fruit, PB&J, cereal and fruit, sandwich, etc. Stick to what you know your body digests well and is mostly easily digestible carbohydrates.
MTP: What are some healthy snacks to have during the work day?
AS: Fruit, greek yogurt, veggies and hummus, nuts, almond butter sandwich on whole grain bread, bars (with decent ingredients and at least 8-10 grams protein), wraps, vegetable based soups, trail mix, smoothies, etc.
MTP: When should we use gels in a training run?
AS: Most gels are pretty decent so use the brand that you like the best and encourages you to continue taking them in the later stages of a race or training run. My favorites are Gu, VFuel, Cliff and Hammer.
MTP: When should we use sports drinks–before, during, or after run?
AS: I would only recommend using sports drinks DURING a run if you prefer a drink over gels. Otherwise, sports drinks aren’t really necessary.
MTP: Are there any superfoods that you can recommend for runners to include in their diet? What are the top 10 best foods for runners?
AS: Vegetable and fruits- all of them, a wide variety. There is too much fuss about superfoods when it is important to just eat a range of nutrient dense produce. Usually the darker the fruit or vegetable, the more nutrients it has….but really all of them are good for you. So find the produce that you like and enjoy preparing and stick with that rather than forcing down “superfoods” that might have slightly more benefit but break you wallet.
MTP: Losing weight – Is it a good idea to diet while your training? What’s the best way to do this? Any good plans available?
AS: It is possible to lose weight safely while training but I don’t advise slightly cutting back more than 250-500 cals/day. Matt Fitzgerald wrote a great book on Racing Weight that I would recommend.
MTP: What specific foods provide the best energy?
AS: Vegetables and fruit, healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocados, wild salmon), lean protein (eggs, beans and legumes, organic meat, etc.) and whole grain carbohydrates (rice, oatmeal, quinoa, buckwheat, etc.)
MTP: Are there specific foods that should be avoided?
AS: Trans Fats, hydrogenated oils, added sugars, foods with a lot of added chemicals/additives, sulfites (many lunch meats), dyes and foods with long lists of ingredients that you cannot pronounce or look like a chemistry experiment.
MTP: How many calories should you consume before a run?
AS: It depends. The questions is too general to give an adequate answer. Sorry! 🙂
MTP: How about going vegan?
AS: My first question in return would be WHY? What is the reason? Weight loss, increase plant based foods, performance….? It really depends on the reason and what type of vegan diet. Feel free to email me individually for more of a dialogue of what you mean.
MTP: What are foods (meat, vegetable, fruits, etc.) that I should avoid especially during training season?
AS: You don’t need to avoid any of the above foods while training. The best sports nutrition diet is on that is built around eating a variety of real foods so none of the above would need to be eliminated.
MTP: What kind of carb I should take if I don’t like bread, potato, rice etc.?
AS: Sweet potatoes, yams, winter squash, quinoa, buckweat, amaranth, whole grain pasta or gluten free pasta, polenta, cornmeal, tortillas, whole grain pancakes or waffles, whole grain cereal, fruit, starchy vegetables, couscous and many more I am probably forgetting. Lot’s of options!
MTP: Is it important to eat well all the time (please define what eat well is) or is it ok just to pay more attention for meals before and after hard training sessions and right before the marathon?
AS: You should eat well all the time 🙂 or at least 90% of the time. You can’t do damage control with nutrition. It’s accumulative and important to eat well most of the time for performance and general health.
MTP: I like to eat cake (once or twice a month and small piece). Is it ok or shall I try to avoid?
AS: Nope! Don’t avoid a treat. That is perfectly acceptable if you typically eat a healthy and well balanced diet.
MTP: How much fruit and vegetable I should take each day? I want to know the minimum.
AS: The minimum would be at least 1/3 or your meals should be vegetable or fruit.
MTP: What is the deal with hyped-up sweeteners like agave? Are they better for you, or are all sugars metabolized by the body the same way?
AS: There are some small differences in how various sugars are absorbed in the body but not a significant amount to label any particular sugar ‘healthy’.