In January 2016 I decided to try a crazy thing and follow a specific workout program and nutrition plan. Because what could it hurt?? I ended up loving the nutrition plan and workouts, I found them both sustainable for long term – I lost 20 lbs in four months and have kept it off for over a year and a half now. With my new found fitness regime, it gave me the confidence to do something I never would have attempted to do before but always wanted to – run a marathon.
I ran several half marathons in the past but always got EXTREMELY burnt out running and usually gained weight afterwards because I didn’t want to run for a period of time afterwards. And honestly, in the last 10 years or so, running was always the best way to lose weight that I knew of so I kept going back to it. Now I didn’t need to do it to lose weight; and I had a fallback workout regime for when I needed a break from running. So I ran my first marathon in March 2017!
I was planning to do it once and never again, but before the pain in my legs even subsided I signed up for the same marathon for next year. Because I knew the first one wasn’t my best effort. I felt I had a lot to learn and could do it better and run it stronger; and I wanted to feel good finishing (not sure that’s possible for a marathon, but I’m going to try!!).
This time around, I’m doing things differently. I really struggled for a lot of my long runs marathon training – fatigue, low energy, dead legs. A number of things contributed to this for me, with incorrect fueling before and during running chalking up as numero uno. I read the book recently called The Endurance Diet by Matt Fitzgerald, which talks about the diet of elite athletes – which coincidentally is the same across all continents. They all eat well and eat a diet heavy in carbohydrates. Obviously I am not an elite athlete, I am in the recreational category – but he lays a persuasive argument for the benefits of such a diet and why recreational runners can benefit as well. I’m not going to outline it here, but his research is substantial and definitely convinced me that carb heavy was the way to go. Not just any carbs – think clean eating/whole foods/whole grains/fruit/ oatmeal/potatoes, not sugary cereals or desserts. He outlines the specific food types and many examples of things different athletes eat in his book.
I have further proof of this diet working – coincidentally, I followed it in high school. I did fairly well running cross country in high school, and my best year was my freshman year (26th in the Pennsylvania State Championship) where I followed a very strict diet of my own choosing. I don’t know how I came up with this, but I pretty much ate exactly the same high carb foods every day with little variation: a low sugar cereal for breakfast with milk. For lunch: juice, bagel with cream cheese, fruit and pretzels (hello carbs). Dinner was usually a protein, carb, and vegetable. I abstained from the majority of desserts and ate more fruit if I was hungry. After my freshman year, for whatever reason I lightened up on my diet and began including some unhealthier carbs; and in looking back I think diet was a contributing factor to my performance dropping. I still did well but not at the same level as that first year.
Matt Fitzgerald also talks about training in his book; and how most elite athletes do 80-90% of their training at a low intensity and only a small amount at a high to moderate intensity. Which was very surprising, but again – my high school cross country years came back to support. All I did for training during that time was consistently run 3-6 miles at a comfortable pace. Yes, during the season my coach incorporated speed and hill work, but my foundation during the summer was set with low intensity runs. And it worked.
Back to the present day – I attempted to follow my regular workout nutrition plan for marathon training with some higher carb cycle days, and looking back it was a colossal fail. It DID work for up to a half marathon distance, however. I had a PR for the half marathon distance December 2016 with a 1:38 time. But once I started running distances greater than 15 miles I really started struggling. I ended up with a minor foot injury 4 weeks out from the race so my training was cut short early in order for it to heal to run in the race, but I was really struggling on long runs and maintaining the paces that my training plan outlined.
Fitzgerald also mentions how too much protein can actually decrease your endurance performance. Honestly, I forget the scientific explanation, but you can read his book for it or just trust me that I’m not making it up to throw you off. And guess what my workout diet had plenty of? Protein. My meal plan wasn’t extreme like Atkins or anything, but it does lean heavy on veggies and protein and lighter on carbs and fats. Protein is necessary for endurance runners on a daily basis, but not at the frequency I was used to following.
So unknowingly, I was sabotaging my results with my diet last time around. So this time I’m trying to eat smarter. I am working on a balance of healthy carbs, fruits, veggies, protein and fats that are conducive to endurance running as I train for a Ragnar Ultra, which is 31 miles, but the training is very similar to that of a marathon. I’m already seeing the results, which is eye-opening!! I have SO much more energy on long runs. Although my legs do get tired, I still feel like I can push and keep going. Carb-centric is the way to go! I’m still working on finding that perfect balance, and honestly I love protein and had such a good routine with it so it’s hard to cut it out at times. I find myself thinking about carbs so much that sometimes I don’t realize I am not eating enough veggies, either, which are very important to a balanced endurance diet as well.
It’s a work in progress! If you are struggling with your endurance training – I highly recommend you read The Endurance Diet. I don’t know Matt Fitzgerald, I am not receiving commission off sales of his book (I borrowed it from my local library to read) – but it was a really, really good and informative read and I’d say a must for any long distance runner! Happy running ya’ll!