Thursday, January 6, 2011

Exceptions and Rules

Sunrise on Tam. An exceptional day.

This morning I headed out to do my tempo workout of the week. I was scared, I was intimidated and nervous. I knew how significant this workout would be. It is a big week in my training for Houston which is just over three weeks away. I also knew that I had struggled through my "track" workout on Tuesday and been reduced to a crying, shaking bag of bones and not necessarily in a good way. Needlesstosay, I knew that this workout would be telling. The workout was a very stout 10x 1 mile tempo run at race pace minus 10 seconds. Ideally, I wanted to hold 5:58s or better. As I ran my warmup down to the polo fields in Golden Gate park, I pondered whether the paces I have been holding in previous weeks tempo workouts were the exceptions or the rule. I knew THIS workout would make that clear. And it did.

The main reason I had been contemplating the concept of exceptions and rules is because a friend of mine inquired about my reference to being on an athletic diet leading up to Houston and urged me to write a blog post about what that means to me. The friend is a world class Ironman athlete and even she says that she gets confused. I can relate to that, I think a lot of athletes understand a bit about nutrition but not necessarily enough to implement a plan for themselves that coincides with training.

I was hesitant to write this blog because I don't believe in defining myself strictly and also because in the past giving myself rules created a great deal of anxiety around my food choices, including peanut butter. In the past year, I have had the healthiest relationship with food in a long time and while that meant I raced slightly heavier in 2010, the reduction in anxiety and obsession and time spent thinking about nutritional content and quality was worth it. I raced well and learned to trust myself. I realized I eat very mindfully, healthfully and don't need to stress about my food choices, since even my indulgences are most people's health foods.

A morning on the trails, currently the exception in my training :(

My training for Houston has been different in a lot of ways as I have discussed. It is also significant because it is the first time I have put myself on a strict race related diet. As I prepared for this race, I finally was able to synthesize the idea of periodization for my food/diet just like I do for my running/training schedule. I made modifications to my diet, changed the rules and exceptions and even implemented some things with no exceptions. The final two weeks of December I transitioned to the eating plan but let Christmas eve/day include exceptions (after all, I needed a glass of wine-believe me and HAD to have a slice of my mother's Stollen on Christmas morning, it's tradition) but after that, it's been on the plan! So what does that plan look like? With the help of my trainer Josh and my friend Ronda and my own experience, experimentation (as well as a few tests which determined food intolerances/allergies), I developed the following plan, rules and practices.

Typical day:
Addendum (1/7/2011): This is the baseline plan, I don't weigh my food and add in additional items as I see fit based on hunger or need. I developed it as guidelines to help me with timing, general portion and content.

Example of a dinner from two nights ago: Ka Pra Grow (fresh ground pork, garlic, gluten free tamari, red chili, coconut oil), Quick cooked Asian Greens (cabbage, mixed braising greens, coconut oil and gluten free tamari) and a side of roasted carrots (for my starchy veg, while Nathan had rice).

Last nights dinner: Bacon, shallots, garlic, red pepper flakes and brussels sprouts topped with homemade fire roasted bell pepper one pan "stir fry" and roasted winter squash.

Rules and Practices:

  • Wheat/Gluten
  • Sugar (refined)
  • Sugar (non-refined)/ artificial sweetners
  • Alcohol
  • Dairy
  • Grains (except oats), Sweets, pastries, cereals, or baked goods
  • Avocados, Pineapple (allergic)
  • No processed foods
Practices (notes from my trainer):

  • Practice a modified paleo type diet- focused on the vegetables and lean meats. 
  • Add back in a select few natural, starchy carbohydrate sources to support training. Time these to support workouts and recovery.  Still keep less ideal sources – sugar, juices, pastries, bread, pasta, flour, cereals, etc. OUT of the diet.
  • Starchy tubers would be a good choice – yams, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes. Corn tortillas and oats are other options. 
  • If carbs goes up, dietary fat should come down.  
  • Reduce added sources of fat (condiments, oils, nuts, seeds, etc.), and just get your dietary fat as by-product of your animal protein sources (eggs, fish, meat, poultry).
  • Spread food intake out over 5-6 meals. Drink lots of water.
  • Eat 1g of protein per 1lb of lean body mass.
  • Eat 1-2g of carbohydrate per 1lb of lean body mass.
  • Combine a serving of protein with a serving of starchy carbohydrate – both about the size of a deck of cards – with each meal and snack.
  • Starchy carbs (rice and potatoes) are better than fruits for athletes because fruits are sugars, natural sugar, but sugar nonetheless.  They are preferentially stored as liver glycogen whereas starch is preferentialy stored as muscle glycogen (which is what we want as athletes).
  • Continue to eat unlimited amounts of vegetables with any meal or at any other time.

My training and body have really responded to this nutrition plan and I feel great. It is not that terrific of a departure from how I normally eat. I normally eat approximately the lunch listed above, but was eating it in one sitting instead of split into two. I actually like splitting it up. My nutritional timing is way better and more effective. In fact, I have been more creative in the kitchen than ever before and plan to continue to eat this way long term but with room for exceptions. Outside of peak training, if I want something from the "no" list than I can have it, its a welcome exception as long as it is an exception. I have learned that peak training nutrition just means NO Exceptions and that normal eating whether during building phase or time off can be more flexible. As much as I joke about it, I am not chomping at the bit to have the foods I am currently excluding.  I look forward to a post-Houston treat, enjoying a celebratory toast but I also value how I feel currently and plan to continue to be a mindful eater. This plan is currently working for me, it is personalized to my needs and based on my own personal experience and understanding of how my body works. I don't for a second think that it would work for everyone, I don't believe in one size fits all nutrition. I also believe that being neurotic or a perfectionist about your nutrition intake is infinitely more harmful than helpful, so even in times of peak training nutrition a light hearted approach is encouraged. I think the one thing that everyone can take away from this is that peak nutrition is a time to eat a very clean healthful diet, it really does support the hard work you are doing out on the roads and trails. There is a time for (gluten free) muffins and a time for perfectly timed carrot sticks. Right now, I am enjoying food as much as I always do and loving just as much the nutritional benefits I feel.


  1. Ok, devil's advocate time...Do you know how many calories you're consuming each day? It seems low. Also, at the tempo you do nearly all your runs, it would seem that you use carbs for fuel rather than fat. Carbs are still a huge source of energy during aerobic activity. My understanding from sports med folks is that you have to be going quite slow to be actually burning fat. But I'm definitely a carb girl. GOOD LUCK at Houston! Can't wait to hear all about it. xoxo

  2. Alison- I do eat carbs just in the form of oats, starchy vegetables and corn tortillas. I just time when I eat those kind of carbs (around my workouts both before and after). I am actually eating more carbs throughout the day than I usually do and not attempting to fuel off fat (and reviewing what I said, I am not actually sure where you got that from). I did a spot analysis of my diet (using Fitday) and my calories were fine and my nutrition nearly a perfect 40/30/30. Thanks for the feedback!

  3. "[natural sugars] are preferentially stored as liver glycogen whereas starch is preferentialy stored as muscle glycogen"

    I didn't realize the exact difference in how fruit sugars and starch was metabolized. Very interesting and now you have me wanting to learn a bit more. Thanks for the info!

  4. ok. now i feel crazy. i could have SWORN you had something in your post comparing aerobic using fats and anaerobic using carbs/protein. but since i've now reread your post like 20 times, i don't know where i got it. i guess i'm ready for the weekend!

  5. Alison- you are not crazy. I had aerobic and anaerobic in parenthesis with the sentence "if carbs go up, dietary fat goes down". But I removed it since it seemed to be confusing from your interpretation. What I was saying (well, what my trainer was saying since that is from his notes) was that at the times I include more carbs (because I am doing anaerobic activity which uses ONLY carbs) than I lower the amount of dietary fat (which is a part of aerobic activity) I am taking in with it as I don't need double the energy source. Sorry, didn't mean to make you feel crazy. I still stand by that nothing I said was indicating that I was trying to fuel off fat, but I understand now how you made that correlation. Not what I was saying! Thanks for the feedback.

  6. Thanks for sharing your nutrition specifics. I find different approaches fascinating and it definitely piques my interest to learn more. Peanut flour is on my to try list!

  7. Alison-And I also wanted to mention that they are finding more and more than fat metabolism and training to optimize fat metabolism during endurance events is very key. There have been several articles recently in Running Times and fat is part of your fuel (not dietary fat), it is just not the primary process the body wants to use. You can train your body to be a more efficient at utilizing fat (and in conjunction with Vespa its even easier). And when I say utilizing fat, I don't mean to get rid of fat, I mean to be used as fuel.

  8. Devon this such a great analysis of an athletic diet (IMO). I found it difficult to put down on paper and do the math. Making sure I get enough carbs at the right times is always a challenge for me. Thanks for sharing this. On a side note as I broke down the caloric intake it isn't real high but suppose this is strictly for your Houston training in which I am sure you're not loggin 4+ hour runs. I would love to see your fuel plan when you are ultra focused. I find the challenge to be getting enough good clean calories in to fuel and repair. Eating a boat load of good food is no easy task. Good luck at Houston.

  9. Rooster-yes it would need to be different for ultra training. I think I would increase the portions of each meal or increase frequency. It is not an easy task to spread out properly that boat-load of food. This is for Houston and yes, not logging 4 hour runs. I will definitely develop something else for ultras.

  10. Wow, congrats on making all those splits! You must have been thrilled. What a great confidence builder too--sounds like it came at the right time.

    Question: with all the miles and the intensity of your training, how do you stay uninjured? I am not a huge runner but I'd run more if I thought my body could handle it--but I get little complaints that I don't want to turn into big ones so I just back off and stay low on the miles. But would love to know what your thoughts are. Thanks!

  11. Cowprint- I have building up my mileage and intensity over the course of years. When I did my first marathon in 2005, I was running 40-50 miles per week, I slowly increased over the next two years to where I could manage 70-90, then 80-100. I think stepping up gradually is absolutely key. I have developed good body awareness and can now tell when I am pushing too much (which only happens when I try to get my mileage over 120+ on the road, trails are more forgiving). I also get bodywork/massage every week at Psoas in the city. I've been working with Scott now for more than a year and a half and improved the health of my muscles and worked out any old adhesions. Proper diet, sleep also help. I would say even adding a few miles here are there would be beneficial. If you currently run 40-50 miles a week, try to step up to 50-60 for a few weeks then back off for a week. Feel free to email me if you have more questions!

  12. Hey Devon--what a thoughtful and generous response--thank you! I like your long term gradual approach in terms of it taking years to build mileage (vs. weeks or months.) I'll be routing for you in Houston!!!!

  13. i forget that you, being the speedster you are, don't need to do as long of runs for your marathon training. i was thinking 100 mile training. silly me. good luck, dah-ling!

  14. late to this post, but I'll chime in anyway with questions! This great post just eviscerated my "but I run a lot" excuse for avoiding Paleo. How long did it take your body to feel good eating your modified Paleo diet? How do you fuel your long runs? Are you making your own chia seed gel? carrying sweet potato in your pocket? Do you use Vespa in training *and* racing both? I tried eating paleo for 1 week and my running was slow and painful, I am such a carb-bot! I am confused by the timeline of your mid-day meals in relation to your second run. It looks like you are eating your 2nd "lunch" during your afternoon run. Would love to see more excerpts from your food journal. Do you change your diet in the few days prior to key races or on race day? Also did you try paleo because you wanted to get back to racing lighter again? I keep telling myself that I want to do paleo to support my overall health and fitness goals, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I'd love it if it made it easier for me to maintain my goal weight.

    thanks much,

  15. Sarah-Thanks for the questions. My body actually felt great right away since my body really doesn't seem to like grains very much (and gluten not at all). I did use gels during my long runs (or nothing at all) to practice for race day. I have made my own gels in the past but not this go. For marathoning, I want to keep it as easy as possible. I have raced ultras on dates and natural sports drinks (homemade) and chia seeds but it doesn't quite translate for marathons as well. If you are a carb-bot, it will take you longer. My diet was not generally that high carb to begin with.

    Yes the timeline is a bit confusing. I eat my second lunch a little bit before 3pm and go out for a run pretty close thereafter. Since the meal is pretty small, it doesn't bother me. Plus, my second runs are usually recovery.

    Before race day like 2-3 days before I eat more carbs to top up. I should have stuck to no new grains but had rice (and rice bread) before Houston. I recommend uping the carbs but not reintroducing any new foods.

    This plan was to support my training and yes to lean out. Dieting and peak training don't really work hand in hand all the time so this plan (i.e. timing of food and specific nutrients) make sure that everything in the diet is being optimized. I would be happy to share more with you via email. Feel free to follow up with me! Cheers!

  16. "...starch is preferentialy stored as muscle glycogen (which is what we want as athletes)"

    Starch + saliva amylase / pancreatic juice = maltose.
    Maltose + small intestine enzyme = glucose.

    Sugar + small intestine enzyme = glucose & fructose.

    Both starchy carbs and fruit sugars are broken down and enter the blood stream as glucose. Glucose is glucose regardless of origin.

    The confusion is largely semantic as glycogen is often referred to as a 'starch'. In fact it is a starch polymer. So fruit sugars are ultimately rendered into a starch analog.

    The good news: rice and potatoes will fatten you up quicker ;-)

  17. Hugh- I was speaking in terms of usefulness in running and timing of carbs. Yes "starchy" items like rice and potatoes would fatten up a sedentary person, most people don't need those kind/amount of carbs but potatoes/sweet potatoes (I wasn't/am not eating rice) give me the proper carbs to fuel my run. As I illustrated, I was timing them for fuel and took in a pretty low (especially for a high mileage runner) amount of carbs. My percentages were around 40/30/30.

  18. I was chatting with Chikara Omine yesterday as I'm trying to learn about fuel during longer runs. He related in the 100k World Championships (2nd US Men), he did the first 20 miles of the race on Sprite and the balance on Dr. Pepper! Both spiked with extra sugar and de-fizzed. So no solid food. I thought this was pretty interesting given the aid station spreads. His theory is HFCS is the best bang for the buck and the quickest, easiest energy hit when glycogen stores are sell out.

  19. Devon, I like the list but only have one question - to get the carbs from gluten-free grains, why not rice instead of oats? I've taken to loving the flavor and texture of black rice (also called 'forbidden'), which also carries a ton of antioxidants from the pigment.

    True, a big hot bowl of chunky oatmeal is one of the tastiest things on the planet. :-)

  20. Andrea-
    Rice would be totally ok instead if you wanted to have that instead of oats. It doesn't particularly matter which exception grain you choose. Rice is pretty awesome and black rice is delicious. Oats seem to work best for me however, which is why I chose it!
    Speaking of oats, mine are ready!


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