I’ve been asked by a few people what it is I eat, both in my races and in every day life. This question always kinda makes me baulk for a few reasons. The first is that my relationship with food hasn’t always been a healthy one, there were many years where I binged on food as an emotional replacement, as a reward and I also restricted food as punishment. The other is that I find the discussions around athletes and food confusing to say the least. We are bombarded with so many things we should eat, things we need more of, less of, shouldn’t eat etc. I’ll be the first to admit I listen intently to what my running idols eat, but thankfully, my relationship with food has changed to the point where I feel comfortable with how I do things and the most that will happen is I will find a new way to eat something and not go into a full blown overhaul of my everyday diet and racing nutrition in the hope of yielding better results. That was something I tried in the past. It just doesn’t work.
So, where to start. Both my everyday and race nutrition have been a long, slow evolution which is still always changing. What works for a while doesn’t necessarily hold forever. I am also always reading and learning and will try new things, some stick and become the norm, others are thrown to the side after a few weeks, some I read and just think “nup, not even going to go there!”.
My everyday diet now is what I would call pretty normal. I eat a lot of different stuff, mostly unprocessed. I was vegetarian for a good ten years of my life but before I had kids I started eating meat again. When I first started running, in the throes of trying to lose weight and get “healthy” I went low-fat and then went low-carb in the extreme sense but both were unsustainable for me. I have learnt a lot about different carbohydrates, different fats, sugars, vitamins and minerals but I am also aware that I have barely scratched the surface and most of you reading this will know just as much as me, if not more. I do tend to err on the side of low-carb which makes some of my meals a bit different to what the rest of the family is eating. For example if we are having spaghetti bolognaise instead of pasta I will have a bowl of baby spinach, capsicum, mushrooms and whatever else takes my fancy, with cheese and bolognaise sauce. Similarly for curry, I have salad with curry over the top. If its a big training week I might add 1/4cup of pasta or rice to the mix, but I don’t have any hard or fast rules. Our family meal plan is pretty stock standard. Breakfasts tend to be eggs of some form, with veg and occasionally toast or my other go to is yoghurt with fruit and granola. Lunches are leftovers, soups or salads, although the occasional cheese toasty will creep in in winter (cheese toasties are a weakness of mine). Dinner is meat and salad/veg, curry, stir-fry, ‘pasta’, burgers and all the usual fare that you make because you know at least 2 of the 3 children will eat it!
Race Day Fuelling
My race nutrition has also been a learning process. In the depths of my low-fat/low-carb time I did races where I only used honey and dates for fuel and had water with coconut water, lime juice and salt added to it in my hydration pack. I know now that this probably what contributed to some pretty epic lows out there on the trail which saw me death marching as a blubbering mess. I have tried gels, I have a real problem with even swallowing them without gagging so gave up on those pretty quick. There have been various electrolyte drinks and food combinations. I have done calorie challenges to try and work out just how much I can stomach on the run, that was possibly one of the grossest things I have ever done. I have also had epic fails of nutrition and body management which has seen me on the side of the trail hurling my guts up quite spectacularly numerous times (you can read my UTA report involving that if thats something you want to hear about!).
My current nutrition is all about variety. I use TrailBrew (a hydration, electrolyte and energy drink) in bottles in the front of my pack so I can monitor my intake and make sure I am getting enough calories. I have water in my hydration bladder as well, so I can drink to thirst. I also eat a lot of different solid foods. My strategy is to eat and drink small amounts every ten minutes, throughout the entire race or training run. On any training run that is 3hrs or longer I do this, to practise and to make sure my body is on board with the way I am doing things and the foods I am eating. I have a lot of different options because what is palatable 2hrs into a race may not be at 20 or 30hrs in. So what do I eat? For my recent race at Alpine Challenge I had about 5 different flavours of Clif Bar (Choc Almond Fudge is my favourite) but by half way through my race they tasted like sand and I was struggling to swallow them, despite rotating through my other options as well. I found the same thing happened at Northburn, so now they are relegated to early on in the race nutrition, yet another evolution. As a side note, I was so over them that the next morning after my race I practically through my leftover (unopened) Clif Bars at my pacer, Kirsten, as I didn’t even want to look at them. The rest of my race food is made up into ziploc bags of food portioned for an hours worth of calories, usually divided into 6 pieces to have over an hour – the less thinking I have to do about what I’m needing to take in out there the better!
For Alpine Challenge those bags had apple slices (added to the mix after having an apple from an aid station high up on Cromwell Station during Northburn), fresh pineapple pieces (I stole that idea from my friend Liv), potato chips (the food that settled my stomach at UTA), Vegimite and butter on white bread with no crusts (I crave salt in latter stages of the race), Vegimite, avocado and lime juice wraps (its a weird combo but it works!), Snickers (they really satisfy!), Mars Bars (they help you work, rest and play) and M&M’s. I tend to leave the chocolates for the latter stages of the races, they give me something to look forward to food wise and they are great for when I really need a sugar hit. I also carry jelly beans, in case I need a real quick sugar boost but can’t bare to eat chocolate (it has happened!). I will also use bits and pieces of aid station food and on the really long races my crew has food for me that isn’t portable. I have had mouthfuls of noodles, clear chicken soup (salty and delicious!), fruit and nut chocolate, coffee (I love coffee!), bananas and oranges. Unfortunately I can no longer stomach watermelon during races after a few gross incidents.
The only other food related thing I wanted to share was my prerace food. Mostly it isn’t that different to what I do every other week. I don’t carb load at all. I figure if what I ate through training worked, why would I change that in the lead up to my race? After all, the purpose of practising my nutrition in my long runs is to mimic race day and that includes my prerace nutrition as well.
The only big change I make is that 3-4 weeks before a really long race I take caffeine completely out of my diet. I run all of my morning runs fasted anyway, but I miss my post run coffee during that time! It also means no chocolate for a few weeks, but I do enjoy them on race day then. The reason I drop caffeine is, partly because its a prerace habit, partly because it means I sleep better (I have a very low caffeine tolerance) and partly because it means I can enjoy a good hit in the race when I really need it. I try and wait until I am in the last quarter of a race and then I will have some chocolate covered coffee beans or a strong coffee, (the one I had at 102km in at Alpine, with double cream was DIVINE!!!) and it gives me a good kick to get me going in the harder stages of the race.
As for my prerace meal? It’s really simple and boring. Roast chicken, with roasted veg of all types and some salad on the side. It’s nourishing, it’s comforting and it gives me everything I need. I also mimic this in training, having a similar meal the night before my longer training runs.
Post race? Ahhhh. The amazing and tasty cheese toasty. I seriously dream about them before race day as I love them and try not to have them that often. Washed down with a couple of cold chocolate milks. It really is simple and delicious. There is also the celebratory meal, once I’ve slept! It usually involves steak and oysters, usually bought by my ever supportive parents, although I do wonder if its just an excuse for my dad to have oysters…..
So that’s my training life on a plate. Like I said, this is what works for ME right now. It is always changing, I am always trying new stuff. I think people can get a bit evangelical about what they eat and try and ‘convert’ people to certain rules and diets. Likewise, in the pursuit of getting better we can like to think that if we eat the same way as someone we can get faster, go further, climb higher. In my experience it’s all a big experiment, it’s just as well I love food and am happy to try new things.