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Running Nutrition: It’s a Process, Not a Formula

The conventional wisdom regarding nutrition, if you’re a runner, is to eat a diet that is high in carbohydrate (≈ 60%) with the balance of your calories coming from protein (≈ 20%) and fat (≈ 20%). During an actual run, depending upon it’s length, intensity, and the environment, that advice generally shifts even more in favor of carbs, where we’re commonly told to stick to simple sugars in the form of gels, blocks, or a sports drink that also allows us to hydrate and replace valuable electrolytes lost in sweat when thirsty.

But, as simple and perhaps conservative as these guidelines might be, I’m sometimes hard pressed to really understand what this actually means, and despite my education and experiences, I still struggle to put many of the latest “scientific” recommendations concerning sports nutrition into real-world practice. Maybe this is because, even when these recommendations are valid, reducing our nutritional needs to basic substrates like carbohydrates, fats, proteins, water, and the salts we lose when we exercise, ignores a much bigger picture.

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Have a “Whole Food” Mentality

While science is often used as a reductionist tool to reveal the distinct and often microscopic parts that allow our body to work, an opposing idea in science, called “emergence,” acknowledges the reality that the whole is often greater than the individual parts that comprise it. For example, we might be able to dissect the brain into individual components like neurons, synapses, and neurotransmitters that allow our brain to function, but none of these pieces explains self awareness—a property that is, in and of itself, unique and that emerges from otherwise discordant parts.

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Likewise, breaking our food down into smaller components can give us a lot of insight into what we eat, but unless we stay focused on the whole food, we’re prone to make basic mistakes with our nutrition. An apple, for example, is made up of thousands of distinct phytochemicals, one of which is quercetin—a powerful antioxidant that some researchers have touted as one of the most important compounds in an apple. But, in isolation, other scientists have found that quercetin is not as effective of an antioxidant as when it is part of a whole food. Just because the quarterback is a critical position on a football team doesn’t mean that a team with 11 quarterbacks is any good. Similarly, the idea that there is a most important compound in a food like an apple ignores the fact that the most important ingredient in an apple is probably the apple itself.

With this in mind, I often cringe when people become so focused on the breakdown of a nutrition panel that they forget to think about the ingredients that make up a given sports nutrition product. When I was younger, I use to eat Hostess Apple Pies that I’d pick up on at the local 7-Eleven as a substitute for more expensive sports bar because as far as I could tell, the ratio of carbohydrate, protein and fat was similar. More importantly, the calorie to cost ratio was a lot easier to handle, it was easier to eat, and as a result, I felt like I was being smart and getting a deal. What I never considered was that there were 47 different things in that pre-packaged apple pie, the majority of which I could not identify as an actual food. In fact, most pre-packaged foods, including most of the sports nutrition found on store shelves are chock full of artificial colors, flavoring agents, emulsifiers, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners that make those products more chemistry lab than actual food. In stark contrast, a simple homemade pie only contains about 8-10 distinct real food ingredients depending upon the recipe. Not only is it cheaper it’s likely more nutritious and tastier than its pre-packaged counterpart.

Listen to Your Body

Still, just like religion and politics, taste and nutrition is debatable—an argument that is biased by our perspective, culture, and experiences. It’s not surprising then that even within the scientific literature, there isn’t good agreement on the optimal ratio of carbohydrate, fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals to consume for runners or any group of athletes or sports. For every study that says one thing, there’s another that states the opposite. The bottom line is that despite our faith in science, science is not a set of facts or a belief system. It’s a process for finding answers. Typically, those answers come in the form of a group average, but outliers abound—a fact that is especially meaningful if you happen to be one.

Thus, it’s important to realize that we are each our own scientific experiment. It’s our own responsibility to ask questions, form hypotheses or predictions about the answers to those questions, test those predictions, and analyze the results. If your gut hurts on a long run, ask why. If you think it’s your food, try something different and see if it helps. While this might sound like simple trial and error, the bottom line is that if you make a focused plan to learn, then that trial and error is really the execution of the scientific process.

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Learn to Cook

On a more practical level, however, it doesn’t matter what you discover or what direction the scientific literature leads us if you can’t cook. Somehow, somewhere, that essential skill ended up a casualty of the sports nutrition and convenience food industry. So learn to cook. Start with recipes. And instead of cooking to a percentage of this versus that, cook so that you enjoy what you eat. At the same time, keep in mind that even if something does taste great, if it makes you feel bad or sick, you’re better off not eating it again. Our bodies are smart and if we take the time to listen, it’s likely that the choices we end making will be the best ones.

Ultimately, there’s a big distinction between nutrition and nourishment. As much as we run to improve our fitness, we run because it’s good for our soul. Food is no different. So for maybe just a moment, let’s forget about how much carbohydrates, fat, protein, and electrolytes others say we need and just take the time to enjoy a home-cooked meal from scratch.

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