Diet Part I: Is it Possible to Clean Up Your Diet While Distance Running?

This is a question I ask myself frequently.  Mostly on my long run days.  With my head stuck in the freezer eating ice cream from the carton.  In this weekly update post, I wrote about things I want to do differently this year, and mentioned diet specifically.  It really got me thinking.

It's a common complaint from runners training for long distances.  At track club events, on running forums, in conversations with my training buddies, I hear the same things over and over.  "I am soooooo hungry."  "You wouldn't believe the absolute crap I've been eating."  "All this running makes me so hungry I can't lose any weight!"  Or: "I'm eating like a teenager and still dropping weight."

Obviously, you need a huge amount of calories to support a marathon training cycle.  Some long runs can burn up to 2,000 calories, or roughly the equivalent of what I eat in a whole day.

Eighteen miles = a whole day's worth of calories.  Gone. 

Plus, running 40-50 miles per week ramps up your metabolism to ridiculous blast-furnace levels.  You can eat healthy foods to make up a deficit like that, but only to a certain point before you're all like "peanut butter ice cream crepes on a pizza made of Indian takeout!"

I looked far and wide for a photo of me holding food items in an excited manner, just like all bloggers seem to post.  I figured there should be hundreds of such photos on my hard drive, considering my enthusiasm for food and the fact that I eat every day.  Surprisingly, this was the best I could find.  It was taken at the Delaware County, New York Fair in 2011 and it will have to do.  So...yay corn and pickles.  And bangs. 

My main issues are:

1.  Too much sugar and refined carbohydrate.  This is fine to a point, especially considering the amount of carbs required to run.  First it's a little Gatorade here, some soda there, gels, then candy, extra treats, white bread for sandwiches...before you know it you are cramming extra sugar into your diet even on rest days.  I need to learn to adjust my refined carbohydrate intake to my actual requirements.  Anything above that amount leaves me tired and dehydrated.

2.  Too much alcohol.  I love wine and beer, and I have always enjoyed them moderately, even while training very hard.   There really is nothing like sitting down to a well-crafted meal with a drink to complement it.  But, it is easy for me to fill up on empty alcohol calories when I should be eating extra portions of whole foods instead.  And especially in the summer, alcohol can dehydrate me and cause problems with sleep.

3.  Too much saturated fat.  The few times I have attempted to track my diet with any amount of precision, I was shocked by how much saturated fat I was getting from eggs, cheese, coconut, and condiments like mayo.  It's something I never would have guessed, because I only very rarely eat meat.  When I'm running a lot, I know I go way past the outer bounds of my "recommended" saturated fat intake.  And I'm ashamed to say it's the worst kind...saturated fat from chocolate, processed foods, and baked goods with hydrogenated oils.

I have a condition called Congenital Idiopathic Hypertriglyceridemia (seriously, try to say that aloud), meaning I have higher blood lipid levels than most people just because of my genes.  Yay for basically being a Viking, I guess?  It's not really a problem right now, but as I age it can cause all sorts of stresses on my cardiovascular system (something I've seen happen to several of my relatives).  I want to do what I can to prevent this.  

So, do you guys think it's possible to clean up your diet while you run long distances regularly?  Over the next several months, I'm going to work on this stuff and see how it goes.  Fortunately (weirdly?), I have been in the habit of photographing almost everything I eat.  It started during my pregnancy, when my midwife encouraged me to keep a detailed food journal.  She used the Bradley Method, which emphasizes diet and exercise as the keys to a healthy pregnancy and birth.  I struggled to keep my food journal accurate and up-to-date, so I started snapping phone pictures of each meal.  Annnnd...being a very scientifically minded person and creature of habit, I never really stopped.  My phone is full of crooked pictures of fruit and pizza, basically. 

In the next diet post, I'll share photos of typical meals and look at some of my habits honestly.  It should be entertaining and embarrassing for everyone involved.  

I'm not a nutritionist.  Nor a dietician, naturopath, personal trainer, life coach, or guru.  In fact, I have exactly no expertise in this matter other than a general science education and experience owning a human body.  If you want real and evidence-based help with your diet, you should consult someone with better credentials. 


Dolly said…
Well I don't want to sound like I'm trying to copy you style. But, i am also in the process of cleaning up my diet while trying to train for a marathon. My metabolism has slowed down over the years and I just can't get away with eating too much crap. I feel better when I eat more whole foods, fruits, and veggies. But, trying to remember that after an 18miler, is going to be hard.

I also feel strange writing about my diet. To me it feels navel gazzely, but you are a much better writter the I and I have a feeling you will keep it interesting and witty.

Gracie said…
I, too, eat way too much junk! Your comments about alcohol made me think about my intake - and it's such a social thing here that I am no doubt drinking far too many calories. Maybe I should start asking for water at events and parties. I'm sure it would make a huge difference.
Rheagan said…
Yeah, it's a strange thing to write about. I often scroll through my photographic food diary and have weird thoughts, like, "man I ate a lot of chips last week" or "I should get more spinach, that was a good habit." I figure a blog is a good place for those thoughts.

And please share any tips you come up with. I need healthy, high-calorie snacks that aren't peanut butter, haha.
Rheagan said…
I'm trying to be more accountable about how many drinks I am really having, instead of just a bottomless "small" glass of wine until bedtime. Which I tend to do on Fridays!
Pandora Viltis said…
I should probably think about eating cleaner, but it's usually a bad idea for me to get too many rules around food. I don't drink anymore, and that made a huge difference. I mostly just try to not eat everything in sight when I start hitting peak marathon mileage. That's a pretty big challenge ;)