Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Food is not (just) fuel

I once read a (probably apocryphal) anecdote about a runner who was signing up with a new coach. After they had discussed ambitions, potential, training programmes and so on, the runner then asked the coach whether he should follow any particular diet. "If you're going to put in 50 miles a week," came the reply, "you can eat what you sodding well like!"

I've watched with interest and maybe a slight tinge of alarm all that's been written in the past couple of years or so about runners' diets. My wife still subscribes to Runners World which you might be forgiven for thinking is a recipe magazine with the odd article on running thrown in. Then there is all this stuff about what you should eat when you race, before you race, after you race, when you're not racing, when you're not thinking about racing, and so on. Eat carbs, don't eat carbs, eat fat, don't eat fat, eat protein, don't eat too much protein, avoid tea, coffee, diet Coke, real Coke, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc. You may by now already have an inkling of my scepticism creeping in here.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure all this stuff has good basis in fact and scientific research, and I'm equally sure that if you believe whatever particular regime you follow will work for you, then it will. For athletes trying to wring the last two or three percent extra out of their performance, it's important, a thousand small improvements and all that. I just have to admit that it's not for me, so I've stopped worrying about it.

I like porridge in the mornings and a beer or two in the evening, crusty white sandwiches and fish and chips. I love all Italian food and the red wine that goes with it. I like salty crisps, chocolate and extra strong mints. I spend too much of my disposable income on restaurant bills, because I think food is one of the real pleasures of being lucky enough to be born in the rich side of the world. And I am a runner, yes, but it's a hobby, something I do for fun, not something that I want to subjugate the rest of my life to. I suspect I'm like most casual participants  - a bit heavier than I would like to be but still light enough, who puts on half a stone in the winter and takes it off again every spring, not super fit but good enough to get pleasure rather than pain out of running. And I think I'm going to stay that way.

So what do I do when it comes to the stuff I need to eat during a race? Well, you will hear lots of good advice, in particular "find out what works for you and stick with it". In my experience it doesn't work quite like that, because often what you find is that what worked really well in the last race doesn't seem so great in this one. I think it depends a lot on the circumstances, how long the event goes on, whether you're running most of it or walking for long sections, whether it's day or night and so on. I once ran the Highland Fling on nothing except Mars Bars, and most of the CCC on chicken noodle soup and coke.  One theory nowadays is that your food should get progressively more liquid as the event goes on but I say don't knock the boost you get from a sausage roll (or whatever turns you on) late on in the game.

It's interesting to see and I think learn from what's provided in races where you don't have to supply your own food. Some of it may surprise you, but if it's a race that's been going for some years the organisers will have learned what their clientele appreciate and what they don't. So in a quick thrash like the Rotherham Round you'll get jam sandwiches and Jaffa cakes, whereas in more drawn-out affairs like the Alpine events you get much more savoury stuff, cheese, salami, pasta and so on which all seems to hit the spot at the time. In races where you supply yourself, either in drop bags or via a support crew, I've found there is a great temptation to put in a whole range of things so you can make choices on the day; again in my experience this just results in a lot of stuff getting wasted, and the chances are you still don't have that precise goody that's sprung into your mind as absolutely essential when you're 70 or 80 miles in.

So over the years I've come around to approaching race food in the same way I do my everyday diet. That is, not to worry about it. If the food's provided, I try to eat what's there and don't bother to take my own. If it's not, then I just go with what I thought might work a few days before the event. Just relax. If you find you're eating well during a race, that's great; if not, well, we all have enough fat to see us through to the finish, we just go a bit slower that's all. Remember why you came here in the first place, and don't let it spoil your day.


KarenR said...

Couldn't agree more. Unfortunately I still tend to get sick and i think dehydrated so chewing is difficult after 40/50 miles. Variety I think is the key.

Subversive Runner said...

Amen, Andy.

Rob said...

Your non-theory obviously works very well . . . a PB in the Fling at 9:58 Brilliant!

Flip said...

Exactly my thoughts on Race food. btw , Ginsters slices are my 'in' ultra food at the moment.