Last summer I was lucky enough to be invited to work with a nutritional therapy student, who had taken an interest in my running schedule and wanted to help me get a lil’ bit leaner and thus also a bit faster. That was a year ago now, but my interest in food/fuel has continued – although I’ll be the first to admit that in the last few months I’ve probably done more research than practice!
While working with this student I read Matt Fitzgerald’s book, ‘Racing Weight’. It’s not a prescriptive diet book, but instead is an honest evaluation of the often contradictory research into high-carb/low-carb/low-fat/high-protein approaches to sports nutrition. He analyses and compares Western diets to those of African athletes and draws the conclusion that… (drumroll please) a balanced diet, comprised of unprocessed, unrefined foods is the best fuel for training (actually, it’s the best fuel for anyone).
While I might make the conclusion sound a bit anti-climactic, it really is a great read and it definitely left me feeling better informed and able to make more sensible and practical decisions about my eating over the last year. In fact, I think that it is why I have kept the pounds off over the last year, despite not paying quite as much attention to my diet.
I knew that marathon training was going to test my new nutritional knowledge though (or to be more accuarate, it would test my ability to practise what I preach, when the mileage I am practising makes me want to survive solely on cake). I hear about a lot of first-time marathon runners putting on weight during training because they struggle to satisfy their increasing hunger with their usual foods. But I don’t want to get heavier. 26.2 miles is really far, and I don’t want to carry anything I don’t have to!
As I began my marathon training I excitedly picked up Matt Fitzgerald’s new book, “The New Rules of Marathon and Half Marathon Training”. After devouring (pun intended) “Racing Weight” this new book was a bit of a contrast. It was far simpler, far more practical and far more instructional. He discusses how to put the ideas from “Racing Weight” into practice during your training cycle, balancing your macronutrients in order to lower your body fat in time for your race.
I had very good intentions of fueling myself properly throughout marathon training, just like I had very good intentions to stretch, strength train, cross train and recover. But the realities of marathon training are so very different to how I could have ever imagined, and all of my plans fell a little to the wayside as I got into the swing of it all. So my marathon diet over the last 10 weeks has been: 3 weeks of awesome eating (according to Mr. Fitzgerald’s standards of awesomeness), 5 weeks of pigging out because marathon training makes me MEGA hungry, followed by the last fortnight of eating sensibly, consciously and (surprise, surprise… you were right again, Mr. Fitzgerald) feeling better because of it. I’m not hungry all the time, my sweet cravings have subsided (sort of), and I have the energy to stick to my training plan.
I’d be lying if I said it is easy though. I’m cooking for one and am on a bit of a budget, so it’s taking a lot of planning and preparation. That’s why I’m so into Fitzgerald’s method of balancing your diet – it’s about as simple as it gets.
Fitzgerald divides foods into the following categories and places them in this order of ‘highest’ to ‘lowest’ quality:
- Nuts and seeds
- Lean meat and fish
- Refined grains
- Fatty meats
- Fried food
Fitzgerald believes that a high quality diet should quite simply include more of the high quality foods than the low quality foods. A simple way to measure the balance of your diet would therefore be to count how many portions of each category of food you consume over a week, using common sense to categorise your foods and establishing what constitutes 1 serving. A high quality diet would on the whole contain more vegetables than fruit, more fruit than nuts, more nuts than dairy, more dairy than lean meat…. Get it?
Of course, you could try and pick holes in this logic and try and work from the bottom up, eating 3 slices of chocolate gateau for your main course, followed by 2 sausage and bacon butties (white bread, obv), and then eat larger portions of all of the high quality foods too, but the chances are you would be far too full to actually do that.
As an experiment I kept a food diary for a couple of days and then tallied up my food balance in order to establish the quality of my current diet and figure out why I wanted chocolate all the time. The results were interesting. While I did already eat a lot of vegetables and other good stuff, the balance wasn’t quite right. Clearly I was craving sweet treats because I wasn’t eating my fill of the good stuff – all the good stuff, not just the veggies.
I’ve now started planning my meals for the week by using the food quality chart and trying to achieve the Inverted Triangle of Nutritional Joy. I could try and maintain that balance each day, but I think that is far too pernickity and balance it over the week instead. I realise that it’s never going to be accurate, but it doesn’t need to be. It just needs to include more good food than crap food, and sometimes list making and note taking are good tools to make sure you remain conscious of the quality of your diet.
Tallying up a meal plan to check the balance. Inevitably some sweets would creep in at some point during the week, but my intentions were sound.
I’m still unsure which category almond milk should go in though…
Drafting meal plans for the week
So far, my anal meal planning is working out well. My sweet cravings are subsiding and I’ve got more energy. I’ve also managed to lower my body fat a little, as planned in time for race day. Fingers crossed it will all be worth it. And trust me, if I finish this marathon I’m gonna be eating an entire Vienetta to myself. Until then though, here are a few of my culinary staples from the last fortnight:
Tuna and potato salad
Small can of tuna
Dark salad leaves
- Boil your potatoes and chop your pepper, onion and tomatoes. You’ll get 3-4 salads out of 1 pepper and onion, so I chop it all and pop it in a tupperware container for easy salad making over the next few days.
- Once boiled, drain your potatoes and put them back in the saucepan with the garlic butter and some good salt. Add the veggies and tuna and stir/shake so that everything is smothered in garlicky goodness.
- Tip onto the salad leaves and devour.
- Clean your teeth. This will give you very stinky breath.
Tomato bulgar wheat with lamb meatballs (serves 4-5)
Approx 500g bulgar wheat
1-1.5 pints vegetable stock
Tin of plum tomatoes, chopped
Approx 300g Minced lamb
3 garlic cloves
- To make the meatballs mix 2 crushed garlic cloves with a generous teaspoon of cumin powder and the minced lamb.
- Roll the meaty mixture into meatballs and set aside.
- Chop the red onion and soften in a large saucepan with the garlic and some olive oil.
- Once soft, add the bulgar wheat and stir to coat the grains with the oil for a couple of minutes (just like cooking a pilaf).
- After a minute or two, add the tinned tomatoes. Continue to stir and pour on enough vegetable stock to cover.
- Bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer, stirring occasionally until all of the stock is absorbed.
- In a separate saucepan heat a little oil and gently cook the meatballs. Keep a lid on it to keep the juices in. They should take 15-20 minutes to cook. The bulgar wheat may take a little longer (about 30 minutes), but you can always add the meatballs to the bulgar wheat as it finishes cooking along with as much (or as little) of the meat juice as you like.
- Dish up and pig out. The bulgar wheat keeps well for a few days in the fridge and tastes incredible with a tomato salad.
These aren’t the healthiest flapjacks you could make, and they do score you sweet points because of the sugar in them, but eating a flapjack a day had the benefit of making me happy, while also ensuring I ate some nuts and seeds, and had a nice carby snack before/after a run.
200g cups of porridge oats
100g chopped dried apricots
100g chopped almonds
3 tablespoons linseed
150g vegetable spread/butter
3 tablespoons golden syrup
150g unrefined sugar (I use dark muscavado)
Melt together the vegetable spread, sugar and syrup.
Add the dried ingredients and stir to mix.
Pour/Tip the mixture into a baking tin and press down firmly.
Cook for 15-20 minutes at gas mark 5/180 degrees, or until golden brown.
Leave to cool for 10 minutes before dividing into pieces with a knife. Once they have completely cooled you can remove them from the tin.