We have all had those workouts where you are just not 100 percent. You know the ones where your energy is lacking and you just can’t hit your running pace or can’t lift the same weight you put up easily last workout? Obviously there could be a number of things going on, but for me, if it’s not sleep related the first thing I look at is my diet.
I actually started writing this post ages ago after a particularly bad run and never finished it. In the past few weeks as Missy and I have both been getting back into some longer distances I decided this definitely merits discussion. If there is one thing I have been reminded of about running/workout nutrition lately it is that we are all unique. We eat very similarly in many ways, but have found we have to fuel our long runs completely differently. (In case you missed it, you can read what happened to Missy here when she tried my current fueling method.)
Over the summer while vacationing (when I first started this post) I headed out for a 10 mile run. This distance should not have been anything terribly challenging for me. I knew it would be tougher than usual because I was running on hilly terrain, but I knew very early on in the run that my troubles were so much more than a few hills. The day before this run we had been traveling. Breakfast was a green protein shake at Grand Central Station. We took a train out of New York City, rented a car and then drove for over 4 hours. I didn’t really like the place where we stopped for lunch, so I stopped in a grocery store and picked up a Greek yogurt and some fruit. I did not have my snacks accessible. Dinner was a little better (an egg sandwich at a bagel shop with some fresh fruit). So why did I just tell you what I ate? While trying to make (somewhat) healthy on-the-go choices, I essentially starved my body — the one I was going to ask to run 10 miles the next morning. Even with my after-dinner splurge (a scoop of homemade ice cream), I estimate this day ended up right around 1000-1200 calories (and completely void of several important nutrients). I am supposed to be around 2000 to maintain my weight and fuel my body if I am doing nothing. Add to the mix that with all the travel, my water consumption was probably about half of what it should have been. I felt okay at the time because I wasn’t asking my body to do anything but sit around. Enter Saturday morning.
I knew pretty much from the start that I did not feel right. I was tired. My legs felt like lead. I was feeling very hot even though it was a fairly pleasant day. I survived the first five miles and then picked up my husband to run the last five with me. Those last five were horrible. I wanted to stop. The hills felt like mountains and I was starting to feel dizzy. I came really close to blacking out at one point. I should add here that while I am (sort of) glad I finished, I do not recommend pushing through those symptoms. I would have stopped and walked back had I not had someone with me to make sure I stayed upright. I realized somewhere along the way that not only was my pre-run nutrition sub par, my during run nutrition was non-existent. I had water. Could I manage 10 on just water in normal situations? Most likely it would not be a big problem. Perhaps I would have had a slight crash by mile 8 or 9, but on this day it made it almost unbearable.
I am not a nutritionist, but here is what I usually do (& should have done!!) to prevent situations like the one I experienced. While in this case I am talking about poor running performance, both Missy & I have experienced the same effects during hard lifting workouts as well. Nutrition is key anytime you are pushing your body.
- “Pre-hydrate.” Your hydration is so much more than just what you drink during a workout! Drinking water should happen all the time, not just right before and during your workout. Many “experts” suggest one ounce for every pound of body weight. Others say 8-10 glasses. While I don’t typically track my water intake (although I may start after that fiasco!), I try to gauge my hydration by the “pee test.” Aim for light yellow. Too dark and you need to start drinking. I know, kinda gross, but a very effective gauge since sometimes your needs may change (based on temperatures, etc).
- Eat enough. Most of us, as women, are constantly on some sort of diet. Huge calorie deprivation will not get you solid workouts. You will struggle, feel tired, more sore and worse – possibly lightheaded or faint as I experienced. If you don’t know how much you should be eating, I am a big fan of the resting metabolic test. I have had mine done several times at my Lifetime Fitness but I know they can be done at other gyms as well as hospitals. This test measures how many calories your body burns at rest (i.e. before any workouts). This number is as unique as we are. We do not all need 1200 calories a day, ladies! I actually tracked everything that went in my mouth during my Ragnar Relays. Was I trying to be a total type A control freak? No (although if the shoe fits…), I wanted to make sure I was not creating too big of a calorie deficit that would be the quickest road to a running crash.
- Focus on the quality of your food as well. Healthy, clean options will fuel your body far more than processed junk. This was the one thing I didn’t do as badly with during the week I am referring to here, but I failed so badly in 1 & 2 that it was not enough to save me.
- Fuel during your workout. Most experts agree that plain water is enough to get you through an hour. I typically stick to water for up to about 6-7 miles, but a ten miler (especially in the summer) would normally have included some combination of electrolytes and maybe gel.
- Don’t overeat. While this may sound like I am contradicting myself on number 2, going overboard the other way can be detrimental to your workouts as well. This is all the more reason I highly recommend that resting metabolic test. You will learn what “just right” is for you. Over eating the day before a long run (or other strenuous workout) is the quickest way to stomach distress.
The timing of your workout may play into what you need to eat as well. I find that it is much more tricky to fuel a late day run. Many of the foods I eat are naturally high in fiber which is not a good fit before a late afternoon or evening run. The majority of my workouts are in the morning so I only have to think about breakfast (which I never skip before a workout!), thankfully. But if you are a late-day exerciser you may need to “play” with your food choices through some trial and error before finding what works for you. Training for two Ragnar Relays has taught me that I can eat peanut butter and honey sandwiches all day long and head out the door a couple hours later. Weird? Maybe, but it works for ME. Other things that I have personally had success with leading up to late day runs are bananas, apples, dried fruit, nuts and various running specific nutrition products (I have lately been hooked on UCan, but Missy has been more tolerant of Gu. Again, find what works for YOU.)
What about you? How much emphasis do you put on nutrition during training? Ever had a complete collapse that you thing was a nutritional issue?