Last weekend I ran my first proper running event, the Queenstown International Half Marathon. I’ve run in a couple of little events before, but nothing that really required extra training, and definitely nothing that ever required any thought to nutrition!
After completing my Sports Dietitians Australia course in September I have become more and more interested in the world of Sports Nutrition. It’s amazing what a difference a well thought out and scientifically based plan can do. Of course the amount of actual training you do is important as well. And for the elite athlete a large part of success also comes down to the athlete’s genes.
So for the average Joe going out to run an event, there isn’t much that we can do about our genes (and I am definitely not a natural born runner) but we can ensure we have done some training, working up the distance, getting the miles underfoot, and having a good hard think about diet.
An overall healthy diet is of course helpful in the lead up to any sporting event, but today I am going to concentrate on the couple of days before my run and what I did during the run and share what I found helpful, what worked and what maybe I would reconsider next time round (yes, I am planning on there being a next time!)
You may have heard the term, but what is carb loading?
This describes a change to an athlete’s normal diet and training pattern to increase muscle glycogen (carbohydrate) stores prior to an endurance type event. These days it requires the athlete to decrease training, and increase how much carbohydrate they consume for about 1-4 days in the lead up to the event.
Why carb load?
It has been scientifically proven that increasing the carbohydrate eaten can significantly increase the muscle glycogen stores. This increase in glycogen has been shown to improve an athlete’s ability to race at their maximum pace for an extended amount of time.
Who would benefit from carb loading?
Now you may laugh or roll your eyes, and think that you don’t have to consider carb loading because you are not an elite athlete, however, if you are out exercising at a moderate or greater intensity for 90 minutes or longer, then you are likely to benefit from carb loading. Therefore average Joe, doing a half marathon (me) is likely to benefit, as we are likely to take longer than 90 minutes to complete the distance. There hasn’t been a lot of research in how females fare after carb loading, as most of the research has been done in males. Some studies have suggested that females are less responsive to carb loading during certain times of the menstrual cycle. It can also be harder for females to meet their carbohydrate goals due to the sheer volume of food that they need to consume.
Problems with carb loading
- To do so successfully, requires the athlete to taper their training. This can be hard for an athlete to do when they are used to large volumes
- It can be difficult to eat enough carbohydrate. Typically athletes will require 7-12g/ CHO/kg body weight. This equals 490-840g CHO for a 70kg runner. This is equal to 1960-3360 kcal just from carbohydrate! Athletes often have no idea what that actually looks like in real food and struggle to fill their quota
- Sometimes sports nutrition and healthy eating guidelines don’t marry up. In order to carb load successfully it is necessary to cut back on fibrous foods, relying on more simple carbohydrates such as jams, honey, white bread and jellies to reach the carbohydrate goals whilst avoiding stomach upset
- Carb loading will result in an increase in body weight due to the extra water that is stored alongside the extra glycogen. Some athletes are adverse to this, it also means the athlete has to travel with an increased body weight
- Carb loading is not an excuse to eat absolutely anything! This can be difficult for athlete’s to grasp and some guidance is recommended
So what about me?
I was hoping for a time of around 1:55 as a really good time, but would be happy with somewhere under two hours, therefore I was going to carb load!
To be honest I was quite looking forward to this part of it, without going too crazy. In my carb loading menu I had planned to have white bread (never have that) date scones (one of my favourite treats) honey, pancakes and maple syrup and creamed rice. All things I LOVE, but don’t normally eat on a day to day basis!
I did this for two days before my race. On the first day I realised I was trying to pack too much food into the evening and hadn’t spread it out enough earlier in the day. I ate so much for dinner! (Mostly Israeli couscous) and then I had to try and fit in half a can of creamed rice. Well I just couldn’t do it!! I was stuffed. So supper that night was about four or five dates instead. Day two required eating even more carbohydrate. So I got an early start on it, eating a massive banana when I first woke up. I had to be at the airport early to fly to Queenstown and treated myself to Mc Donald’s pancakes and syrup (87g of carb in one portion!!) So I was off to a good start. But again by evening I was really struggling and had to force my creamed rice and chocolate milk down. Needless to say I ended up with a severe case of hiccups that seemed to repeat itself endless times until bed much to the family’s amusement!
I got to chatting to a couple of people at the holding area for the start of the race. We had all been dropped off early at around 6am-6:30am for race start at 8 (something I hadn’t really prepared for) and it came out that I am a dietitian. “So what does a dietitian eat for breakfast before a half marathon?” Someone asked. I replied, “Well today I have eaten a banana, two slices of white toast bread with about 2 tablespoons of honey and I’m going to eat another banana a bit closer to the race start.”
I think the woman thought I was the worst dietitian ever! A dietitian eating white bread and honey on race day??! I think she thought I should have eaten a salad or something. Like I said, sports nutrition and healthy eating guidelines don’t always go hand in hand.
However it was at this point that I made my first mistake. I had meticulously made my race day nutrition plan, so I knew at exactly which aid stations I would eat my Gu Chomps (a bit like energy gels in more solid form) and drink my Powerade and water. Unfortunately, race day morning weather was not what I had planned for. It wasn’t too cold, but it was wet, and we had an hour and a half of standing in the rain with no shelter other than some trees. There was a coffee cart, and I tossed up between coffee and hot chocolate, debating whether the caffeine or sugar was best. In the end I decided a hot chocolate was a good idea, a bit of extra carb and sugar couldn’t go amiss at this point. So I drank the hot chocolate, warmed up, filled in time and inevitably had to use the port a loos. Gross gross gross, but what can you do?
So ten minutes out from race start and I desperately needed to pee again. However, we are all lined up by this point, and the run has got to go on. Maybe it’s just nerves and I actually don’t need to go at all? Anyway, the gun goes off, and we start. I’m trying to distract myself, looking at the amazing scenery (that’s hiding behind blankets of cloud) and the rain sets in again. Pitter patter on the road. This is doing nothing to ease the pressure on my bladder. I even contemplate if I can pee and run at the same time? Well I am wet anyway! It turns out I can’t. That seems to require A LOT of concentration and my legs to not be moving. Something that would likely draw a lot of attention to myself in the middle of a race. So I go on. Can I make it another 19km? I really don’t think so. As the first Powerade aid station approaches I notice there are more port a loos. I make a decision that I just have to go. Better losing some time than thinking about needing the toilet for the next 16km. And as it turns out it wasn’t just nerves. Just the longest pee of my life. I must have lost at least two minutes on my time I reckon!
So lesson learnt. Even though I say it to everyone else. Never ever deviate from the race day plan which you have practised prior to race day.
Other than the rain, the rest of the race wasn’t too bad. I think the next time I do something like this I will stick to straight gels rather than the Chomps. I really like the taste of the Chomps, but as they are solid I found them harder to chew whilst running than I had expected. Breathing heavily and swallowing was a challenge which occasionally resulted in Chomp being inhaled rather than ingested. They are ideal for a cycling event! So another lesson learnt.
Now this could be too much information, and feel free to skip the next paragraph, but I think this is important to consider too. It had been necessary to decrease fibre intake in the couple of days leading up to race day to allow for the extra carb and hopefully prevent an upset stomach during the race, and I noticed this led to a change in bowel habit. Ordinarily I like to go to the toilet before I run. But on race day I couldn’t. This was fine until about 5km from the end when I felt a bit funny. I just could not allow myself to go to the toilet twice in one race, so I went on. I eventually crossed the finish line and my friend came over and gave me a massive bear hug, but instead of feeling completely elated and proud of my achievement like I had imagined, I just felt sick. I excused myself and ran to the port a loos for the third time in just over two hours…
Once I was feeling better, home and dry I started to appreciate my accomplishment. I had managed a time of 1 hour 59 minutes, so I was pretty happy with that, all things considered. But I think it does highlight the important fact that it is so important to trial your strategies prior to race day so that you can at least try to control one variable. Things like the weather are never going to be something we can control.
Despite everything, I would love to do this run again! The sense of accomplishment was incredible! It’s amazing what your body can do when you put your mind to it, especially when you have support from family and friends. I was fortunate to know other people running in this event, including my sister and mum who both ran the 10km race. This just proves that age is no barrier as Mum only started running a couple of years ago after she turned 50!