Most of us marathon runners make poor food choices and despite running big mileage we struggle to shed the extra pounds. This Wednesday on The Smart Runner we’re taking a look at what are the worst carbs to eat for marathon running.
Good carbs, bad carbs, carbs to avoid, carbs to include, carb loading before an event and so on…. There’s almost too much advice and it’s often difficult to know what are the best and what are the worst carbs to eat.
It seems like there’s a new food trend every year. Each new trend get’s it’s time in the sun and then someone comes out of the woodwork to tell us how the concept was flawed.
Regardless of popular trends, us marathon runners tend to turn a deaf ear and just eat whatever we like. After all, we’re training long miles and we can burn off the extra calories right?
Well, not really.
“You can eat what you like if you run marathons” is just about the worst nutrition advice you’re likely to hear.
Ok so I’ve a couple extra pounds, what’s the big deal?
Here’s what the big deal is, check this out…
The Unseen Health Issue With Poor Nutrition
When we look in the mirror and we see the belly or the bigger than desirable hips, and we wish for a better look. We gaze disappointingly at our poor aesthetics, pull a loose t-shirt on and ignore the deeper issue.
Fat deposits on our organs, around the heart and the liver and in our arteries present a bigger problem. It’s something we don’t consider too often because we can’t see it. But it presents the real danger to our health.
Too much refined sugar in our diet can result in glucose overload in the blood. This results in the liver converting excess glucose to fat and can be toxic over the long term.
The pancreas produces insulin to manage blood sugar levels, but where blood sugar levels are very high the pancreas can’t keep up.
As a result cells develop Insulin resistance which over time is known to lead to all kinds of health issues. Type 2 diabetes, obesity, gastric problems and liver pathologies are common.
As such, the health reasons to choose the right fuel and get body fat levels under control are far more important than looking good. Or even making better marathon times for that matter.
The Demonisation Of Carbohydrates
There’s a current trend in the world of nutritional advice that has become very trendy to be a part of. The trend has moved from demonising fat of all kinds to demonising carbs of all kinds.
It appears that protein and fat are now the darlings of all that’s popular in sports nutritional advice, with supporters of the Paleo diet saying we must cut out grains of all kinds because our bodies are not designed to consume them.
Now, although I’m an advocate of paleo eating, I’m not sure that’s entirely applicable to marathon runners. I like the paleo diet and I’ve applied it in training for periods of about 4 to 6 weeks, but I’m not entirely convinced it’s good long term nutrition for marathon.
I’ve found it perfect for me where I want to shed body fat and increase muscle mass. When you adopt paleo eating habits along with short high intensity training the results in body composition can be quick and positive.
However, as your miles increase you may need to reintroduce complex carbs to support your body’s additional fuel demands. Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint has a sensible approach to carbs that I like.
Notwithstanding the above, there are carbs that are bad news brown and you need to stay away from them if you want to lose weight and achieve better marathon performances. Let’s take a look at those.
How To Know What Carbs To Avoid
Chances are you already know what the worst carbs to eat are. You may know they can have a detrimental effect on your waistline, your health and your marathon performance. These foods are difficult to avoid even though they have been proven harmful to health.
Coke, other fizzy drinks, confectionary, cakes, chocolate bars and so on are even handed out to participants at events! Who ever decided that dishing out some of the worst carbs to eat at events was a good idea?
It’s crazy stuff. People who are already battling weight issues and have taken the step to achieve a big personal goal and are receiving all the wrong messages. It unfortunately seems that sugary foods have become a marathon running staple.
However, enough ranting! If you want to improve your body image and your marathon performance, make a commitment to reducing or removing the following foods from your diet. Here’s some of the worst carbs to eat whether you’re running a marathon or not.
Processed White & Brown Breads
Processed bread is bad news for a number of reasons. Any nutrition in the original grain gets stripped out by processing and all that is left is empty calories. Modern baking methods bleach the flour and include additives such as salt (sodium ferrocyanide) and other compounds to make the bread last for days without spoiling.
What To Eat Instead: Bake your own bread, get it from a trusted local source or omit it from your diet completely.
Tortillas & Wraps
Same story here. Commercially produced bread products are of very poor quality. If bread of any kind lasts for weeks in your cupboard without spoiling (like most tortillas do) you know they can’t be good for you. If you’re going to eat wraps, make your own.
What To Eat Instead: If you’re going to eat wraps, make your own.
White Processed Pastas
Most pasta we buy in the supermarket has very poor nutritional content and for the same reason mentioned above. Commercial organisations are focused on profit, and that’s fine. It just means the food they make is not of a very high quality. In most cases it shouldn’t really be called food. Go for fresh pasta from the fridge or make it yourself.
What To Eat Instead: If you must eat pasta choose whole grain fresh pasta. The dried packaged stuff is low grade.
White Processed Rice
Same story here too. When the raw grain of rice is processed, it is stripped of the healthy husk and other nutrients leaving us with only the white less nutritious white bit. Go for long grain unprocessed rice if you can.
What To Eat Instead: Go for whole grain and wild rice instead.
There’s been a lot of demonisation of the poor oul spud in recent times, and I think that might be unwarranted. I’d suggest that you have them occasionally rather than every day, and when you do keep the quantity small.
What To Eat Instead: Go for sweet potato, boiled, baked or shallow fried in coconut oil.
Crisps & Corn Snacks
Crisps and corn snacks are full of additives and lab made chemicals, not to mention fried in low grade vegetable oil. They might taste good to you with all that sodium ferrocyanide all over them, but they will do you no good in your efforts for a smaller waistline and better marathon performance.
What To Eat Instead: Try sliced root vegetables dried out in the oven on a low heat. Add sea salt to taste.
I’ve not much to say about sugar other than it is the biggest addiction in western society and is deemed responsible for the heart disease and obesity epidemic. It’s in almost every processed food item you can think of. Steer clear of it, and steer clear of sugar alternatives too. They are just as bad for your health.
What To Eat Instead: Best to wean yourself off any day to day reliance on sugar.
Cakes & Sweets
Not much to say here either. Although I have to admit I’m partial to a coffee slice! Even though I like something sweet from time to time, I recognise that this kind of stuff does me no favours.
What To Eat Instead: Try making paleo muffins using almond flour, eggs, coconut oil and chopped fruit.
I don’t drink fizzy drinks very often, in fact hardly ever. You’ll see coke and other stuff like that at race events and that feeds the idea that fizzy drinks are ok – but they are not. A can of Coke contains just under 10 cubes (7 teaspoons) of sugar. Other soft drinks contain more.
What To Eat Instead: No credible alternative other than maybe mixing sparkling water with fresh juice.
So called “sports” drinks are lethal. I used to believe that I needed these things to make it around the marathon course but I don’t any longer. If you’re downing sports drinks and gels in training and in your marathons best to wean yourself off them.
What To Eat Instead: Try making your own sports drinks using honey, fresh fruit juice, water and a pinch of sea salt.
Not much to say here either other than beer and running, or any athletic activity, is not a good combination.
What To Eat Instead: Just wait until the challenge is over then have a few celebratories!
Crackers are like breads and tortillas and it’s unlikely you’ll find one’s that are actually good for you. By the time manufacturers process the raw material and add preservative and salt, the end product really doesn’t serve you.
What To Eat Instead: Just leave them out, or try to find an organic alternative from a reputable small producer.
Corn syrup is cheap, is the shittest form of sugar you can get and it’s not healthy for you. You’ll need to be vigilant as it’s in so many things you might not even consider.
What To Eat Instead: Try organic Agave syrup if you must but make sure it’s from a small producer.
Concentrated Fruit Juice
Many sports nutritionists say that we shouldn’t drink calories. There’s sense in that for me but I don’t have a problem with freshly squeezed fruit juice. Concentrated fruit juice is a whole other story. Like most food processes, concentration and refinement of the raw product kills any nutritional value it might of had.
What To Eat Instead: Squeeze your own juice each day.
The raw material was no doubt good to begin with, but the manufacturing process strips out all the goodness. They have sugar and salt added and really don’t provide good marathon nutrition at all.
What To Eat Instead: Better you have a couple of organic eggs and avocado for breakfast instead.
Low Fat Dairy
Low fat dairy products, and most dairy products full stop, have zero nutritional value, again due to the manufacturing process. For example: Yogurt manufacturers make their products with powdered (dead) milk and add sugar and other compounds to give flavour.
What To Eat Instead: If you’re going to eat dairy keep it small and natural.
Lots of products we buy have hidden carbohydrates added that we’re not even aware of. Most grated cheeses and other dairy products have starches added to avoid caking. Even table salt has sugars added to prevent it from sticking together.
What To Eat Instead: Always read the labels and where possible avoid buying food with labels in the first place.
Sauces & Condiments
Sauces and condiments will have a lot of sugar added, usually in the form of corn syrup as noted above.
What To Eat Instead: Try making your own dressings using olive oil and organic balsamic vinegar
Commercially Produced Chocolate
Commercially made chocolate from big name brands is really poor quality. The manufacturers add all kinds of crappy fat and sugar alternatives that are low cost.
What To Eat Instead: I love chocolate and rarely completely give it up, but I’m inclined to buy better quality chocolate for the sake of a couple of Euro.
Dried fruits are a popular choice for the healthy conscious. You have not known dried fruit is notorious for having all kinds of crap added including refined vegetable oil, corn syrup, and other additives that do not serve your better health. You might find it best to read the label on the product before you buy.
What To Eat Instead: Dry your own fruit or buy from a reputable small organic producer
Processed Nuts & Nut Butter
Like with many of the problems with processed food, big brand nut butter manufacturers use all kinds loe grade crap to create their products. So best to avoid them.
What To Eat Instead: I like to roast my own nuts (ouch!) then blend them up in a coffee grinder to make my own nut butter. You should try it!
Is There A Place For Sugar & Simple Carbs?
Yes I believe sugar and simple carbohydrates have their place, but not as a primary food source for marathon runners. If you are consuming this kind of food on a daily basis then you’ll likely receive very little benefit from it on race day.
Here’s an anecdotal example:
In the run up to an event a couple of years back, I kept away from starchy food and simple carbs for about 4 weeks before. In the latter days of the week prior to the event I reintroduced carbs and on the day I remember feeling like I had an engine on my back.
Abstaining from carbs four weeks prior to the event had allowed my body to make use of other fuel sources like protein and fat for my training needs. When I gave my body carbs it was better able to process this into glucose quickly to fuel my needs on race day.
I’m not a dietician or nutritionist but I know this system of eating (in very brief terms) works for me. The only way to discover what works best for you is to experiment. Because all the greatest advice from the cleverest of people will count for nothing, especially if you take it as gospel without testing it.
My philosophy is to believe nothing until I prove it to myself. I try lots of things, apply them, see what works and keep the good ones.
When it comes to carbohydrates you should do the same.
Ever try fueling your body like this in the run up to an event, how did it go? Maybe you’re considering it? Let us know in the comments.