He Said, She Said: Marathon Nutrition

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He Said

When I made the decision to leave behind my career as a research analyst for the U.S. Department of Transportation, I began looking for jobs in healthcare and landed a position working on a clinical trial with a kinesiology professor.

Given her background and expertise in exercise science and her personal interest in athletics, I shared stories of my marathon experiences with her and happened to include that I preferred Coke to Gatorade during long runs. “Ugh, that’s the worst thing you could do!” she disgustedly told me. Actually, no, I had figured out through trial and error that my body best tolerated plain old Coca Cola Classic over any other liquid with which I experimented, so I would argue that drinking Coke was the best thing I could do for athletic performance.

Sometimes, quite often actually, approaches that seem most sensible on paper do not function the best in real life. That is why guidelines are nothing more than their name suggests and should not be treated as gospel. Guidelines are helpful because they give us a place to begin, but I always emphasize to runners the importance of experimenting with various nutrition approaches during training to determine which eating and drinking strategy functions best for them and therefore will be used on race day.

In truth, marathoners take all sorts of different approaches to fueling themselves before and during marathons. Gatorade and water are supplied to the masses at various points along the Boston Marathon route, but the elite runners skip those tables and have their own hydration stations where each of them has a custom-made concoction waiting for him or her in labeled bottles. Some runners, for example, drink flat, non-alcoholic beer. A friend of mine used to eat gummy bears during marathons. Another friend made it through the running portion of his Ironman triathlon by alternately consuming oranges and bananas. As for me, I ran most of my marathons fueled by Coke and pretzels.

When Joanne and I first began dating, I was in the midst of a demanding dietetic internship, and I dealt with the stress by going for long runs on the weekends. Although it was clear that she found my behavior a bit odd, only she could tell you which struck her as weirder: the fact that I chose to spend my Saturday afternoons going for 20-25 mile runs, or the fact that I spent my Saturday mornings driving around and stashing bottles of soda and bags of Oreos in various hiding places along my running route. Just because gels, goos, sports jelly beans, and salt tablets exist and work well for some athletes does not mean they will have everybody running their best.

Commonalities do exist among the various approaches that people take, such as the importance of replacing the carbohydrates, electrolytes, and fluids lost during running, but numerous methods of achieving these nutrition goals exist, and that is where the importance of individualization enters the paradigm. Therefore, when you see or hear of another runner taking a different approach to his or her nutrition than you take to yours, remember that multiple “right” answers exist, and stay true to what you know from experience works best for you. Remain confident: Your training, both the running itself and your nutrition experimentation, has gotten you this far, and it will get you to the finish line, too.


She Said

April is one of my favorite months of the year. The winter is over (At least it should be!), little green things start sprouting out of the ground, and the promise of warmer days is ahead. Having been born and raised in Massachusetts, I have also come to associate April with the Boston Marathon. As a little girl, I would walk down to Route 16 with my mom, and we would cheer on the runners as they jogged past us. I was always amazed at how these individuals could just go and go and go. And how many of them there were!

From time to time, the subject of marathon running comes up in my work with patients struggling with eating disorders. Many of my patients are exercise enthusiasts who often have to cut back (or completely avoid) exercise in the early stages of ED recovery. As the individual makes progress in his or her ED, the subject of when he/she can start to exercise again will often come up. Of course, when figuring out whether to clear a patient for exercise, the primary care physician really needs to make the final call. Often this means that the patient should be having his or her vital signs taken regularly, and if his or her blood pressure, heart rate, and weight are routinely found to be in the “healthy range” for a good period of time, he or she may be cleared for exercise.

The word “exercise” can have a number of different meanings depending on whom you talk to. For the average person, perhaps going for a 30-minute walk 3-4 times per week would be exercise. But more often than not, for the person dealing with an ED, exercise usually means much more intense activity for more extended periods of time. That’s where the marathon piece comes in. I have had a number of patients state that they would like to resume (or start) running, not with the intent of managing their weight, but to strive for some goals. Usually, it will start with training for a 5K race, then a 5-miler, then perhaps a 10K. In and of itself, these races aren’t a problem vis-a-vis eating disorder recovery as long as the individual is competing and training due to the love of running rather than trying to control weight.

Sometimes I will have a patient announce the plan to run a ½ marathon with the goal of running a full marathon eventually. This is where things can get a bit dicey. As anyone who has run a marathon can attest to, the act is not an easy one. Although I have never run one myself, I have had people tell me it’s a lot like childbirth – after a period of time, one “forgets” the physical agony and only remembers the joy of finishing. In reality, running a marathon takes a huge toll on the body and can be quite grueling. For someone whose body is recovering from a life-threatening ED, training for and running a marathon can put a lot of stress on an already stressed body.

In general, I would suggest that the individual really delve deep into why he or she wants to run a marathon. Is it for the thrill of accomplishment, to check something off on one’s bucket list? Or is it a sanctioned way to exercise excessively, “permitting” the individual to eat with abandon and maintain or lose weight? Personally, I believe that someone needs to be in recovery for a significant period of time before attempting such a demanding physical endeavor. That period of time depends on a number of factors: How long has the individual struggled with an ED, and how long has the individual been in recovery? Has he/she maintained a healthy weight, heart rate, and blood pressure for a significant period of time? Is the patient’s mindset healthy or weight-centered?

If the individual is determined to be healthy in mind and body and the treatment team supports it, I think someone in recovery from an ED could in fact train for and run a marathon. However, it would be advisable for this patient to continue to engage in regular therapy and see his or her doctor weekly to make sure his or her marathon goals aren’t interfering with continued ED recovery. In addition, this patient should consult with a registered dietitian who specializes in both EDs and sports nutrition to make sure that he/she is getting in the right amounts and types of fuel and hydration needed for running a marathon. As long as the above conditions are met, there is no reason why someone who has struggled with ED couldn’t run a marathon.

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