Fuelling the machine- AKA the female marathoner study

Fuelling the machine- AKA the female marathoner study

Nutrition is a big part of any endurance event training and particularly so for an event as gruelling as the marathon—no news there. Any runner—or marathoner, anyway—can affirm that.

The nutrition and “wellness” industry—since that’s what it is—surely makes a veritable shitton of money off consumers who are looking for the next “big” thing or the easy way out to drop a few pounds so they can look super hot in their little black dress, their skinny pants, or their birthday suit. Again, stating the obvious here.

All of these industry norms are at odds with endurance athletes, of whom it behooves to think of nutrition and food consumption as how we effectively fuel our machines—our bodies—to perform and function as well as possible, both in our daily training regimes and on the day it matters most: race day.

Yea, this is a good way of thinking about it
Yea, this is a good way of thinking about it

Don’t get me wrong; I realize that it is extremely problematic to think of our bodies strictly as “machines” that need to be “fuelled” so they can “perform” properly.

I get it; promise.

I’m not into vehicularly anthropomorphizing the entity that basically dictates our quality of life each day. For now, however, bear with me; I’ll get back to this tangentially-related body image point later (probably in a separate post… trying to contain the diatribe here, folks).

In the past week, I got my personalized results from a study I participated in last fall, as I was in the final bouts of NYC marathon training. I saw a post on runnersworld from a graduate student in San Jose, asking for adult female marathoners to participate in her study about their nutritional habits. Once I emailed her, indicating my interest, she quickly accepted me, so I was in.

From what I recall, the first part of the study involved taking a series of very involved questionnaires that covered a host of topics, ranging from my own marathoning experience (17 fulls and probably about 18 halfs at the time); my attitudes toward food and body image; my knowledge of nutrition and micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals (FWIW, I consider myself very informed about this stuff, but this specific survey was hellaciously hard); and a flurry of other topics that I’ve since forgotten. Completing the three or four different questionnaires alone took over an hour, and that was before I even began the heavy part of the study.

Erin, the PI, asked all her participants (whom she coded with numbers to protect anonymity) to track our food/beverage intake, as well as exercise habits, for an entire week, to the letter. She wanted serving sizes, portion sizes, minutes exercised, effort expended at said exercises, time of day, vitamin and supplement consumption, even brand names of the food and restaurant names of the locales we patronized—in other words, the meticulous of the meticulous.

At any rate, Erin’s findings were pretty surprising. You can read them here at your leisure if you’re so inclined, but the highlights include the following:

  1. given that I was marathon training, doing cross fit, and breastfeeding last fall, I was consuming nearly 1k fewer calories than I “should have” been. The language in the report makes it sound quite dire, but at least from what I can remember, I don’t think I was starving myself or anything like that. In fact, like I said before, with the exception of the past few weeks, I usually eat… a LOT. (That is often the source of many a joke from my friends and family. My mom wonders where my food goes. I point to my ass).
  2. My diet wasn’t as balanced as I thought it was, apparently. The analysis points to several vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which, as Erin points out, can be easily rectified by eating more vegetables (I was slightly under the RDA that week) and by eating larger portion sizes. Again, the latter is almost amusing to me because I eat… a lot. (Sidenote: again, FWIW, some of the labels on the report are inaccurate. I don’t think I’ve been to an Old Country Buffet in probably 20 years!)
  3. At least according to the report, my underconsumption, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and breastfeeding all last fall allegedly could have/would have seriously compromised my athletic performance last fall (speaking in the hypothetical here, since NYC never transpired). This is a huge surprise to me because, like I’ve alluded to already, I think I eat a pretty balanced diet; if I feel sluggish, I don’t attribute it to a lack of a certain vitamin or mineral… hello, mother of a toddler?! (Interesting to note, here, that the study indicated my iron consumption was great. That’s like a BOOYAH! moment for me for all the naysayers who say vegetarians or vegans struggle to get adequate amounts of iron).
  4. And finally, another interesting part: probably like most people, my sodium consumption was higher than the RDA, but I learned it’s almost irrelevant for endurance athletes. This especially surprised me because I had never thought about it in these terms before: we’re endurance athletes. We sweat. All that sodium we consume? It comes out. Consequently, while I should care at least a little about my sodium intake, at the same time, I shouldn’t… (and the study even says as much—namely, that if endurance athletes were to heed the RDA for sodium, that could have deleterious effects on the our performance… and hell, my endocrinologist was trying to tell me to take iodine supplements for the past few years).

This study’s findings, as well as my own recent ruminations on how I stopped weighing myself as a pretend-Lent goal and managed to drop some weight, and my suppressed appetite of late, make me wonder what all of this means.

Call it a wake-up call of sorts, if you want.

Initially, I scoffed when I read the report’s findings (treading waters fast and furious in Da Nile, perhaps?) because I know I eat a lot of food—huge portions, large quantities, you name it—but I think what I often gloss over—and what people like my husband have to remind me—is that even if I do eat a lot, I typically am eating foods that are pretty nutrient-dense and calorically kinda low.

The fact that I will eat huge quantities of the aforementioned doesn’t really negate or balance anything out… especially when I’m in the throes of training.

At the same time, I’m educated enough in this subject to know that I need to eat a decent balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat—among others—so I’m definitely not “that runner” who only eats carbs and stays the eff away from all fats, even the good stuff.

Believe me.

Of course, I’m not perfect, so I’ll want junk food every now and then, but overall, I tend to swing toward the camp of “I want to eat a lot of food, provided it is healthy [read: not fried, nothing dairy, no animal anything, nothing with a soul, and not something with a laundry list of unrecognizable ingredients whose names I can’t pronounce—thank you, Michael Pollan!] and nutrient-dense.

I’m well aware of the horrible things that female athletes will put themselves through in order to gain an edge—all the bad stuff like bulimia, anorexia, all types of disordered eating habits—and while I’ve never had to deal with a disorder, proper, I do recognize that I probably have some disordered eating habits that might predispose me to some self-sabotage if I don’t keep myself in check.

Fuelling my machine—nutrition—has been something of a struggle for me for the past few years, as I’ve tried to be mindful both of the stuff I’ve mentioned here, of getting ample amounts of all the good stuff to keep the machine running well, as well as the nitty-gritty stuff specific to training and racing, like figuring out what I can eat—and when—that will both give me enough energy to rock the fuck out and kick major ass… and, obv super importantly, not give me the trots.

All this stuff is a balance, and having a totally non-vested third party look at my habits and throw some truth back in my face is something of a wake-up call—but definitely, 110%, very good feedback.

I don’t think I could have been more impressed–or surprised–with this study’s findings, even if I contest the validity of some of the claims.

What’s your story with fuelling your machine? Do you treat your “machine” any differently when you’re training than when you’re not? Have you ever had any experiences working with a dietitian or a nutritionist?


8 thoughts on “Fuelling the machine- AKA the female marathoner study

  1. I could totally relate to this! I’ve never had my diet analyzed by a nutritionist or dietitian, but about a couple months ago, decided to try MyFitnessPal just to see if I were getting enough calories to fuel my training. Turns out that I would typically come up about 500 short of what I needed. The calorie part shocked me because I eat a lot (my family makes similar jokes about the volume of food that I can consume). But like you, a lot of what I eat is nutrient-dense, calorically-poor food. I was also so shocked by how many calories I needed that I found multiple other sources for calculating that number (all of which said something similar to MyFitnessPal). I also learned that I wasn’t getting enough carbs (like most Americans, I’m sure).

    Long story short, that whole experience made me more mindful about what I eat. And I think it’s been beneficial, both for performance and GI issues. Have you read Nancy Clark’s “Sports Nutrition Guide” before? Valuable resource, IMO.

    1. I’ve definitely heard of Nancy Clark’s stuff, but I think aside from whatever I’ve read online, I haven’t read her stuff… but definitely good to know that you consider her stuff legit and a good resource. Thanks, friend! 🙂 and interesting that you’ve also come up short, calorically, in your intake as well…

  2. My vote for sentence of the day goes to: “I’m not into vehicularly anthropomorphizing the entity that basically dictates our quality of life each day.”

    I’m looking forward to reading this study later on! I participated in the Gatorade study during the Chicago marathon last year and was really disappointed with the results…meaning the lack of data that was shared…which I think was some sort of synthesis problem.

    1. Ha, I kinda bastardized English a little to get that sentiment in there 🙂 really interesting about the Gatorade-funded study from CM; did they ever release their findings? The PI here said she’ll be sending out a cumulative report later this year, so I’ll do a follow-up once I get it.

  3. This is so interesting. Fueling is such a confusing issue for a lot of people, I think–*especially* me included. This is the first training cycle where I’m really focusing on the appropriate amount of protein and I’ve gotten my vitamins in check for the first time in years (although a blood test definitely needs to be scheduled to be sure). Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Our bodies are machines, in my opinion!

    1. Oh yea, I totally get it! And it’s (fueling) is so frustrating bc it seems to be so individual-based, so it’s almost assuredly something that you have to figure out by trial and errors… and the “error” part of the equation just blows!

  4. Fascinating! I think running/athletics, in general, has always allowed me to eat (and drink!) whatever I like whenever I like (McDonalds after BB’10). However, I’m now working through mommy/injury weight that simply won’t leave! You’re always so aware of what you put into your mouth–it’s a mindset that is now natural–a lot of us still need to get there!

    1. I think what really changed things for me was when I was actively trying to lose weight with Weight Watchers a few years back. They’re huge proponents of writing down everything you eat. It’s annoying and tedious, but it definitely has helped me be more conscientious of things.

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