Lentine Zahler is a Boulder, Colorado native, Oiselle team runner, cycling enthusiast and cook with Skratch Labs. She shares her personal story of bonking and learning how to run powerfully with the right nutrition.
When the starting gun went off for the 3rd stage of the Transrockies 6-Day Trail Running Race, there was a bubbling of excitement as we shuffled onto the course. That day we covered 24 miles of singletrack along the Colorado Trail, weaving through pristine forests, over soft loamy soil, scents of pine, juniper and wildflowers mingling with our sweat. This stage marked the “hump day” along our 120-mile journey with over 20,000+ feet of elevation gain on high-altitude terrain, meant to reveal the light at the end of the tunnel. But for me, arriving at the finish line with tears streaming down my face only illuminated the hard-walking, stomach-churning, disgruntled-spirit truth; I was un-inspired, weak and unprepared to run another day.
Strangely, it wasn’t the sheer magnitude of the challenge that was breaking me. My body and soul were burdened by a few sleepless nights in freezing temperatures, loss of appetite at altitude, and long hours spent alone in pristine forests with sore feet and legs. I had tried to do all the good things that bodies need when they endure extreme stress (ice baths, hot showers, clean, virtuous meals) but it wasn’t working. It was beginning to look and feel like my race was over. But before I could give in to the notion completely, a friend insisted he take me out for pizza. Not a pizza in any clean burning, virtuous way. But the sourdough, deep dish, masterpiece, piled high with vegetables-salty meats-stringy-cheese-savory sauce kind of way, washed down with beer as needed.
This meal didn’t send me into cardiac arrest, or into a food coma. Instead, it returned me to a balanced state of being and I was surprised to go to bed that night feeling excited to race. The next day, I managed to pull off the best performance of my entire race – a podium finish. It could have been mental toughness, but I’m pretty sure I owe my success to that soul-satisfying pizza.
The moral of the story is not that pizza is the best nutrition for trail runners. Rather, that listening to your body and recognizing the difference between a nutrition plan and a nourishment plan can mean the difference between surviving and thriving as a runner.
My colleague Dr. Allen Lim, founder of Skratch Labs, and I talk about nutrition and nourishment frequently. When we bake and cook for athletes, we adhere to the philosophy that eating real, flavorful and simple foods can revolutionize performance. Nutrition and nourishment are highly personal, and we agree that nearly any food can be athletic fuel. So, how do you navigate nutrition as a runner when the whole cornucopia is yours for the picking? I wish that I could draw a road map for you, but the truth is that optimal nutrition isn’t that easy. As Friedrich Nietzsche once said,
You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.
So while there is no ONE best way for runners to fuel up, here are a few quick strategies to keep in mind as you build your own nourishing plan for running nutrition:
1. Rely on Simple Foods.
Fill your pantry, refrigerator, and belly with fresh, whole foods that come in their own wrappers with as many of their parts intact as possible. Just like in your training, the inherent quality and diversity of what we choose to eat is the key to optimal health and performance.
2. Learn Your Hunger.
It’s important to recognize that food is fuel (even when food is fun.) But thinking of food ONLY as fuel can lead to a great deal of apprehension about how, where, and what to eat when (ie: I must steer clear of pizza at all costs). This apprehension is wasted energy that can’t be put towards pushing your limits as a competitor, recovering, or balancing your daily life, and can occasionally derail a balanced regimen all together. This is where learning your hunger comes in. Ask yourself,
What does it feel like to be nourished?
What symptoms indicate true deficit or dehydration?
When do peaks and troughs in energy levels occur?
More rudimentary is the question of “how hungry are you?” When are you hungry? What are you craving? These are questions that only you can answer and they can be pivotal in determining how to properly refuel.
Understanding hunger is like a craving for something specific, and the clarity to be unafraid of eating that thing – either immediately or shortly thereafter. Your eyes are clear, your body is tired but fulfilled, and excited to see what it can do next.
3. Build Your Plate.
Understanding calorie content and the macronutrients of your foods (fats, proteins, and carbohydrates) is vital for athletes looking to manage their optimal performance. And while its nice to have a neat percentage of what food you should eat when, it isn’t always practical to achieve those numbers. Whenever you sit down to a meal, be sure you’re getting an ample amount of carbohydrates (the building blocks that form the bulk of our energy needs), flavorful proteins, and plenty of colorful plants. Leafy greens and vegetables are vital to maintaining a high nutrient density and great nutrition. Listen to what makes your body feel clean and high-performing.
For us runners, nutrition can be tricky since the up and down movements of our bodies (and therefore our bellies) can make it more difficult to take in and properly digest calories while on the run. This means we may need to pay even closer attention to what we eat before and after our runs, and create simple, yet dialed strategies for replacing burned calories during long runs.
4. Time it Right.
Instead of building your nutrition plan around traditional meal times, match your meals to your training and racing schedule. Try to eat a balanced meal 2-3 hours before your primary workout sessions. Be sure to replace up to half of the calories burned during your training within the hour after your run is complete. This can – and should – be whatever feels best to you, but is preferably small bites of solid food rather than liquid nutrition. Enjoy a proper dinner – a well built, balanced plate.
5. Race Nourished.
Always eat tried and true foods when you race. Training is the time for experimenting, so don’t experiment with “untested” foods on race day. If your run or your race is 2-3 hours or more, you’ll likely feel better if you’re taking in a small amount of calories at a time so your body can get used to digesting small amounts of carbohydrates as it’s jostling with the motion of your body. In your training, try nibbling on real food to refuel. Maybe this is a peanut butter sandwich, a homemade energy bar, or even a packet of almond butter.
Most runners are only able to replace up to one third of the calories they burn on the run, and if you’re able to do this with real foods (instead of packaged products high in sugars and low in overall nutrition) this is best.