Chasing 42

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Running the Numbers

It seems like I’ve been training forever, doesn’t it? With the exception of June and part of July, my entire year thus far has been preparation for an ultra-marathon, which is very new for my body and my mind. However, I can honestly say that combination of increased physical activity and better nutrition has paid off in dividends. Not only do I feel more confident about my running, but more satisfied with my body and motivated to monitor my health more closely. It doesn’t hurt to have an incredibly supportive partner either, especially when the alarm is going off at 3:30AM so I can roll out of bed for a 5-hour training run.

How can you not love someone that recreates your favorite healthy restaurant salad as a buffet for a surprise birthday party?! 🙂

Although I’d like to say that the numbers don’t matter to me, I’d be lying. I’ve always enjoyed math and statistics (I wouldn’t dare use them interchangeably for fear of incurring the wrath of mathematicians and statisticians everywhere!), so keeping track of all of the little  (or not so little) numbers is quite enjoyable for me.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one that likes numbers! I’m sure you’re shocked. RunningUSA, in their annual State of the Sport series, conducts a running survey every year to examine how the sport changes over time. I may have spent far more time than I should have poring over the findings and geeking out just a bit 🙂 I won’t overwhelm you with a full recap of their findings, but I would like to share a few interesting numbers.

  • In 1980, 10% of marathon finishers were women. By 2011, that number had increased to 41%.
  • The median time for marathon finishers has increased quite a bit since 1980. For men, the time went from 3:32 to 4:16. For women, the time moved from 4:03 to 4:42.
  • Approximately 25,000 people finished a marathon in 1976. by 2011, that number had jumped to 518,000! However, the Half Marathon has grown even more, reaching an all-time high of over 1.6 million finishers in 2011.
  • As of 2011, women outnumbered men in every race except the marathon.
  • Female race finishers (5k, 10K, HM, M) are typically younger than male race finishers.

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Needless to say, the sport is continuing to grow at record rates, which is exciting on many different levels. Not only does it mean that the quality of race options will continue to increase, but running products will improve, resources will expand, and the accessibility of running for more people will become a reality. Unfortunately, despite running being historically billed as the cheapest and easiest sport to participate in, the same is not true if you want a medal around your neck. I’m hopeful that we’ll see race prices go down and groups implement sliding fee scales and other approaches to open up this aspect of the sport to more people.

Now, back to the numbers. As enthralled as I was by the national numbers, I found myself equally excited by my own numbers (this year) when I actually sat down to add them up thus far!

Days run: 211

Miles run: 1937.73

Hours logged: 326 hours

To put those numbers in perspective, I have run the distance from Minneapolis, MN to Los Angeles, CA this year, and have done so in a little under two weeks. This is certainly by far my most prolific year of running in a very short history, and I still have almost three months left to go. I can’t wait to see where my distance ends up on December 31st…then I’ll have a new goal for 2013!

Not bad for 10 months worth of running, eh?

Na & NaCl: My Mobile Nutrition Laboratory

As you know, I’ve been giving my running nutrition quite a bit of thought lately. The next few months of training runs will serve as a running laboratory for my nutrition intake, as I seek the perfect combination for my body during ultra-distances. I’ve used the pinole wafers on a few runs now, and have been pretty happy with the results, although I am going to try and make them smaller, and find ways to add a bit more flavor. However, the combination of pinole and water on my long runs got me thinking about my sodium/salt intake as well. Most electrolyte drinks and gels contain some level of sodium in order to help regulate the levels in your body. While cutting these items out to some degree is certainly lowering my sugar intake, it also has the potential to throw off my sodium balance since there is no added salt in the pinole. I am going to experiment with adding salt to the pinole to be certain, but I also started thinking and reading more about the need for added salt/sodium in my nutrition plan, and I discovered some interesting things.

First, I should note that I have been using the terms “sodium” and “salt”, but there is a difference. Some nutritional supplements will list “sodium” content, which includes sodium chloride (NACl), as well as the possibility of several other sodium containing salts, such as sodium citrate. It’s easier for companies to list the sodium content than it is to calculate the pure salt (Na) content, since NaCl typically has a higher chloride to sodium ratio. Since it’s also easier to add salt (NaCl) to your diet, I’m basing my decisions on the use of this compound. Now, to say that the evidence varies in terms of the need for added salt in your nutrition is an understatement. The only reliable answer to the question “should I be supplementing my salt intake on longer runs?” is “it depends”. This is certainly not the most helpful of answers, but it drives home the need for experimentation prior to race day.

There has been a great deal of focus lately on eating a low-sodium diet as a way of combating high blood pressure. In reality, the research is pretty clear that unless you are among the 30% or so of Americans who already have high blood pressure, cutting back on the sodium isn’t going to have a significant impact on your health (assuming you aren’t grossly overdoing it, of course). None-the-less, pre-packaged foods love to add “low sodium” to the labels in the hopes of enticing health-conscious but relatively uninformed consumers. Since we started mass-producing food and moving away from locally grown sources, our average sodium intake has gone up substantially due to preservatives and additives for flavor. The recommended amount of sodium for the average adult is 2400 mg, which is much less than the 3400 mg average in the U.S.

Now, as a runner, I’m well aware that I lose salt through sweating while I am working out. In fact, this is the main reason that sodium supplements have proliferated on the market. The research is quite varied when it comes to the need for sodium replacement to prevent hyponatremia (low sodium concentration in the blood), with some studies indicating that sports drinks with varying levels of osmolality had no impact on absorption or the prevention of muscle cramps, whereas other studies have found a significant impact. Whether or not it has a positive impact on the absorption into the bloodstream, it seems safe to assume that moderate levels, based on sweat replacement, can’t hurt.

In order to calculate fluid loss during running, you need to accurately measure weight change and fluid consumption. Once you do that, you can plan accordingly for how much fluid you should be consuming, preferably at 20 to 30 minute intervals. This also tells you how much sodium you are sweating out, as sweat contains between 2.25 and 3.4 grams/liter, and the average runner will sweat out 1 liter of water per hour. I plan to couple this fluid consumption with my nutrition, based on needing around 250 calories per hour (this seems to vary between 200 and 300 based on height, weight, pace, etc.). Ideally, I’ll be getting a majority of my calories from carbohydrates until I’ve been running for 4-6 hours, after which point I can start adding in 25% protein to my nutrition. There is really no needed for added fat, since you body has enough to run on for days, but it’s unavoidable in most nutritional supplements. Ideally my nutritional choices will allow for the 500-700 mg of sodium per hour recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine.

There is no question that this is a complicated puzzle, and I feel as though every time I think I might have one piece figured out, the rest start moving again. This is the curse I must endure as a quintessential inputer!

Who ate the last piece!!!

Pour Some Sugar On Me…

Everyone has a collection of music that defines their youth. For me, one of those songs was Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me“. **I’ll pause now so you can click the link and sing along to the music video, and then ask yourself at the end why music just isn’t as good as it used to be** Anyway, in addition to it being a great up-tempo song to run to if you happen to carry music with you while you run, this song could also be the anthem for most of the nutritional supplements we, as runners, are fed every day. Not only are we burning calories like wildfire when we train, but it is very easy to get into the “I’ll eat what I want, I just ran X miles!” mentality. In addition, most folks know that if you are going to be running more than 90 minutes, then you should get into the habit of carrying some form of nutrition with you. The gels and chomps that have become the mainstay of any distance runner have almost come to be synonymous with longer races. They end up in our race packets, they sponsor races, they set up tables at expos and hand out free samples, and we very quickly factor them into our race preparation.

By in large, I think it is safe to assume that many (although not all) runners eat healthier than the average American. Granted, that isn’t terribly hard to do considering the horrible diets and increasing obesity epidemic in our country. However, how many of you have given much thought to the nutritional content of the gels and chomps you toss into your pocket or pack on your way out the door for a long run? I certainly hadn’t, and I think I was like many, who never looked too closely at the nutrition label, but assumed they were good for me and doing good things for me as I piled on the miles. I vaguely understood the need for balancing carbs, fats, and proteins, but not in enough depth to be of much use.

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As a society, we have developed a collective sweet tooth. Refined sugar (and its many aliases) has found its way into untold thousands of processed foods without us even realizing it. I encourage you to look through your pantry and count how many items have some form of refined sugar in them (I differentiate refined sugars from natural sugars, such as those that come from fruits and vegetables). On average, Americans eat 22 teaspoons of sugar per day, which comes out to around 140 lbs of sugar a year! We certainly do like our soda, flavored coffee drinks, and energy drinks…just ask any college student. The body of research elaborating on the negative health effects of refined sugar is multiplying exponentially- this list does a great job of summarizing the numerous consequences of our processed diets.

What can you cut out of your diet?

In the past few months, my diet has shifted quite a bit. The beautiful epicurean and I have made a commitment to eating an even healthier and more anti-inflammatory diet. Part of that choice has meant cutting out refined sugars. This was certainly a significant commitment for us both, but the size of my sweet tooth meant it was that much more of a challenge for me. The joy of high quality milk chocolate, thick ice cream, or a piece of homemade pie really can’t be beat for flavor, but the sugar levels are also off the charts. Granted, I have probably committed to giving up sweets at 80% compared to her 100%, but considering where I was coming from, that is still a huge shift in my diet. Aside from sweets, cutting out refined sugar has been a rather interesting adventure, and has led us to discover many wonderful new recipes that we wouldn’t have otherwise explored.

Perhaps the biggest change for me, though, has been the calibration of my taste buds. Foods that never used to seem sweet (but contain refined sugar) now seem extremely sweet to the point of being unappetizing. This has extended to all corners of my life, which includes the gels and chomps I have used for nutrition during longer training runs and races. I have found myself struggling to choke down once delicious GU chomps, overwhelmed by the sweetness. Now, seeing as how I’m training this fall for a 50-mile trail race, it is important that I have a handle on my nutrition plan. As such, I’ve begun to explore more natural nutrition sources. Dried fruits and nuts seem to have their place, and I’ve been eating peanut butter (the natural kinds…even regular peanut butter has added sugars). I plan to try some of the other nut butters as well, and we’ve recently begun using coconut mana (imagine coconut made into a spreadable butter).

At this point, everything is an experiment. I have yet to find any natural nutritional products marketed to runners that limit refined sugars, although some do a better job than others.I’ll be trying some recipes I’ve found online for some homemade nutritional sources as well, so be on the lookout for recipes!

Pre-Run Nutrition: On-The-Run Bites

In case it hasn’t already become incredibly obvious by my previous posts, I’m quite a lover of food. I am not, however, nearly as useful in the kitchen as I am on the computer. Despite my shortcomings in the kitchen, my current training has made searching for creative and delicious nutrition sources a must. Luckily, the beautiful epicurean shares my love of food, and happens to be quite skilled in the kitchen. She also happens to be incredibly supportive of my training, and is always looking for new ways to help fuel me on my long runs.

I’ve written before about running nutrition, and these delicious on-the-run bites can not only be added to the list, but might just move up towards the top!  With a combination of peanut butter, honey, dried fruit and nuts, granola, and flax seed, they served as delicious pre-run fuel. I’m always weary of eating to much before a long run or anything that will upset my stomach. At times, this can mean not giving my body enough fuel before the run starts, which means my fuel during the run doesn’t go as far. These delicious bites not only tasted great, but they sat well in my stomach and gave me an excellent jolt of long-lasting energy to start the morning. Check out the full recipe if you are interested in trying them out yourself!

Photo Credit: Midwestern Exposure

Overall, these bites provided a great start to what turned out to be my longest training run yet, and the pinnacle of my training in preparation for my upcoming ultra marathon. After a 5:00AM start time and 29 miles with some great friends, I was definitely ready to stop and properly refuel with some breakfast and a tall cup of coffee, but I wasn’t nearly as hungry as I have been at the end of previous runs, which is saying a lot. Now if only these bites could do something about my sleepy brain at 5AM!

Calorie Recovery: Post-Run Nutrition

Did you know that it’s Cadbury mini-egg season?! You probably aren’t aware of the significance of this fact, so I’ll tell you. Simply put, they are some of the best chocolate on the planet (without spending way too much money!), and the fact that they are only available for a limited time makes them all the more desirable. There are certainly other varieties of chocolate that I enjoy a great deal, but there is just something about Cadbury that makes my heart start to race. Needless to say, when I saw them on display, next to the cheap Valentine’s chocolate that was still on display, my heart skipped a beat, and immediately grabbed a bag. It’s because of these little eggs from heaven that I will never give up chocolate!

So, when I was out for a run following this little adventure, it occurred to me that I look forward to chocolate and to those little mini-eggs of goodness even more after a long run. This got me to thinking about the various post-run food and drink items I have tried, so I thought I would share. Perhaps you have some special snacks of your own that you prefer to indulge in post-run.

Overall, I think of eating and drinking after a run as serving two purposes- regaining the calories I burn, which can be as many as 3000 on a long run, and aiding in recovery (i.e. keeping the pain to a minimum). To varying degrees, these items have accomplished those two goals.

Chocolate Milk: Ever since hearing about the research demonstrating the benefits of chocolate milk as a recovery drink, I’ve been hooked. As you can guess, I love it to begin with and the fact that it’s a great recovery aid just sweetens the pot.

Sports Drinks: If I’ve mainly consumed water out on my run, a sports drink such as Gatorade or Powerade can give me a nice burst. However, after eating gels or GU Chomps during a run, the sugary sweetness of most sports drinks is a bit much. I typically cut them 50/50 with water to lessen the blow to my stomach.

Chocolate: I know this one probably comes as a shock to many of you! I’ve found that a small amount of chocolate after a run can give me enough of a boost to keep going until a more thorough meals takes place. I also focus quite a bit on chocolate during the last few miles of a run, which certainly helps get me through it!

Oatmeal: In terms of an overall breakfast, nothing beats a warm bowl of fresh oatmeal. I’ll typically pack in as much goodness as possible by adding some ground flaxseed and chia seeds, as well as nuts and fresh or dried fruit. A bit of fresh cream or brown sugar on top rounds out a filling, nutritious post-run breakfast.

Going The Distance Muffins: These compact, energy-filled muffins are great pre- or post-run. The beautiful, talented blogger over at Midwestern Exposure has a great recipe for these nutritious and delicious treats.

Photo Credit: Midwestern Exposure

I’ve found that the key to nutrition after a run is to keep it simple. When you body is working so hard to recover as it is, putting the extra strain of trying to digest complex foods can be too much. Of course, more than anything else, the best recovery item is still good ol’ H2O. I am guilty, as are many runners, of not drinking enough water during the run, no matter how hard I try, so rehydrating at the end of a run is still vital!

These are a few of my go-to items- how about you? Feel free to comment and share your favorite post-run nutrition items.

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