I get loads of advice about running. Run more. Run less. Don't run at all. Wear the thinnest shoes you can find. Go barefoot. Barefoot running is a trend. Nike Nike Nike. Asics Asics Asics. You get the picture. Runners get genuinely excited about what works for them. To run successfully - and we all have different benchmarks for success - is profoundly exciting to runners and, we quickly discover, ordinary to absolutely everyone one else. Therefore when we find a fellow competitor anxiously stretching at a start line, perusing the latest style at FitRight or online commenting on some ridiculous forum question on Letsrun.com, we tend to bypass small talk and head straight towards the opinions. Not much time with runners - we've got miles to run.
I don't mind listening. For the most part I've heard quite a bit of interesting information from these types of conversations. I've found great running trails ("Hey, if you like that trail you should try...") and I've discovered quiet country races not advertised ("Oh, Race for the Roses is nice but if you want a truly great race, try....you have to actually mail in your entry form. Or just show up. Not even on the internet.")
Running advice has also taught me all about marketing and PR. As an ad person's nightmare (I DVR everything and I fastforward the commercials. I have brand loyalty to my sneakers but it has more to do with where they are made than a Swoosh on the side) I realize that a good advertisement is often more important than a good product. That may sound cynical, but think about how many runners you have heard rave about the benefits of compression arm warmers. Or my particular favorite: the awed conversation I was on the listening end of about Nike's upcoming Olympic running shoe, the Fly Knit racer. It's made out of 2 pieces of yarn - and costs id="mce_marker"50. I know nothing about the shoe. It could be great. But I couldn't help but giggle, much to the irritation of the acolyte gazing upward as she spoke of said shoe, at each piece of fiber costing $75 a piece.
I digress. Much information about running comes from major publications. I read a lot of information on the internet - I'm the geek with the NYTimes digital subscription, flipping through articles on the Washington Post, treading through Salon, wrinkling my nose at Slate, you get the picture. Advice on the health blog in the Times holds more weight than Joe at the banana station after a race for obvious reasons, but also because so many beginner runners/racers read those blogs.
Case in point: Last month in the NYTimes Health blog, Gina Kolata wrote about whether or not one should snack while running. The article is about the relatively new trend (and subsequently related multi-million dollar industry) of eating as a supplement to exercise.
There were certain points in the article I agreed with, namely that the benefits of eating while moderately exercising are negligible. The article talks specifically about people snacking when doing short runs. Numerous people interviewed made the point there were no clear benefits for eating blocks, goos, granola bars, etc., when going out for a 5 or 10K run. In fact, the energy needed to digest such foods could actually detract from a race (as could the sudden need for a bathroom). Anecdotally, I thought about it from a restriction of movement standpoint. One of the joys of a 10K or a 5K is that there is no need to carry anything. It's just you and your race bib doing that thing you trained for - running. There's no aiming for water stations (unless it's a really hot day) or running people over for gummy bears. You miss all that if you've got an ill-fitting water belt strapped to you filled with every bar imaginable, trying to open a goo.
Yet the idea that you have to eat while running is firmly entrenched. At a gathering recently of friends, one woman spoke to me about training for a sprint Tri the previous summer. It had been her first race of any kind. "It was hard to eat the gels." she explained of her 5K practice workouts. Gels, plural. Another woman chimed in with a similar story when she trained for walking a 1/2 marathon. "The shot blocks gave me the worst indigestion." she explained. I am in now way denigrating my friends' training - only using their experiences as an example of how deep-seated the belief in eating while exercising has become.
The article also talked about more intense exercise and eating. As someone who currently runs in excess of 50 miles a week and is (somewhat desperately at this point) amping up the mileage for the Eugene marathon, I'm in the pro-eating camp. I I trained for and ran my first marathon without the benefit shot bloks/snacks. I remember a solo training 20-miler on a beautiful sunny day on the Leif Ericson trail. No food, some water. When I finished, I shakily got in my car to drive to my house. I pulled over to the first gas station and consumed whatever brightly packaged faux-chocolate happened to be by the counter when I walked in. As someone who used to ride their bike constantly, I should have been aware of the dangers of the bonk (glycogen stores in the liver and muscles so depleted that immediate recovery proves difficult). For whatever reason, I did not apply that to running.
After that marathon, I started listening to other runners and bloks became a part of my long runs. If I am going longer than 12 miles, I take along my trusty shot bloks, orange or fruit juice flavored, and I eat 3 or 4 spaced out over the last few miles. I do it for two reasons: A) it gives me a nice little boost of pure sugar when my body needs it. I'm sure there's a psychological element which is okay with me. And B) If I eat while training, my body won't freak out when I'm racing because I've introduced something new to it.
The article doesn't seem to think long-distance runners necesarily need food. Fine, I'm sure some don't. I am not one of those, for the reasons I stated above. I am not one of those RunnersWorld runners who finish a long run and eat 1/2 a potato and a small yogurt, either. Some people are. (Liars.)
This is my advice (and it will have repercussions. Advice always does).
1) If you're running less than 10 miles, just run. Pay attention to your body, not the snacks. They'll be there when you get back. If you bring anything, bring water.
2) Any marathon you run well without food you'll run better with it. And as we've now turned into a society where we have to point out that we're not talking about the most extreme, I'll point out that I'm not talking about the most extreme: No three-course meal. When you're sagging, have a block or two. I realize that the elite runners don't eat while running. I will pat you on the head like your grandma at this point and say kindly: You're not the next Meb Keflezighi. Eat your goo.
3) Don't introduce anything new to your body on race day. If you haven't worn it training, don't wear it on race day. And if you haven't been eating it training, don't decide to "try it out" on race day. The article had this ridiculous example of a long-distance runner on race day eating this new food she saw her competitor eating and she had a terrible race and that's why you shouldn't eat on race day. Wrong conclusion. Right conclusion: "That's why you shouldn't try new food on race day."
And most importantly, please remember: