Food to run on

How to fuel up for fall races? Carbo-loading, though popular, seems ineffective. Balance may be a better course.

Posted: September 16, 2010

When Grete Waitz came to New York to run her first marathon in 1978, she knew nothing of the carbo-loading ritual practiced by many endurance athletes before a big race.

Instead, she treated herself to a shrimp cocktail, a filet mignon as thick as a telephone book, a glass or two of red wine, and for dessert, a bowl of ice cream.

She later finished the 26.2-mile race in 2 hours, 32 minutes, 30 seconds, setting a women's world record.

Moral of the story: Phenomenal elite runners like Waitz can break all the rules because they're phenomenal elite runners. For mere mortals, the adage "You are what you eat" is especially true when it comes to running.

Food is fuel, and the quality and quantity of the fuel that runners ingest, especially before a strenuous endurance test such as a marathon or triathlon, can mean the difference between "hitting the wall" or crossing the finish line in proud possession of a new personal record.

The topic is timely in these cool, crisp, made-for-running days of fall, as the local race season begins Sunday with the 33d ING Rock 'n' Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon (formerly the Philadelphia Distance Run) and concludes Nov. 21 with the Philadelphia Marathon. In between: scores of community 5Ks, 10Ks, mini and sprint triathlons.

Many of these contests will be preceded by lavish pasta parties where runners seek to top off the glycogen or fuel reserves in their stringy muscles by indulging in an orgy of "carbo-loading."

Among many endurance athletes, prerace carbo-loading is an article of faith. But the science and practice of carbo-loading have evolved in recent years. Indeed, there are some who argue that carbo-loading is a myth, or, at the least, that its benefits are exaggerated. The expert physician panel at a 2005 colloquium of race directors declared that traditional carbo-loading has been abandoned by most serious marathoners.

Nonetheless, glycogen, or "animal starch," a stored form of the simple sugar glucose, is as essential to athletes as high-octane gasoline to a Maserati.

Ken Glah, 46, of West Chester, who has finished the Hawaii Ironman 26 consecutive times, compares the body's copious fat stores to a thick log, slow-burning and efficient. Glycogen, by contrast, is like kindling. It helps ignite the log and provides a flash flame and an energy surge. "Without glycogen, you can't do anything with zip," Glah says.

Carbo-loading for surplus glycogen helps only if you're engaged in continuous exercise for more than 90 minutes. Surplus glycogen stores won't enable you to perform better during exertion of shorter duration.

"If you're not training for something close to a marathon, carbo-loading is probably not necessary," says Althea Zanecosky, 59, a Lafayette Hill registered dietitian who has completed three marathons. "You can store about 2,000 to 2,500 calories of carbs in your muscles and liver, so for a half marathon you have more than enough fuel" without pumping up your carbs.

If you're unfit, or relatively untrained, carbo-loading won't make much of a difference. Reason: The primary stimulus for glycogen synthesis (your body's ability both to make and use stored energy) is endurance training. The elite endurance athlete typically has twice the muscle glycogen of the most expertly "loaded" average athlete.

"The body can store only so much carbohydrate," says Bob Schwelm, 51, owner of the Bryn Mawr Running Co., a man who has run about 30 marathons, including a 2-hour, 30-minute finish last fall in Chicago. "That's why you do all the training. A beginning marathoner or triathlete hits the wall usually around 18 miles. Trained athletes flip a switch at that point, go to extra fuel, and get a second wind."

Traditional carbo-loading, which became popular during the initial running boom in the '60s, works like this: About a week before your race, you deplete the glycogen supply in your muscles and liver by starving your body of carbohydrates, while boosting the intensity of your workouts. Then, after three days or so, you ease up on your training and for the next several days replenish your glycogen stores by devouring carbohydrate-rich foods almost exclusively.

"The whole idea behind it is by having this period of depletion your body becomes a sponge that's able to absorb more glycogen," says Bill Hauser, 42, founder of Malvern-based Mid-Atlantic Multisport and an endurance sports coach.

The depletion phase, however, made many athletes feel cranky and lethargic, while the loading phase made them feel bloated and sluggish. "It was horrible for people both physically and mentally," Zanecosky says.

The current philosophy of carbo-loading is to skip the depletion phase and to increase the proportion of carbs in your diet to about 60 to 70 percent (300 to 400 grams for an average-size woman, 500 to 600 grams for an average-size man), while reducing fat and protein and tapering your training.

"This eliminates the starve-and-binge pattern and leaves you feeling fresher and more energetic in the early part of the week and less bloated and sluggish the last few days," says David Willey, editor in chief of Runner's World magazine and the finisher of five marathons.

Hauser recommends this modified practice to his athletes but advises them not to overeat: "What you want to do is shift the balance - a little less protein and fat, and more carbs. You're reallocating the calories rather than consuming more."

Protein is still important. Even though you're tapering workouts, your body still needs to repair and rebuild muscle tissue. Moreover, protein mitigates the sugar spike of high carbs, promoting a slow, steady release of energy.

Keep this in mind as well: Your body stores three grams of water for every gram of glycogen. So aggressive carbo-loading can add two to four pounds of water weight. Warns Zanecosky: "In a marathon, extra weight is deadweight."

As for the prerace pasta party? While worthwhile as a celebratory rite, it has negligible nutritional value and is unlikely to boost performance. "Whatever's in your glycogen bank by then was deposited days and weeks before," Zanecosky says.

Best to carbo-load via numerous small meals or snacks throughout the days before the big event rather than a few gargantuan feasts, endurance vets say, and don't make any radical changes in your diet. "The week before the marathon is not the time to be trying new things," advises Willey. Beware of refined grains, which can cause constipation, and too much roughage, which can cause the opposite problem.

While local athletes such as Glah, Hauser, and Schwelm favor prerace fare that is simple and bland (pasta and tomato sauce, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bananas, oatmeal, bagels, and so on), runners needn't sacrifice gustatory pleasure in their quest for ample carbs and the other nutrients they need.

"Just because you're an athlete doesn't mean you have to eat crap," declares Joe Bastianich, 42, a chef and marathoner who oversees Italian restaurants in New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. "You can still have a good lifestyle and enjoy a good meal and a glass of wine."

Bastianich is one of 50 running chefs whose recipes appear in The Athlete's Palate Cookbook, a publication of Runner's World magazine, which also features him in its October issue. There, Bastianich talks about how running enabled him to shed nearly 60 pounds, despite his lifelong love affair with pasta.

"It's not about stuffing yourself with carbs; it's about eating great food," Bastianich says of his training recipes (see below). "With a little imagination, some simple techniques . . . you can experience the richness and variety of pasta . . . one of the great things you can eat in the world, period, and especially if you're an endurance athlete."

Sharing Bastianich's epicurean perspective is Bob Schwelm. "I drink wine every night and before the race," he says. "I don't want to change anything I normally do. I really believe in that. It helps me relax and enjoy the meal more, so I don't go in with this trepidation. It's almost like a celebration when I'm doing a big event. I have fun with it."

Rigatoni a la Norma

Makes 6 servings

6 cups pomodoro or other tomato sauce

1 medium eggplant, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

Salt and pepper to taste

4 tablespoons flour

2 garlic cloves, crushed

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

1 pound rigatoni

6 tablespoons ricotta cheese

1. Boil a pot of salted water. Heat pomodoro in a saucepan.

2. Sprinkle eggplant with salt. Place on paper towels to drain for 10 minutes, then dust with flour.

3. In a saute pan on medium, saute one garlic clove in 11/2 tablespoons oil until golden. Add half the eggplant; saute until brown on the outside but tender inside. Place on paper towels to drain excess oil. Repeat with 11/2 tablespoons oil and remaining garlic and eggplant.

4. In the same pan, saute onion in last tablespoon of oil until tender. Add to pomodoro sauce. Season with salt and pepper.

5. Add pasta to boiling water. Two minutes before pasta is cooked, remove from water and add with the eggplant to the pomodoro sauce (with some pasta water if needed to keep the sauce liquid). Cook until pasta is tender. Divide into six servings. Top each with a tablespoon of ricotta.

- From Runner's World Magazine

Per serving: 597 calories, 17 grams protein, 90 grams carbohydrates, 18 grams sugar, 18 grams fat, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 886 milligrams sodium, 10 grams dietary fiber.

Orecchiette With Broccoli Rabe

Makes 6 servings

1 tablespoon canola oil, divided use

1/2 pound fresh sausage (pork or lamb), sliced into coins

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 pound broccoli rabe, cut into 1-inch pieces (discard tough ends)

1 tablespoon butter (or omit and use 6 cups warmed pomodoro or other tomato sauce)

1/2 teaspoon red chili pepper flakes

Salt and pepper to taste

1 pound dried or fresh orecchiette

1 tablespoon olive oil (to drizzle)

1. Boil a pot of salted water. Heat 1 1/2 teaspoons canola oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Add sausage and cook, letting pieces brown on one side before turning. Remove and set aside.

2. Heat remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons canola oil in the same pan. Add garlic and saute until golden brown. Add broccoli rabe and four tablespoons water. Cook until tender. Add sausage and butter (omit butter if using pomodoro sauce). Season with dried red chili pepper flakes, salt, and pepper.

3. Add pasta to boiling water. Two minutes before it's cooked, remove it from the water and add to the saute pan, along with a splash of pasta water (alternatively, add pasta to the saute pan along with heated pomodoro sauce). Cook until pasta is tender. Drizzle with olive oil.

- From Runner's World Magazine 

Per serving: 483 calories, 16 grams protein, 60 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 20 grams fat, 34 milligrams cholesterol, 306 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

Marathon Fettuccine in Charred Tomato Sauce and Shrimp

Makes 4 servings

For the charred tomatoes:

12 plum tomatoes

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

For the sauce:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium Spanish onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1/2 teaspoon crushed red-pepper flakes

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh basil

3/4 pound fresh fettuccine, cooked al dente

Fresh basil sprigs, for garnish

For the shrimp:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

20 large shrimp, peeled and deveined

1. To prepare the tomatoes, preheat a broiler or grill pan over high heat. Brush tomatoes with oil and season with salt and pepper. If using a broiler, put the tomatoes in a sheet pan and place them under the broiler (about 4 inches from the direct heat) until charred on all sides, turning several times with tongs, about 10 to 12 minutes. If using a grill pan, place the tomatoes on a very hot grill pan and char on all sides, turning with tongs, about 7 to 10 minutes. Remove them from the oven, let them cool slightly, and coarsely chop.

2. To prepare the sauce, heat the oil in a large, high-sided saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until soft, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic and red-pepper flakes and cook for 30 seconds. Add the charred tomatoes, salt and pepper, and cook until the tomatoes are soft and break down completely, 20 to 30 minutes. Stir in the basil. Add the cooked pasta and, using tongs, stir to coat the pasta evenly. Divide the pasta among four large, shallow bowls and top with 5 of the pan-sauteed shrimp (see instructions below). Garnish with the basil sprigs.

3. To prepare the shrimp, heat the oil in a large, nonstick saute pan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until the shrimp is lightly golden-brown on both sides and just cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes per side.

- Recipe from Bobby Flay and Deena Kastor in The Athlete's PalateCookbook (Rodale, 2010)

Per serving: 478 calories, 35 grams protein, 40 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams sugar, 21 grams fat, 207 milligrams cholesterol, 361 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.

Contact staff writer Art Carey at 215-854-5606 or

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