Is Less Really More? My New Approach to Marathon Training

Every marathon I’ve run is a completely different experience than the last.

It’s the same distance and the same drama, but yet each one is unique.

I’ve been over-eager to “prove” my abilities and I’ve been hopeful just to finish well, whatever that meant.

This time, yet again, is different.

While my mileage overall ended up a bit higher than I’ve ever done, I dramatically changed the structure of my training.

Gone were the soul-crushing, almost-guaranteed-to-fail cut down workouts (where even mile is supposed to get progressively faster), as well as some big gear-changing runs that drop down to 5k pace at mile 9 that I was rarely be able to accomplish well.

Instead, I played to my strengths and chose workouts I was good at.

I spent more time at the track doing what most runners would classify as 5k work: repetitions of 200 meters or 400 meters at no faster than 5k pace but with quick jogging recovery periods.  This allowed me to spend a good chunk of time at high speed in one workout, but without struggling mentally or physically.

If you’ve never run 200 meters at your 5k pace, it feels very easy, even after the 24th one! I highly recommend this workout if you are also feeling drained from long, tough tempos or threshold work.

The other thing I did differently is I dropped a workout per week most weeks.

I have been running two workouts a week plus a long run for several cycles now.  It just seemed like this was the thing to do.  Sure I was beat down trying to run a tempo on a Thursday after a hard day at the track on Tuesday, but this is marathon training, right?  You are supposed to be tired and sore!

Actually, no, you are not.

First off, only allowing one easy day in between workouts was not enough time to recover for me.  I was not able to run to my full ability on Thursday, but I never connected that it was the lack of recovery time.

I thought it was just me not being “good” enough.

Then one week, I shifted the second workout to Friday to see if I would feel better.  And it worked.

For a while.

Later I learned from some of the (much faster!) runners that I look up to that some of them only do one workout a week with the long run instead of two when they are deep into marathon training.

Really?  That sounds almost blasphemous!  How could you possibly get in all the stimulation that you need for a solid build up on only one hard day a week?

Then I tried it.

Basically, I ran less hard overall, ran the workouts that made me confident instead of defeated, and let the easy miles flow.

Now I’m not saying I just took it easy or did not challenge my limits, however.  I worked hard and ran hard when I needed to.

What I didn’t do was buy into the “one-size-fits-all plan for marathon success.” 

And I have never felt better or stronger in my life.

No makeup, no Photoshop, no filter. Heck, not even a shower! Just ready as I can be.

My key workouts in the last few weeks have gone really well and I feel fresh and well-rested.

Marathon pace is feeling achievable (yet still a touch scary!).

The other thing that I’ve learned this year is that time goals are like bars of wet soap:  the tighter you hold on to them, the easier they slip away.

Of course I’d love to break three hours in the marathon, but that would be just the cherry on the sundae. (Okay, who am I kidding, that would be a huge fu@&ing cherry, but go with me here.)

What I really want to do is run a brave last 10k.  After more than two and a quarter hours of running, I want to be able do what I have trained for, no matter what the weather brings or what the clock says.

The time is important to me, but what matters even more is that I show up for those last 6.2 miles with the same determination and hunger that I have now writing these words.

If I am brave and focused and leave everything I’ve got out there then I cannot fail, even if the minutes click past the magical, yet ultimately arbitrary, three hour mark.

Although one small setback happened today that I hope does not affect race day:

Ahhh!!!

I was five miles into a ten mile run and I had to pee.  As I slowed to a stop, I wasn’t paying attention to my feet and my right ankle just gave way.  Nothing tripped me or got in my way, I just landed wrong and down I went.

I’ve injured my right ankle many times before, so it has been weakened in the past, but it’s been a very long time since it’s given me any issues.

It certainly hurt, but I was hopeful that it was mild.  I jogged a bit further and while it wasn’t excruciating, it didn’t make any sense to run 5 more miles home.  So I called my mom who lives in the neighborhood and she picked me up.

Five hours later as I write this, it still hurts some, but happily (and weirdly) there is virtually no swelling, so I’m hoping that’s a good sign.  I will baby it as much as I can over the next few days and my fingers are crossed that it’s minor and heals quickly.

I guess that’s one way to force rest during taper week!

I’m planning on taking it day by day and staying positive.

Assuming the ankle is good, will my less-is-more approach be successful on race day or should I have worked harder to “conquer” the workouts that I’ve struggled with in the past?

I suppose I will find out in a week, but in a way, it might not matter.

I have already succeeded in creating a way of training that works for me.  I feel better, faster, and happier.

And feeling better most of the time seems like a more holistic approach to both training and my life no matter what happens in the few hours of the race.

So maybe the difference this time is not so much about how I changed my training.

It’s about how it has changed me.

 

The Science-Based Plan to Fuel the Plant-Based Athlete

I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole again.

An innocent browse through social media and before I know it, I’m reading scientific nutrition papers well past my bedtime.

What caught my attention this time was this paper outlining specific, scientific guidelines on how to fuel vegan athletes.

YES!!

No more guessing or cobbling together various bits and pieces from all over the internet.  This is a comprehensive analysis of what the best science says now about how to fuel a vegan athlete for health and performance.

Written by David Rogerson and published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, this long paper takes all the available data out there and sifts through the good and the bad, the praises and the pitfalls of a plant-based vegan diet and how it specifically applies to athletes.

I’ll give you the highlights and my take on them.

Greens, legumes, and plant-based fats are keys to a nutrient-rich vegan diet

While I like to think that I’m doing everything right when it comes to eating well for my health and for my training (and those can be very different things), I’m always open-minded  to learn something new that could make my nutrition just a little bit better.

And it looks like I need to make a couple of changes!

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of scientific research specifically on vegan athletes, so Roberson admits that some of the information has to be extrapolated from non-vegans.   Sure, vegan athletes are becoming more visible, but it’s not like there are enough of them yet to conduct widespread, double blind, replicable nutrition studies.

But even without perfect studies, the plant-based movement is becoming popular enough that athletes and sports nutritionists are looking for answers.

One issue is that the word “vegan” can mean a huge range of eating styles.  Some believe that if it didn’t come from an animal, it’s fair game, while others, myself included, base their food selections on whole, unprocessed food, free of artificial ingredients. In other words, “junk food vegans” and  raw, microbiotic herbivores (not me!) can’t all be lumped together.

So let’s assume that the vegans that are being referred to in this analysis are less the Oreo-cookie-and-French-fry vegans and more the whole-foods variety.

This triple berry nut and seed mix includes walnuts, dried cranberries, dark chocolate, almonds, dried cherries and blueberries, cashews, and pumpkin seeds.  The perfect snack with lots of protein, good fat, and micros.

The author does not seem to think that vegan athletes have an easy road.  He states that “while little data could be found in the sports nutrition literature specifically, it was revealed elsewhere that veganism creates challenges that need to be accounted for when designing a nutritious diet.”

Well, sure, eating just plants can be challenging in the sense that you do need to make sure that you are getting in beans, greens, seeds, nuts, fruits, whole grains and veggies each and every day, but once you get in that habit, I’d hardly call it a challenge at all.

This hearty, high protein vegan bolognese sauce stars kidney beans and walnuts in a classic tomato basil sauce

Nearly all nutrition guidelines seem to claim that just about everyone is missing some kind of nutrient, no matter what diet.  Omnivores need to pay attention to their micronutrient needs just as much as plant based eaters so a lot of the information in the paper is fairly universal.

Roberson points out that vegans and vegetarians do need to be mindful of several nutrients, specifically “the sufficiency of energy and protein; the adequacy of vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, iodine and vitamin D; and the lack of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA in most plant-based sources.”

I personally have zero trouble getting all my calories in, so I’m not deficient in energy (aka calories).  I love to eat and love to eat big portions, so I rarely ever have the issue of eating too little.

“Achieving a high energy intake is difficult in some instances,” Roberson writes, “owing to plant-based foods promoting satiety.” In other words, plants make you feel full and satisfied!  In fact, this is one of the great benefits of eating plants. You get to eat a lot and you get to feel full!

But if you are new to plant-based eating, you might want to track your calories for a little while to be sure you are eating enough.

Let’s take a deeper look into the recommendations that vegans need to pay attention to.  Come down the rabbit hole with me!

Protein  

From the studies cited in the article, many vegan athletes tend to fall short of optimum protein levels.  Furthermore, fewer plant proteins contain all of the 8 essential amino acids required by the body.  A glass of cow’s milk, for example, will be a complete protein, while a glass of almond milk will fall short.

But this fact is easily rectified by eating a variety of sources of protein throughout the day (it doesn’t have to be the same meal).  Grains, legumes, nuts and seeds while provide all the protein needed to support recovery and adaptation from training.   Aim for 1.2-1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for endurance athletes, 1.8-2.7 if you are trying to lose fat.  I easily reach this target without protein powders or a ton of soy and tend to come in somewhere around 1.75 and 2g/kg a day.

 

Carbohydrates

 This is where plant-based athletes shine. “Vegan diets tend to be higher in carbohydrates, fibre, fruits, vegetables, antioxidants and phytochemicals than omnivorous diets,” Robertson concludes. “The consumption of micronutrient and phytochemical-rich foods is an important benefit of any plant-based diet. This might help to mitigate the effects of excess inflammation and promote recovery from training.”  Endurance athletes should aim for 4g to up to 12g of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight depending on training load.  I easily reach 6-8g/kg a day or 55-65% of daily calories.

 

Fat

Roberson notes that fat intake needs to focus on quality intake instead of quantity and admits that the relationship between fat consumption and athletic performance needs additional study.   It’s almost too easy to  meet the fat guidelines with avocados, nuts and seeds.  Endurance athletes should consume 0.5–1.5 g of fat per kilogram of body weight per day (or 30% of daily caloric intake) through avocados, nuts and seeds.  I’m generally in the 25-35% range and well over 1g/kg.

 

ALA, EPA and DHA

 Unless you’re eating salads of seaweed and microalgae, vegans are not getting many dietary sources of the omega-3 fatty acids, ALA, EPA, and DHA.  You can consume ALA in walnuts and flaxseeds, but as little as 0.5% convert in the body to DHA.  This may have important performance implications as omega-3s play an big role in cardiovascular health.  

Fish aren’t the only living beings in the ocean that supply omega-3s.  Supplementing with microalgae oil combined with whole-food sources of ALA might benefit health as well as performance.  The recommendation is 500-1000mg DHA to EPA in a 2:1 ratio or 2-4 commercially available capsules a day.  Yep, I need to get some of these!  I just ordered this brand.

 

Micronutrients

 Vegan diets tend to be higher in micros than omni diets, but attention does need to be paid to a handful of them:  B12 (vegans should supplement), iron (get a blood test to determine if you need to supplement), calcium (greens, broccoli, beans and fortified foods are great sources), vitamin D3 (“further research is warranted to determine optimal vitamin D doses for athletes”), zinc (beans, whole grains, nuts, and seeds to the rescue again!), and iodine (choose iodized salt over sea salt).

My favorite afternoon ritual: A matcha latte made with calcium-fortified almond milk supplies important phytochemicals and antioxidants

And now the really interesting part, ergogenic (or performance enhancing) aids:

  • Creatine: The classic bodybuilders’ supplement may actually help endurance athletes and its effect may be more pronounced in vegans and vegetarians who have naturally lower muscle stores of creatine.  “Creatine supplementation might also lead to increased plasma volume, improved glycogen storage, improved ventilatory threshold, and reduce oxygen consumption during submaximal exercise.”  But before rushing out to your local GNC, creatine has also been shown to lead to weight gain, so be sure to think about how to time that appropriately for your training, if you choose to try it.
  • Beta alanine: If you are racing at high intensity for longer than 60 seconds, your performance might benefit from this beta amino acid, which is mainly found in meat and poultry.  Because vegans’ muscles would be low in this amino acid, supplementation would theoretically help vegans even more dramatically than omnivores who might have larger reserves.  (The article was not as clear about whether or not this would apply to the marathon distance which is not at high intensity.)

I’m not sure if I’m ready to experiment with creatine and beta alanine just yet, but it’s certainly something to think about!

The paper ended with the following conclusion:

Through the strategic selection and management of food choices, and with special attention being paid to the achievement of energy, macro and micronutrient recommendations, along with appropriate supplementation, a vegan diet can achieve the needs of most athletes satisfactorily.

All athletes need to pay attention to their diets, just like they pay attention to their training.  Perhaps plant-based athletes need to focus on things a little differently than omnis, but it’s great to know that the science is starting to catch up with us!

 

 

You Can’t Beet This Salad

I usually roll my eyes when I come across salad recipes.

Don’t get me wrong, I love salad and eat one every day, but a recipe for a salad?  Don’t you just throw some veggies on top of some greens with maybe a little dressing and call it good?  What do you need a recipe for?

As it turns out, a little saladspiration is exactly what I needed to break free from the same old sad salads.

So before a recent dinner party, I opened one of my favorite cookbooks, Minimalist Baker’s Everyday Cooking. Inside was a gorgeous photo of a beet and orange salad that looked perfect for an early fall evening.

This is not that gorgeous photo.

This is a oh-I-just-made-dinner-for-eight-people-I-should-probably-hurry-up-and-take-at-least-one-picture picture.

Lets just say the photo in the cookbook is far better than mine!

Roasted beets paired with sliced oranges and toasted walnuts drizzled with a tahini dressing was the perfect accompaniment for the rich and creamy golden broccoli soup I served.  Along with Thanksgiving-style sweet potato dinner rolls browned in a cast iron skillet, the humble soup/salad/bread trifecta was elevated to company status.

But as simple as this salad might sound, there’s quite a bit of effort involved in washing, peeling, chopping and roasting the beets let alone toasting the walnuts just right so they don’t burn.  If you want to make this salad for a weekday lunch, you’re probably just not.

With race day coming up, I’m trying to get beets in any way I can and I can’t always spend an hour in the kitchen just to make a salad!

So I decided to make the weekday lunch version that seriously took less than 5 minutes to put together and tastes just as good.

Admittedly, I do have a love for the rich sweetness of roasted beets that cannot be rushed, but this is close enough for your average Tuesday.

I also found that I prefer honey instead of maple syrup in the lemon tahini dressing.  (Honey is not strictly vegan so if you are, you can sub agave or maple syrup.)  The combo of honey and tahini is something that I learned from some of the Greek athletes I coach at RunnersConnect who eat it on their toast in the morning.  It’s perfect whisked with lemon juice for a light and tangy complement to the beets, oranges, and walnuts.

The dressing couldn’t be simpler or more delicious

Using raw walnuts, easy-to-peel mandarins, and economical canned sliced beets, a wow-worthy salad can be ready in minutes!

Make this salad even more of a meal by adding kidney or black beans along with cooled leftover rice or quinoa!

 

Serves 1 salad

You Can’t Beet This Salad

5 minPrep Time

5 minTotal Time

Save RecipeSave Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1-2 cups spinach or mixed greens
  • 6-7 slices of canned or jarred beets (containing water and salt only)
  • 1 peeled and sectioned mandarin orange
  • optional other vegetables of choice, cold cooked grains and/or legumes
  • 2 tablespoons (15g) raw walnuts
  • Honey Tahini Dressing:
    1/4 cup (55g) tahini
    2 tbs (30 ml) lemon juice
    1-2 tbs (15-30ml) honey
    2-4 tbs (30-60ml) warm water to thin

Instructions

  1. For the salad, place greens in a bowl, arrange the rest of the salad ingredients on top in a way that looks pretty!
  2. For the dressing, mix dressing ingredients in a small jar and stir until it's the consistency you like.
  3. Drizzle over salad and enjoy!
Cuisine: Salad |

Notes

Inspired by Minimalist Baker

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http://theplantedrunner.com/you-cant-beet-this-salad/