I am intensely grateful to sit here strong and healthy, after 17 weeks of intense marathon training that by all conventional standards was ramped up much too quickly. I jumped from averaging 20km per week in December right into 70km the first week of January, then 90km, and then 100 and something per week from there on in. Additionally, when I began my program I was sick. I had a terrible cold that caused a number of runs to feel far more miserable than they otherwise would have been.
But once I recovered from that cold, I’ve remained free from illness and injury. Crazy. How can that be? How could I jump straight into an intensive training schedule such as what I’d set up for myself and not end up sick or injured?
I believe the answer is relatively simple.
I eat to run.
Eating to run means fuelling my body in order to give it the best chance of performing well and avoiding injury. It means speeding recovery times so I can run twice a day and get maximum benefit from my training. It means eating a diet full of antioxidant rich vegetables and fruits; a diet that utilizes anti-inflammatory foods; a diet that avoids the empty calories – the ones I can’t find any reason for eating other than because ‘it tastes good’; a diet that is fine-tuned to the needs of my body.
I used to run to eat. I would treat myself to whatever I desired because I ‘deserved’ it. Burn calories = the need to replace calories. Right?
Sadly, that is far too simplistic. Food is so much more than mere calories that cause us to gain or lose weight. Some foods contain polyphenols such as the catechins in green tea and apples, the anthocyanins in blueberries, raspberries, cherries and strawberries, or the flavonoids in lemons, oranges and limes. Other foods are loaded with micronutrients such as kale (calcium, iron and vitamins A, C, and K), broccoli (potassium, calcium, magnesium and vitamins C, folate, and A) or almonds (calcium, phosphorus and vitamin E).
Polyphenols are powerful antioxidants that neutralize free radicals. Additionally, the micronutrients vitamins A, C, E, and minerals zinc and selenium possess strong antioxidant properties. In addition to fighting free radicals, these polyphenols and micronutrients also keep our immune systems strong. And even this is simplifying the process greatly, which is why it is impossible to simply take a supplement and be good to go. The fact is there are many nutrients within plant food that work together to keep us strong and healthy – some we know of and others we have yet to discover. For example, an orange alone contains more than 170 nutrients known to benefit our health.
Another argument to discourage over-supplementation is that it’s been found if antioxidants are taken in excess, as can happen through supplementation, they actually become free radicals – yes, they become the very substance we are trying to combat (no worry of this happening through food though, the body is well able to regulate nutrients when consumed in the natural whole food form).
Free radicals are known to cause aging, cancer, inflammation, and heart disease. We produce free radicals when we run, it’s a natural by-product of physical activity (which by all means doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be active – it simply provides yet another reason to fuel ourselves well as athletes). The major non-food sources of free radicals include radiation (x-rays, UV-A/UV-B rays), cigarette smoke, pollution (car exhaust), and pesticides/herbicides (found on many non-organic foods).
But we also encounter free radicals on a daily basis in many of the foods that we eat – for example, fats and oils. Most oils on the market are oxidized, simply because most oils are polyunsaturated (soy, sunflower, canola, corn, walnut, flax, vegetable) and polyunsaturated oils are highly unstable. Trans fats and hydrogenated fats are especially dangerous to our health for more reasons than their generation of free radicals.
Non-organic animal meat is a source of free radicals due to the pesticide laden food they are fed, and free radicals are also produced when animal flesh is cooked at high temperatures. Consumption of alcohol also promotes free radical production. And let’s not forget sugar, the biggest ’empty calorie’ out there… Once ingested, sugar undergoes a process called glycation, which generates a stream of free radicals resulting in inflammation.
So I’ve spent a lot of time in the kitchen over the past 4 months turning nutritious, antioxidant rich foods into tasty dishes. I’ve perfected my post-run recovery shake. There’s a reason behind everything I choose to consume. Turmeric and ginger are strong anti-inflammatories. Great. They’re sprinkled all over my diet. Sugar won’t benefit me. Great. It’s out. I haven’t touched alcohol in 4 months (however, there’s a celebratory bottle of wine sitting right over there, waiting for me to hit my qualifying time next Sunday). Chia seeds are a daily favourite (fantastic source of the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, as well as soluble fibre and protein), and superfoods consumed on a near daily basis include quinoa (complete protein and a source of fibre and magnesium), goji berries (antioxidants), and coconut water (natural source of electrolytes).
All that said, at the end of the day, I know that food isn’t the be-all and end-all. It’s for that reason I do leg swings before every run. I do my injury prevention exercises 3 times per week. I watch my running form and have changed my foot strike significantly in the past 4 months (due in a large part, I am sure, to the minimalist shoes I chose to begin exclusively training in). I try my best to get enough sleep and have my best runs when I am sleeping 7-8 hours each night. I believe the importance of getting a good sleep, and enough sleep, cannot be understated. I know I should probably be hitting the gym more often and doing more core work.
But I will stand by my claim that my diet is the magic ingredient in my training that has allowed me to sit where I am today – ready to toe the line strong and healthy. Instinctively I know it. And after nearly 2 years of studying food, scientifically I know it too. When we treat our bodies well by fuelling them well, they have so much to offer us in return.