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Hold the Pasta, Please.

By September 2, 2015Health and Nutrition

I discovered I wasn’t a carbo-loader the same day I became a long distance runner. Both were by accident. It was 2007 and I was scheduled to interview legendary ultra runner Dean Karnazes for an Outside magazine article.  I was writing about his project to run 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. I arranged to meet him at the start of his New Mexico marathon, in Albuquerque; my plan was to run the first few miles with him and chat as we go. I was sure I’d get enough material for the story in time to peel off by at least the halfway mark.

The day before, I went for a mountain bike ride, packed my digital voice recorder and my running shoes, and met a couple friends for lunch at Bert’s Burger Bowl. As I ate my green chile cheeseburger and French fries, my friends joked that it was good I was loading up on calories because I was going to run a marathon the next day. “No way!” I scoffed, between bites. The longest I’d ever run in my life was 17 miles; the longest I’d run recently was half that. I was most definitely not going to run a marathon off the couch. That would be nuts.

In the morning, I met Dean in a parking lot along the Bosque. He was short and surprisingly muscly for a long-distance runner. His hair was wavy and full, like he used a lot of product. It wasn’t an official race, so once we were gathered, Dean started his watch and yelled, “Let’s get after it!” Then we were off. I started my interview right away. We were going at a moderate pace—you can’t run fast every day for 50 days in a row—so it was easy to ask questions while Dean rattled off long answers without once sounding winded. We were so engrossed in conversation that I barely noticed the miles ticking by. Pretty soon we’d covered a half marathon; freakishly, I hardly felt tired. I hadn’t eaten anything and I wasn’t even hungry. I felt like I could go all day. I felt like Dean.

I made a mental note that if I wanted to stop, now was the time. Then I thought about something Dean had just told me, his secret to running inhuman, unfathomable distances: “You can always go farther than you think you can.” I kept going. Nearly four hours and 26.2 miles after we’d begun, we crossed the finish line, high fives and hollering all around. I’d just run my first marathon, without training and with more energy than I thought possible.

That day marked the start of my journey into ultra running. It was also the beginning of my education in endurance nutrition. I’d always bought into the hype that runners need to load up on pasta before long runs and hard efforts, but quite unintentionally, I’d discovered that my body runs stronger and longer and with seemingly less effort when I fuel up protein and fat the day before a big run. That day, a hamburger, not pasta, became my superstitious-yet-proven pre-race meal.

Since then, as I’ve learned more about sports nutrition and my own body and begun running ultra distances, I’ve continued to tweak the formula. Several years later, I eliminated all grains, dairy, processed foods, sugar, and alcohol from my diet. I loaded my plate with vegetables and fruits, good fats like avocados and nuts, legumes, sweet potatoes, and lean protein including fish and salmon. I drank smoothies for breakfast and filled up on greens with protein for lunch. Within a couple of weeks, I began to feel faster and stronger when I ran. I noticed that I had steady, even energy, recovered more quickly between runs, and had almost no muscle soreness or joint pain, even after my hardest efforts. By eliminating my intake of grains, like pasta and bread and rice, I was training my body to burn my own body fat for fuel

In the fall of 2013, I ran 42 miles across the Grand Canyon, from South Rim to North Rim and back. It wasn’t a race, but a long solo unsupported run, my favorite kind of adventure. I’d kept tinkering with my pre-race meal and fueled up the night before in Flagstaff with a lean buffalo burger, no bun, a big, leafy salad, and sweet potatoes; for breakfast, a banana and a fruit-and-nut bar. Starting before dawn, I flew down the South Kaibab Trail to the Colorado River and began my 14-mile climb to the North Rim, through the two billion-year-old granite of the Inner Gorge, some of the oldest on the planet. Along the way I slurped energy Gels and chews that I’d stashed in my pack and pocket. The sucrose is absorbed quickly by the body, and the electrolytes and amino acids help keep muscles from cramping and dehydration from setting in. I felt like a feather, feet barely touching the ground. When I heaved myself up over the South Rim, a little after 3 PM, I had climbed 11,000 feet of vertical and had been running for just over nine hours, about an hour off the fastest-known-time ever run by a woman. Without quite meaning to, I’d just experienced one of the best, most euphoric and effortless running days of my life.

Every body is different, but there’s plenty of science to debunk the myth that carbo-loading with pasta is the best way to prep for a long, hard effort. I’ve continued to fine tune my own ultra endurance formula, adding raw juices from Verde, loaded with fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, to my diet of vegetables, nuts, and lean protein. The natural sugars found in Verde Juice provide all the healthy carbohydrates I need, and none of the inflammatory starches found in white pasta, bread, or other simple carbs. During particularly intensive training periods, when I’m focusing on increasing speed as well as distance, I occasionally reach for brown rice and quinoa before or after a hard effort, but they are the exception not the norm.

And now I’ve added a new favorite into my mornings:  Verde Almond Chai. With 7 grams of protein, 8 grams of fat, and only 10 grams of sugar, it’s the perfect

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