Ever since my disastrous first half marathon when I made every fueling and hydration mistake in the book and suffered excruciating stomach pain and nausea, I’ve been experimenting with what works for me. I got it pretty much figured out last year (see my Plant-Based Race Nutrition Plan and Five Fueling Strategies for Race Day posts) but made a few changes in this training cycle so I thought it would be good to do an update.
My training plan has higher mileage runs throughout the week and not just for the long run. So instead of practicing fueling and hydration on long runs to prepare for race day, I practiced it on most of my runs.
I can’t run more than 6 miles without eating something. Because I run first thing in the morning, last year I started getting up an hour before my runs to eat and have an hour to digest. That means waking at 4 a.m. for a 5 a.m. run. This training cycle I started committing to 8 hours of sleep a night, and going to bed at 8 p.m. is almost impossible! So I started getting up later, around 4:30, leaving me less time to digest. While my stomach didn’t get upset with food in it, I did regularly have to go back to my house during my runs to use the bathroom. It ended up not being a big deal, and I learned that I’d much rather get enough sleep, so this worked for me. My usual pre-run meal before a 6-12 mile run is:
- 1 banana
- 1/2 or a 1 whole (depending on how many miles I’m doing) whole-wheat bagel with peanut butter and jelly
- 8 ounces orange juice with 1 tablespoon spirulina powder mixed in
The spirulina powder is my new addition. Like I said in a previous post, I’ve found that it helps my runs feel easier and helps me not tire as quickly, which is good because many of my runs are more than 1.5 hours in my peak weeks. Plus it helps with recovery, leaving me less tired for the rest of the day. I used to drink an amino acid recovery drink but no longer feel that I need it.
On shorter runs, I usually have a banana and either orange juice with spirulina or some dates.
During the Run
I use Clif Shot Energy Gels. I get a variety pack from Amazon (affiliate link) that includes gels with no caffeine as well as those that contain the highest amount of caffeine. Caffeine doesn’t have any effect on me (I could fall asleep within five minutes of drinking an entire pot of coffee), so I don’t notice any difference. I love Clif Gels because they’re all natural, and I love the sweet taste. I’ve had to stop myself from eating them just as a snack! And of course, they’re vegan–GUs are not. I take my gels every 45 minutes (except on race day, when I take my first after 30 minutes). I take a Salt Stick cap (affiliate link) every time I take a gel. I’ve learned that Salt Sticks mostly eliminate stomach pain and nausea. When I’m running really hard in the heat, which is when my stomach is most susceptible to pain and cramping, I need to take a lot of them–sometimes four in a run. On the coldest days, I usually didn’t take Salt Stick caps except during hard workouts. I carry either Nuun or water in a handheld. On the coldest days this past winter, I only carried water and was fine. Once it gets warmer, I start needing Nuun instead of water. I take a few sips of water or Nuun every 15 minutes. I know this will seem excessive to a lot of runners, but I’ve learned that my body needs all the hydration.
I always drink a big glass of water after a run. Then I usually make a smoothie that has carbs from fruit and a little protein either from peanut butter or soymilk. There are so many great smoothie recipes, and I really love them as a post-run treat. Here are some of my favorites.
Chocolate Strawberry Smoothie
- 1 banana
- 1/2 cup frozen strawberries
- 1/2 cup chocolate soymilk
- 1 banana
- 1/2 cup frozen peaches
- 1/2 cup soymilk
- 1 banana
- 1/2 cup frozen blueberries
- 2 cups spinach
- 1 tablespoon peanut butter
- 1/2 cup almond milk
When I do my long runs, I usually bring a banana and cup of chocolate soymilk for the drive home.
About an hour later, after I’ve showered and gotten ready for work, I have my main breakfast, which is usually this:
Chocolate Peanut Butter Oatmeal
- 3/4 cup of oats
- 1 tablespoon flax seed
- 1 cup of light almond milk
Mix the above and cook for 2 minutes. Then, mix in
- 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
- 1 packet stevia
- 1 tablespoon peanut butter
I never get tired of this!
As for what I eat the rest of the time, I really improved this training cycle in terms of thinking of fuel as food. I follow the Racing Weight concept (review here), which has you increasing your carbs as your training in hours increases. Most weeks I’m running between 7 and 10 hours a week, which means I should eat 471-543 grams of carbs a day–that’s a huge amount! There’s no way I can eat as many carbs as the guidelines say to, but I think just trying to get most of my calories from carbs has helped me be able to handle my rigorous training plan. Aside from juice, dates, and jelly, I try to stay away from simple carbs and focus on complex carbs (what the book calls high quality carbs).
My go-to carbs are:
- Whole wheat bagels, bread, tortillas, and very occasionally pasta (I’m not a huge fan of pasta.)
- Brown rice
- Grain dishes made with bulgur, quinoa, or a mix
- Sweet potatoes and regular potatoes (usually cut into fries and baked)
- Bananas and apples because they have the most carbs, but I pretty much eat all fruit
- Orange juice
- Cut-up fruit with non-dairy yogurt (the only way I can eat yogurt)
Just like last year’s training, I cut out canned beans because they’re hard for me to digest. If I want beans, I soak and cook dried beans. I also eat a lot of lentils, tofu, and nuts.
I eat at least one avocado a day. I also have a small amount of oil in salads or from cooking spray.
Also like last year’s training, I cut out highly fibrous veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts because they’re hard for me to digest. I eat easy-to-digest veggies like
- Spinach, kale, and other greens
- Bell peppers occasionally
Sugar and Junk Foods
The biggest change I made this training cycle is significantly reducing added sugar. This was mainly the result of Weight Watchers introducing their Beyond the Scale program (my initial thoughts here), which made foods high in sugar and fat very high in points. When I started following the program last fall (I’m a Lifetime Member and have been with WW for years), I realized that I was eating more sugar than I should be. I’d thought having a small treat like a cookie or dark chocolate every day was okay, but the WW program taught me that was too much. When I started reducing sugar, my taste for it faded pretty quickly. By the holidays, I scrapped my cookie baking plan because I couldn’t bear to see all the sugar that goes into baking, nor could I bear giving cookies as gifts. This whole year, I’ve had cookies or candy a handful of times. (We still have candy from the holidays, which I need to just throw away!) I just don’t crave it like I used to. I eat dates when I want a sweet treat, and that definitely satisfies me.
But the result was…nothing. I didn’t feel better. I didn’t feel worse. I noticed absolutely no difference. So, just last week, during my peak week, I decided to have some cookies a few nights of the week. I noticed no difference on the next day’s run. Maybe sugar just doesn’t affect me like it does other people. But I know that sugar can lead to all sorts of health problems, even in those who are fit and active, so I’m happy I’ve tamed my sweet tooth.
As for junk foods, the only thing I really ate on occasion was vegan cheese (Daiya) and vegan lunchmeat. Those definitely give me stomach issues, so I eliminated them this training cycle. Now, I can tell the difference there! I used to make my own vegan cheese and meat. I can get back to doing that after training, but because I’m short on time during training, eliminating them for a bit works for me. As for snacks, I had either pretzels, popcorn, or whole-wheat crackers. I had potato chips once, but that was it.
With all these positive changes and eating better than in any other training cycle on top of running so much (I just finished my peak week at 47 miles), you’d guess I lost weight or at least maintained. I lost 35 pounds on Weight Watchers five years ago and have been trying to maintain that loss. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. During this training cycle, I gained three pounds. It’s really frustrating. I started training being about three pounds over the high point of my goal weight range, which was three pounds over my goal weight, so now I’m 10 pounds over my goal weight. Granted, I planned to devote time this year to finding a goal weight that feels good and that I can easily maintain, independent of the scale. But to be so much above my goal weight after making such positive changes in my diet is painful and frustrating. I’ve pushed my unhappiness with my weight aside and kept eating to fuel my runs because I know it’s the right thing to do. But it’s also one of the reasons I’ve been really eager to see this training cycle end. I cannot wait to get back to where I feel good about my weight again.
Still, I’m happy that I found a nutrition plan that works with my plant-based lifestyle, fuels my runs, keeps stomach issues at bay, and keeps me healthy.
Have you tried spirulina? Do you use gels or real food during runs? If you’ve had stomach issues while running, what have you done that’s helped? Have you tried reducing adding sugar and noticed a positive change?