Pop quiz: it’s the day before you run the London Marathon. What are you having to eat tonight? Chances are it’s pasta. Lots of pasta. All the pasta. And why? Because carbs.
If you know knowing at all about marathon preparation and diets, you probably know about carb-loading. Put simply, eating carbs before you take part in a long race is a good thing. And what’s a great source of carbs? Pasta. So the night before a marathon? Eat pasta.
The science, of course, isn’t quite that simple. Science rarely is. Now, I’m not a scientist or nutritionist, but here’s the basics: the energy in most food comes in the form of carbohydrates, sugar or fat. Carbs are slower to break down, and your body will store carbs in your muscles and liver as glycogen.
During a longer race – we’re talking a half-marathon or longer – your body needs extra energy, so it finds glycogen or fat to burn and turn into that energy. It’s harder to turn fat into energy, so when you run out of glycogen you can run low of energy. Yes, we’re talking hitting the wall here.
In short, if you’re doing a long run, carb-loading before the race builds up your glycogen levels, allowing you to run further without hitting the wall.
Still awake? Good. I’ll try not to delve into too much more science, especially since I’m clearly not an expert on such things.
So, the night before a marathon? I’ll have a big, steaming bowl of pasta please. Lots of pasta. Give me carbs!
Hold on a second though: it’s not quite that simple. First, lots of studies now suggest you should increase your carb intake steadily in the week or so leading up to a big race. And secondly, there are loads of foods other than pasta that can provide you with good carbs: rice, potatoes, whole grains, beans, that sort of thing.
But still, here’s the thing… the night before I do a half-marathon, marathon or other long race, there’s only one food I want: pasta. It’s become a tradition.
In fact, I’ve even got a specific dish that I cook. I had it before I ran last year’s London Marathon. I had it before I ran this year’s Houston Marathon. I call it my spicy pre-run paprika chicken pasta. I’d give you the recipe here, but frankly the title of the dish pretty much gives it away.
Basically, cut up some chicken and coat with some paprika and other spices. Then cook the chicken along with lots of vegetables (mix it up, but think onions, chilli, peppers, broccoli, spinach, that sort of thing). Add in a tin of chopped tomatoes, a bit of water or stock and allow to thicken a bit. Then season, and add some more spices if needed. Meanwhile, cook up some pasta. Mix the pasta into the sauce, and serve, topped with basil and a hint of cheese. Ta dah.
Does my spicy pre-run paprika chicken pasta help me run a marathon? Honestly, I don’t know. But it surely doesn’t hurt. It’s good carbs, along with some healthy chicken and veg. It’s freshly cooked, so I know exactly what I’m eating the night before a marathon (that’s important). And, most of all, it’s a great big, steaming bowl of pasta-based comfort that makes me believe I’m heading into the marathon suitably carb-loaded. That’s worth it for the confidence boost alone.
Also, I love my spicy pre-run chicken pasta because it feels like I’m taking part in a grand marathon tradition. If you polled the runners in the London Marathon – or any other marathon for that matter – I bet pasta is by far the most popular meal the night before the race.
And that’s why, if and when it’s time for my third marathon, or my next big race, I know exactly what I’m having to eat the night before.
Pasta. Lots of pasta. All the pasta. And why?
Read more of my random running loves here.
Someone I know has recently signed up to run their first marathon. Since I’m now a veteran of two of the things, he suggested he might have a few questions to ask. And one of them got me thinking: what do you talk to yourself about when you’re in the late stages of a marathon? Hmmm, good question…
There’s a reason why marathon running is considered a mental challenge as well as a not inconsiderable one. Whether it’s during a long training run or in a race, you’re likely to be left to your own devices and thoughts. Of course, in a big city marathon you’re likely to be surrounded by plenty of other runners and a load of spectators – but unless you have a friend running alongside you, your journey from start to finish is an individual one. Which leaves quite a bit of thinking time.
So what do you think about when running a marathon? Frankly, I have no idea. What I do have an idea about is what I thought about when running a marathon.
Now, it’s now like I stopped down to note every single thought I had during a 3h 16m 40s run around Houston. That would be silly. And running a marathon is a pretty overwhelming experience, so sometimes I likely just zoned out and now can’t really remember what I was thinking.
But I tried to think back and remember what I talked to myself about during the race, and then grouped them into some key subject areas. I then guesstimated roughly how long I spent thinking about each area. And, for ease of presentation, I used that to create an entirely unscientific (and, since it’s highly possible my memory is playing tricks on me, possibly entirely inaccurate) pie chart. Because of course I did.
Let’s delve into the segments a bit.
Race pace and strategy: Pretty obvious stuff. I spent a lot of time staring at my average lap pace on my Garmin trying to work out if I was going too fast, too slow or just about right. In the early stages, this also includes trying to work out when my legs would start aching. More about that in a bit.
Hydration and refuelling: Another thought occupier, especially given the Texan humidity. Trying to think about how often to eat and drink – and how to actually get the drink from cup into my mouth – was a real focus.
Enjoying the crowds and other runners: When I wanted to distract myself from my pacing or hydration strategies, I’d try to take in the crowds, both on and off the course. After all, taking all of that in one of the truly amazing opportunities you get running a marathon…
Taking in the scenery: …and this is another one. Sure, you can visit a city, drive and walk all around it and take in all the districts and sights. But you’ll never see it in quite the same way you do while running a marathon.
Thinking about family and friends: Would my mum, niece, nephew, sister-in-law and her family get to the finish? How was my brother faring on the half marathon? I talked to myself about those questions quite a bit. Plus, as previously explained, every time I crossed a timing mat I’d end up thinking about the various people I knew who’d be tracking my run. Family and friends are good motivation.
Considering post-race dining options: I’ve explained this before as well. If you want to distract yourself from aches, pains and fears while running a marathon, I thoroughly recommend thinking about food. Mmmmmmm, food.
OUCH!: There’s no getting around this. At some point in the late stages of a marathon, it’s going to start hurting. And no matter how much you try to deny it, talk to yourself, or attempt to distract yourself by visualising peaceful mountains, you’re going to feel the pain. I’m actually remarkably pleased by how little time I spent thinking about being in pain on Houston. On the London Marathon, when I struggled far more in the latter stages, this figure would have been a lot high. Like, lots and lots higher.
Do I need to go to the toilet?: Having to stop to go to the toilet would have ruined my time. But at various points, I felt like I needed the toilet. Of course I did, because I drank loads of water pre-race to hydrate. I held off but, let’s be honest, the harder you try not to think about going to the toilet, the more you think you need to go to the toilet.
Right, so all that’s left to consider is the category I called ‘random other thoughts’. Basically, this category comprised anything else that popped into and out of my head during that run. There’s no way I can list, or even remember, every thought that passed through my head during the marathon. Here are a few I can just about remember:
- Trying to remember the lyrics to Come on Eileen
- Wondering how many British runners were taking part in the Houston Marathon (There were 11 British finishers, if you were wondering. I was the fourth)
- Thinking if there was anything else American I needed to buy before flying back to the UK (no, which was just as well given how heavy my suitcase proved to be…)
- Humming the ‘woah, we’re halfway there’ bit of Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer bit, on the approach to the halfway point
- Work. Yes, actual work (this may sound above and beyond the call of duty, but I do some of my best job-based thinking while running…)
- Contemplating whether the Vancouver Canucks will make the NHL playoffs this year
- Trying to count how many fast food restaurants I passed on the route (lost count, sorry)
- Pondering how the good people of Houston were coping after the Texans were knocked out of the NFL Playoffs
- Picturing what I’d be doing on a January Sunday in Richmond-upon-Thames if I wasn’t running a marathon in Houston
- Deciding on my favourite Paw Patrol member (I may have been hanging around with my four-year-old nephew in the build-up to the marathon… Oh, and it’s Rubble, since you asked)
Random, right? Yup. But I reckon it’s all part of the marathon coping strategy: you try to think as little as possible about the pain. To do that, you focus as much on your race strategy (pace and hydration) as possible, while also making sure you remember why you’re running (the atmosphere and scenery, family and post-race food). And when all else fails, you just think about any old random shit.
Oh, there were two other things I realised I talked to myself about during the marathon…
- Trying to convince myself I don’t want to run a third marathon…
- …but realising I probably do
It is December 25, 2016. Which means two things.
1. It’s exactly three weeks until the Chevron Houston Marathon.
2. To quoth Noddy Holder… “IT’S CHHRRRIIIISSSSSSSTTTTMAAAASSSSSSSS.”
Both of those are good, exciting things, but their confluence on the same date does create an interesting dilemma.
How so? Well, here are the things that should happen three weeks before a marathon:
- A final long training run
- Healthy eating
- Not massively overindulging on unhealthy treats like, to pluck some random examples, chocolate, mince pies, ice cream and Christmas Pudding.
And here are some things that traditionally happen on Christmas Day:
- Not doing much exercise and lazing round the house with family
- Unhealthy eating
- Massively overindulging on unhealthy treats like, to pluck some quite specific examples, chocolate, mince pies, ice cream and Christmas Pudding.
How to make the two co-exist? Well, I’m sure the answer is different for everybody who’s going to be running the Houston Marathon – or any other big January run. For me, it’s been one of balance, of finding ways to enjoy Christmas without ruining my hard work and training.
So there has been mince pie consumption. And some Christmas Pudding, with ice cream. And chocolates. But, in every case, they have been relatively small portions. Honest. And there was a proper Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, but I did so without piling my plate so high I couldn’t see over the top of it.
There hasn’t been a long run – because I decided ahead of time to delay it until Boxing Day. But that doesn’t mean I’ve had a day off from running: a Christmas Day run has rapidly become one of my favourite Christmas traditions. If something I only started three years ago can actually count as a tradition.
Four years ago, it wouldn’t have even occurred to me to go running on Christmas Day – or any other day of the year. But my surprising transformation from a slovenly, slightly fat 15-stone layabout to a spritely 10-stone, surprisingly swift runner changed that. In 2014, the first year I’d taken up running, a Christmas Day outing felt like a natural thing to do. And it fitted well into a late-morning slot – after the chaos of present opening, and before the turkey is pulled from the oven. And it felt great.
It was quiet on the roads, for one thing. And there were plenty of people out and about, walking dogs, running, visiting friends, or just enjoying the festive break. And everyone seemed way more cheerful than usual. That could be because I was running back in my small hometown of Clevedon in Somerset and not London – but I’m going to chalk it up to the festive spirit.
I enjoyed it so much it seemed natural to repeat my Christmas Day run last year, when I spent the holiday at a big family gathering with my brother in Texas. The vibe was just the same – even if the weather was somewhat warmer…
So I was definitely going to have a run on Christmas Day this year. But did I really want to spent 2+ hours doing a 17-miler marathon training run on Christmas Day itself? No. Definitely not. So I settled on a 12k-ish loop, taking in some of Clevedon’s tough hills and lovely Victorian seafront – which also meant battling a pretty bracing headwind.
Once again, it was a good, fun Christmas outing, one that eased the guilt when the Christmas Pudding was dished up later. And, by delaying my long run by 24 hours or so, any guilt from indulging in a few unhealthy treats was tempered by the knowledge I’ll make up for it on Boxing Day.
In short, with a bit of planning it seems it is possible to balance pre-marathon training and preparation with the overindulgence of Christmas.
Besides, even with the Christmas Pudding, I’m still in far better shape three weeks out from the Houston Marathon than I was at this point ahead of London, when I was only just back to running after a bad illness.
Although that reminds me of something else. Have you ever noticed how many people you see coughing and spluttering with colds at this time of year? Stay away…
Oh, everyone reading this had/is having a great Christmas!
When you’re in the middle of a long training run or race, distracting yourself can be a very useful way to forget the general pain and effort you’re exerting on your body. And one of my favourite things to think about when I’m running is what I’d like to eat afterwards.
It’s a reasonably practical distraction, for one thing. Running burns up energy and calories, making you hungry. Eating replenishes energy and calories, and fills you up. If you go running for a long time, you need to eat afterwards. Simple. And, let’s face it, by doing lots of running, you’ve earned yourself a treat, you’ve earned the chance to eat something nice and tasty, and all round a bit unhealthy. Right?
As a result, sometime around the mid-distance of a long race I’ll often start thinking what I’d like to eat after it. And I’m not talking a quick chunk of chocolate or banana or granola bar here – we’re talking meals. Hot meals. Slightly unhealthy hot meals. Burger, anyone? Yup, burgers are nice. And when you’re into the hard miles of a half-marathon, the prospect of a Big Mac becomes mighty attractive.
It’s not always a Big Mac though. I’ve found myself craving all sorts of slightly unhealthy food types when I’m mid-run, from Giraffe’s not-entirely-authentic (but still very tasty) heuvos rancheros, through to Wahaca’s utterly incredible Mexican street eats, to Bill’s steak and eggs (they serve the steak on top of the chips, so they go all lovely and gooey in the meat juices, and excuse me while I stop to drool a bit…).
Okay, I’ve stopped drooling now. But during that short break, you might have been wondering why plotting a slightly unhealthy post-race meal is a running annoyance. After all, we’ve firmly established that a) I need to eat something after doing a long run; and that b) I’ve just done a long run so I’ve surely earned the right to eat something a little unhealthy. So what’s the problem?
Well, two things. The first is that, in my experience, my mind and body plays tricks on me in the latter stages of a long run. Of course it does: it’s probably some form of coping mechanism for the effort and pain I’m putting it through. And while I can start to feel hugely hungry when I’m mid-run, when I stop I’m often in such a strange state of exhilaration and exhaustion that I don’t really know what to feel. I rarely feel instantly hungry. And when my hunger comes back, I often don’t really fancy the sort of food I thought I did during the marathon.
One particularly fine example of this came once when I did an evening 10k race in Yateley, Hampshire. Throughout much of the run I was feeling a McDonalds Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Oh yeah. It seemed like the thing to have. And so, driving home, I detoured off the M3 and stopped at a McDonalds. And you know what? When it was stuck in front of me, I suddenly realised I didn’t really fancy it. What was supposed to be a wonderful treat had kind of lost its appeal.
Part of that is because it’s hard for actual food, no matter how tasty, to actually taste as good as you imagine it will take when you’re in the middle part of a race. And it also relates to the other problem I have: guilt.
Yes, that might sound kind of silly – and it probably is. I think it came from the reason I took up running: to lose weight and get my general fitness under control after years of idle slobbery. Along with taking up running I essentially transformed my eating habits, and as a result that I managed to lose five stone in nine months.
Because I absolutely, definitely don’t want to fall back into my old routine and watch my waistline expand again, I still a lot of care in what I eat. As a consequence, when I decide I’m going to have something that might be classed a bit unhealthy as a treat, it’s got to be good. If it isn’t – and sometimes, even if it is – I feel guilty.
Guilty? Yup, because it feels like a waste of the hard work and effort I put in while running. I’ve worked hard to earn the right to eat it, and you want food that lives up to the effort and serves as a truly fitting reward.
So what’s the solution? Well, first you have to accept that food will never actually taste as good as you imagine it tasting when you’re in the middle of a long run. It’s just never going to. Never ever, ever, ever, ever. Like, ever.
Which leads to my solution: making sure that the food I eat after a big long race is going to be tasty, delicious and absolutely worth the effort. And that’s why, after several of my long runs I’ve ended up in Bill’s eating steak and eggs. And particularly why, after this year’s London Marathon, me, fellow South West Children’s Heart Circle charity runner Matt and the friends and family who’d come to cheer us on ended up dining in tip-top Mexican street food chain Wahaca.
Pork pibil tacos. Amazing sweet potato taquitos. Chunky, tasty guacamole. Freshly made tortilla chips. Excuse me – I just need to stop and drool again (and no, I’m absolutely not being paid to endorse either Bill’s or Wahaca. They just make lovely, lovely food…).
In short, it was great. Well, apart from the fact that getting to the Wahaca near Covent Garden we went to meant heading down a big flight of stairs. Getting down them post-marathon was pretty painful. Going back up them on the way home… ouch. Just ouch.
In fact, so good was the post-London Marathon Wahaca that when it came time to go for some food after this year’s Great Run Bristol Half Marathon, I decided to head to… Wahaca. And it was good.
It could be the start of a post-long race tradition. And I’d be fine with that.
For more random running annoyances, click here.