Whenever I head off to a race, one of the essential things I’ll pack is a banana. Why? Because eating a banana around an hour before a race is an important part of my pre-race routine. Oddly though, I normally arrive home from a race with… a banana.
Am I some form of banana magician, able to eat one and then conjure another up from thin air? Do I go banana shopping on the way home from a race? Is my house next door to a banana tree?
No. It’s just that an loads of races – I’d say the vast majority I’ve ever done – offer up a banana as one of your post-race treats. But, since I rarely feel like eating a banana after a race, I invariably end up taking my reward banana home, which I guess makes my running day out an essentially banana-neutral activity.
It’s only just struck me this might be a bit odd. I was resting up after finishing a race recently, and found myself admiring the huge stack of boxes at the finish, all full of bananas waiting to be handed out to race finishers. It made me ask myself whether I was having my banana at the wrong time. Am I supposed to have a banana after a race, and not before?
To try and discover the answer I turned, naturally, to the internet. Because I’m bound to find calm, reasoned and indisputable facts on the internet. After some searching, I actually think I did. And it turns out that bananas offer plentiful benefits when eaten both before and after a run.
Now, I’m not a nutritionist, fitness expert, doctor or, erm, Bananaman (though it was one of my favourite cartoons growing up…), but basically bananas are packed with carbs that are good to top up your pre-run energy reserves. And they also contain potassium and several other minerals that you sweat away during exercise.
So bananas are good for you before and after a run. Which leads to another question: should I follow up my pre-run banana by eating a post-race banana as well? Well no, I don’t think I should. Frankly that would, to use a tortuous play on words you can see coming (and for which I apologise in advance), quite literally be… bananas. (It’s funny, see, because there’d be two bananas. What’s that? You got the joke and still aren’t laughing? Oh. So my joke wasn’t funny? Erm, well, sorry then.)
Maybe one day I’ll try switching, foregoing my pre-run banana for a post-race one. But that feels wrong: after all, I eat a banana before a race. Even though, deep down, I know it doesn’t really convey any real performance benefits at my level, but because once you develop a pre-run routine it’s hard to shake off.
But that’s just me. Clearly, many people prefer their bananas after a run. So which is it: bananas – before a race or after?
There are now only five days – FIVE DAYS! – until the Chevron Houston Marathon, which means I’m in full-on taper mode (and tapering is difficult…). Right now, I’m all about trying to rest up, to ensure I’m on full form for when the race starts at 0700hrs on Sunday morning.
At this point in the build-up to last year’s London Marathon, I became incredibly boring. Well, more boring than usual, at least. If you ask people who know me, plenty would likely suggest I’m pretty boring anyway.
My boring behaviour involved not going out much, limiting what I did and sticking to a fairly boring discipline of eating simple, straightforward food. On the Sunday before the marathon, I cooked up a huge vat of turkey Bolognaise, which I ate with pasta virtually every night that week. The Bolognaise itself wasn’t boring – I added in spinach and squash and all sorts of healthy veg, so it was designed to be ideal marathon build-up food. But having it every night for a week? Yeah, that got a little boring.
But, at least in the context of preparing for a marathon, boring is good. Boring is routine. Routine is important. To be on top form for a marathon I wanted to stick to a disciplined routine and a disciplined, controlled diet.
That’s proving difficult ahead of the Houston Marathon. Here’s the problem: I’m in another country, and the food in the Great State of Texas is quite different to what I cook up on the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames. It’s also really very good, and I don’t want to miss out on the local cuisine when I’m here. Have you tried real, proper Texan smoked beef brisket? If you have, you’ll know that nothing you can get in Britain that purports to be ‘Texan-style BBQ’ even comes close.
Another challenge: I’m also on holiday visiting family. That involves both eating out quite a bit and not bring in full control of exactly what I’m going to eat and when. All of which makes repeating my boring pre-London Marathon diet difficult.
It’s not really possible to be totally boring and disciplined in my dining and make the most of being on holiday.
After much internal debate on how to tackle this dilemma I settled on compromise. For the first week or so I was out here I ate largely what I wanted – albeit within reason. So I have had a few portions of lovely Texas smoked beef brisket, but I ordered lean brisket rather than fatty, and majored on the green beans and corn sides rather than a big dollop of gooey mac ’n’ cheese.
Another example: I headed from Houston up to Fort Worth for a few days on a family road trip. The hotel we were staying in provided a free breakfast, featuring some hot food, cereals, bagels, muffins and the like. On the first day I was disciplined and stuck to cereals and fruits. But then I noticed the breakfast buffet included a waffle maker – the sort you’ll find in lots of hotel breakfast buffets across America. Except the ones in Texas are frequently a little different, making it even harder to resist. And so, yes, I couldn’t resist…
…a waffle in the shape of the state of Texas. I mean, look at it. Look at it! How could I not? When life presents you with the chance to make a waffle in the shape of the state of Texas, it’s practically your duty to have one.
The compromise? I persuaded my mum to have half of it. So I sliced off East Texas, roughly from Corpus Christi up to the middle of the Panhandle, for her. Which left me with the rest of the Panhandle and West Texas to eat. And, may I say, El Paso was particularly crisp and tasty.
My compromise plan doesn’t seem to have had too many ill effects – heck, I only managed to win my class on a 10k race a few days into my trip after some BBQ! – but now I’m in the final stretch I’ve made a conscious effort to focus in on what I know.
So it’s cereal or porridge – sorry, oatmeal – for breakfast, along with some nice fresh fruit. And then I’ve been picking out relatively straightforward dishes that offer a good blend of all the things like carbs and protein and such that you’re supposed to eat before a marathon. And, as the event draws nearer, I’m moving away from what I want to eat, and focusing more and more on what I need to eat. Which, sadly, means a temporary break from the brisket.
But, that said, it doest mean a break from thinking about the brisket. After all, I’ve got the afternoon following the marathon and a few days afterwards to indulge in some well-earned post-race dining (which, as previously noted, I’ll end up feeling guilty about…). And I’m already beginning to picture what I might go for…
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.