An occasional series on how to fuel for the Pittsburgh Marathon.
Tempting as it might be to cozy up on the couch and hibernate during winter, slacking off is not an option for Pittsburgh's Runners of Steel.
Some 30,000 runners from across the U.S. and beyond are expected to crowd the starting line of the 2014 Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon and UPMC Health Plan Pittsburgh Half Marathon on May 4. And despite the snow and cold, the vast majority have already logged several of many, many planned training runs.
My daughter Catherine and I are already a month deep into our 16-week schedule, which includes grueling speed workouts and torturous hill repeats on top of early-morning long runs each and every Saturday, in any and all kinds of weather. (Single digit temps? That's what face masks and handwarmers are for.) It's fun, but it also means that until Mothers Day, I'm going to be sore, grumpy and not much fun during Friday night happy hours.
Not to mention hungry.
Running, of course, burns calories -- roughly 100 a mile at a moderate pace. Only problem is, you don't always feel like eating before you hit the track or trail, especially when you have to drag your body out of bed before dawn. Many runners, in fact, barely can choke down a handful of Cheerios with their coffee before a morning workout, let alone a bowl of oatmeal, one of the most recommended pre-workout foods for a run of an hour or more.
Still, dashing out the door on an empty stomach is a mistake.
Eating before training has been shown to improve performance. And isn't that every marathoner's goal -- to be able to perform?
Unless you're the type who eats before going to bed, you're going to wake up with a completely empty tank -- zero, zip, nada. (Remember, your body has been fasting for eight or more hours.) That could lead to fatigue or dizziness during your workout or worse, running out of energy completely before the big finish. Do your body good, and you'll run strong.
The best pre-run breakfast consists mainly of carbohydrates, since they're quickly digested and are your body's preferred fuel source, says Heather Mangieri, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who works with endurance athletes. Aim for about 30 grams for runs longer than a hour or intense workouts. You also need a little protein to help reduce post-exercise muscle soreness.
One easy solution is a homemade energy bar. They're easy to make the night before, good for the body and require no thinking the morning of. Just grab and go.
The main benefit of a homemade bar as opposed to, say, a CLIF bar, notes Ms. Mangieri, is that you can adjust the ingredients based on individual taste and needs. Looking to cut a few calories? Simply omit the nuts or cut them into smaller portions. Not crazy about raisins? Substitute dried cranberries or blueberries or chop up a handful of dried apricots. Or heck, add all three.
How big a bar you'll want to eat depends on how much time until takeoff, the number of miles planned and how fast you're going to log them; the fuel required to run five or six miles is completely different from the amount needed to crank out 10 or 12 miles. If you plan on starting your run within an hour, opt for a smaller portion that weighs in at about 200 calories; if you have more time to digest, says Ms. Mangieri, go for a larger-sized bar that will provide closer to 300 calories.
My running buddies at In Motion Athletics tried all three of the following bars after a brisk, 10-degree run this past Saturday, and not a crumb remained uneaten. My personal favorite was probably the blackberry breakfast bar, which combines the perfect amount of crunch with gooey sweetness. But you can't go wrong with the simple cereal-and-fruit bar made with puffed rice and cashew butter that Ms. Mangieri suggested. It's crunchy, buttery, sweet and satisfying all at the same time, and only 220 calories.
The DIY banana-oat energy bar I found in the new "Runner's World Cookbook" also is a winner, especially since it's a great way to use up those bananas you let ripen on the counter a day or two too long. I packed them with toasted pecans and raisins, but any nut or dried fruit will work just as well.
Super-Simple Cereal-and-Fruit Bar
1 cup rice cereal (such as Rice Krispies)
1 cup uncooked quick-cooking oats, whole or ground in a food processor
3 tablespoons ground flaxseed
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup chopped dried fruit
1/4 cup chopped walnuts or almonds (or whatever nut your prefer)
1/4 cup brown rice syrup, honey or molasses
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1/3 cup nut butter (almond, cashew, peanut, etc.)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoons honey, for drizzling
In a large bowl, combine rice cereal, oats, flax seed, cinnamon, dried fruits and nuts. Mix well. (A large bowl is recommended because you will need extra room for when the other ingredients are added.)
In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, bring syrup and brown sugar to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Stir in nut butter and vanilla.
Pour hot nut butter mixture into the bowl of dry ingredients, stirring well (mixture will be very stiff). Use a piece of wax paper to press the mixture into an 8-by-8-inch pan that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Let cool.
Drizzle 1 tablespoon honey over the top of the pressed, cooled mixture. Cut into 8 bars. Wrap each bar individually in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator.
Makes 8 bars.
Nutrition per bar: 220 calories, 30 grams carbs, 6 grams protein, 9 grams fat
-- Heather Mangieri, Nutrition Checkup (nutritioncheckup.com)
Banana-Oat Energy Bars
These high-carb bars are extremely filling, so you may want to portion them a bit smaller. I substituted pecans and raisins.
3/4 cup chopped walnuts
2 very overripe bananas
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup unbleached cane sugar or granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1½ cups old-fashioned rolled oats
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour (or replace up to 1/2 cup with whole-wheat flour)
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup dried cranberries
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat an 8-by-8-inch baking pan with cooking spray.
Spread nuts on an ungreased baking sheet and toast in oven for 5 to 8 minutes, or just until fragrant
Meanwhile, mash bananas in a medium mixing bowl. Add oil, sugar and vanilla extract. Mix until smooth.
In large mixing bowl, combine oats, flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and baking soda. Add banana mixture and stir until just combined. Fold in the nuts and cranberries, being careful not to overmix.
Pour mixture into prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until top is browned and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out nearly clean. Allow to cool completely before cutting.
Makes 12 bars.
Nutrition per bar: 303 calories, 41 grams carbs, 3 grams fiber, 4 grams protein, 15 grams total fat/2 grams saturated fat
-- "The Runner's World Cookbook: 150 Ultimate Recipes for Fueling Up and Slimming Down" (Rodale, Oct. 2013, $26.99)
Blackberry Breakfast Bars
Crunchy on top and fruity in the middle, these easy breakfast bars are loaded with slow-release carbs and fiber. Blackberries also are high in immune-boosting vitamin C and anti-oxidants, which help fight inflammation. So go ahead, have another after your run!
2 cups blackberries, defrosted if frozen
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons water
Finely grated zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon, plus more for dusting
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter, melted
Put all filling ingredients in a large saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring regularly, until blackberries are breaking down and taking on a sauce-like appearance (it will be thin). Remove from heat and set aside.
Put flour, oats, brown sugar, cinnamon and baking soda into a medium bowl. Add butter and stir until well combined.
Press half the oat mixture into an even layer in a greased 8-inch square baking pan and place in a preheated oven, at 350 degrees, for 20 minutes.
Let cool slightly, then spread blackberry filling evenly over the the crust. Sprinkle over remaining oat mixture; use your hands to gently press it into the filling.
Return to oven for another 20 minutes, until topping is golden. Let cool, then cut into 16 bars to serve.
Makes 16 bars.
-- "Eat Yourself to Energy: Ingredients & Recipes to Power You Through the Day" by Gill Paul (Hachette; Jan. 7, 2014; $9.99)