What to eat after long winter runs

An occasional series on how to fuel for the Pittsburgh Marathon.

If you're training for the May 4 Pittsburgh Marathon, no doubt you're putting in some pretty long training runs by now. You're probably also becoming slightly obsessed not just with getting in the required mileage -- it's only 73 days until race day, people! -- but also with what you're putting in your body to fuel those exhausting, extended workouts.

Eat poorly in the weeks leading up to an endurance event such as a marathon, experts say, and your performance surely will suffer. And let's be honest: after all the sweat, energy and tears you're going to expend over the next two months, do you really want to hit the wall short of the finish at Point State Park?

Poor food choices can lead to an athlete feeling tired, peckish and unable to train hard, which in turn can lead to a disappointing race. To that end, the best source of energy for long-distance runners are carbohydrates, which should make up about 65 percent of your diet during training.

Yet it's just not about fueling the body. Food plays an integral role in the social aspect of running, too.

Think about it. How many times has a runner friend told you the best part of her workout is going out for breakfast or lunch afterwards with the people she's just slogged through 10 or 15 miles with? And if you're a runner yourself, isn't each workout fueled not just by Gatorade and Gu but by thoughts of the tasty morsels that are going to make their way into your stomach when the run's (finally) over?

"After the usual catch-up questions -- How's the family? Pet? Work? -- conversation always turns to food," says Tracey Serba, a Coraopolis runner who is training for the UPMC Health Plan Pittsburgh Half Marathon with the Elite Runners group. "Then the planning begins in earnest for the post-run chow down! Where shall we go? What shall I eat -- in extreme detail!"

One of her teammates shared so many recipes during last season's training period, she adds, that she was assumed to be a gourmet cook. "Turns out she doesn't really cook at all!"

It's not just us amateurs who think this way.

In the foreword to "The Runner's World Cookbook: 150 Ultimate Recipes" (Rodale, Oct. 2013, $26.99), 2004 Olympic Marathon bronze medalist (2:27:20) and U.S. women's marathon record-holder (2:19:36) Deena Kastor echoes the sentiment. "I'm not only interested in food because of its effect on training, but I'm also interested in it because of the relationships it can help build with friends, teammates, and family," she writes.

Gathering with your fellow trainees around the kitchen table or in a local coffee shop to refuel after a hard run creates fellowship in a sport that can have separate training regimens for differing skill levels and, when all is said and done, is defined by individual achievement. "And for me, those relationships are everything," writes Ms. Kastor. "Yes, training makes us better athletes, but not also without eating good food that strengthens our bodies and the bonds with those around us."

"You're bonding and suffering with [the people you train with] so naturally you want to eat with them as a reward ... it just carries over," agrees Pittsburgh Marathon's in-house dietitian Nick Fischer, who specializes in sports nutrition and also is a competitive athlete (he races with Freddie Fu's cycling team).

On your mark, get set, eat!

That said, some foods are better than others when it comes to the recovery process. A daily diet full of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein and only the occasional sweet will ensure that your muscles have enough fuel when you hit the road running.

The general rule after a long run, says Mr. Fischer, is to eat a 300-to-400-calorie snack/meal comprised of carbohydrates and protein in the 4:1 ratio within the first 30 to 60 minutes. That is, 4 grams of carbohydrates for every 1 gram of protein.

"If you've run for two hours, you've used a lot of your glycogen stores," he explains, "and if you don't replenish them, when you go out to train the next day, you won't have the energy."

Carbs post-workout reset your blood-sugar levels to normal and help shuttle protein and nutrients to the muscle cells.

The reason you need to eat those carb-heavy calories fairly quickly is that your body is most receptive to receiving carbs, converting them into glycogen and storing the glycogen in the muscles within the first hour or so after exercise. Some studies, in fact, have shown that muscles store two to three times more glycogen during this period than during a meal eaten several hours after a workout.

And if you're not hungry at the finish? Low-fat chocolate milk is one of the best recovery drinks out there to tide you over until your appetite returns, says Mr. Fischer, and you don't even have to worry too much about the added sugar.

You also need a bit of protein to help repair the microtears your muscles endure during training and stimulate the development of new tissue, but not too much or it will start to slow the digestion of carbs.

In other words, that big plate of scrambled eggs with corned-beef hash and toast is a no-no, whereas pancakes are a definite yes.

One good recipe for such is the pumpkin pancakes (see recipe below) Mr. Fischer will be serving this Saturday, Feb. 22, after Steel City Road Runners' annual kick-off training run for the Pittsburgh Half Marathon. Made with whole-wheat flour and canned pumpkin to eliminate oil and cut the fat, a serving of four small pancakes has just 256 calories. And because it meets the 4:1 ratio (12 grams of carbs and 3 grams of protein) and is low on fiber, you'll avoid the dreaded post-run stomachache. Plus, it's perfect for sharing.

Other healthful options could be something as simple as a bowl of oatmeal with some fruit on top, pumpkin or tomato soup with a piece of bread for dunking, or a plate of pasta minus the fatty meatballs.

Steel City Road Runners head coach John Kissel, an ultra-marathoner who typically logs between 50 and 75 miles a week, likes to refuel after long runs simply, with a plate of brown rice, black beans, vegetables and some kind of protein.

"You need food in its whole form," he says. "You want to make sure you get the right kind of nutrients to accelerate the recovery process."

That, and not stuff yourself silly with a gazillion calories.

Training can add the pounds

It's easier than you might think to gain weight during marathon training, and not just because all that muscle you're building weighs more than fat. The average person eats only three additional calories for every 10 calories burned through exercise, and so the average runner loses weight during marathon training, notes Matt Fitzgerald, co-author of "Racing Weight Cookbook: Lean, Light Recipes for Athletes" (Velo Press, Jan. 2014, $19.23).

But exercise causes a much larger appetite increase in some people, and "some are also susceptible to a reward mentality that causes them to celebrate completed runs by eating big portions of unhealthy food treats," he says. These folks actually may gain weight during marathon training.

True, you're burning more calories. "But it's not a good idea for a runner (especially a relative beginner) to have a mindset that says, 'Because I'm burning X calories per day through running, I can (or should) eat an extra X calories per day.'

"The runner who does this is likely to burn fewer calories than s/he thinks, eat more calories than s/he thinks, make poor food choices, and gain weight," says Mr. Fitzgerald.

The key to avoiding this situation is to maintain a good diet. It's OK to eat more when you're exercising more as long as you are choosing high-quality foods such as vegetables, fish and whole grains instead of low-quality foods such as sweets and fried foods, he says. One of his favorite post-workout meals, for example, is a whole-wheat bagel with cream cheese, lox, red onions and capers (washed down with fresh-squeezed orange juice). You also have to be mindful of the difference between "head hunger and belly hunger, satiety and being stuffed."

This is no small bit of info: According to Competitor magazine, a typical runner who sheds just 1 pound of body fat could see a one-minute improvement in his or her marathon time without any change in fitness.

Pumpkin Pancakes

Batter can be kept refrigerated for up to 5 days. And pancakes can be frozen and reheated.

2 eggs

2 cups whole-wheat flour

1¾ cup reduced-fat milk, or skim milk

1/2 cup pureed pumpkin, canned works fine

2 tablespoons sugar

4 teaspoons baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

With a hand beater, beat eggs until fluffy. Then beat in all other ingredients until smooth. Using a hot, nonstick skillet (if not you may need to add butter or oil, not included in nutrition facts) pour enough batter (about 2 tablespoons) into the skillet to make a 4-inch pancake. Cook until bubbles appear on the surface, flip, and cook another 1 to 2 minutes or until done. Serve hot. Top with fresh fruit, fruit puree or syrup

Makes 20 4-inch pancakes.

Nutrition per pancake: 64 calories, 12 grams carbohydrates, 1.6 grams fiber, 3 grams protein, .8 grams total fat

-- Nick Fischer, Fischer Nutrition

Egg and bean burrito with avocado and yogurt-lime sauce

PG tested

1/4 cup low-fat Greek-style yogurt

Juice of 1 lime

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 red onion, cut into small dice

1 small jalapeno chile pepper, cut into small dice

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed

4 eggs, mixed with a fork

1/8 teaspoon salt

4 whole-wheat tortillas

1/2 cup shredded Monterey jack or cheddar cheese

1 avocado, sliced

1 cup salsa or pico de gallo

In a small bowl, mix together the yogurt and lime juice.

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and chile pepper and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes, or until soft.

Add the cumin and beans and stir. When the beans are hot, add the eggs and cook until fluffy, stirring with a fork. Season with salt. Turn of heat.

Toast tortillas for 1 to 2 minutes in a dry pan over medium heat, or place them under the broiler until they puff. Lay out tortillas and divide the egg mixture evenly among them. Top with an even amount of the cheese, avocado and yogurt mixture. Roll up and top with salsa or pico de gallo.

Serves 4 to 6.

Nutrition: 445 calories, 47 grams carbohydrates

-- "The Runner's World Cookbook: 150 Ultimate Recipes" (Rodale, Oct. 2013, $26.99 or $9.24 Kindle edition)

Quick and Spicy Ginger-Peanut Noodles with Cucumbers and Tat Soi

So long as it's whole grain, pasta is a great recovery dish for runners because it contains easily digestible carbs that help you restock spent glycogen (energy) stores. You can make this easy peanut sauce ahead, though you won't want to dress the noodles until just before serving. For added protein, toss with cooked, shredded chicken or top with a sliced hard-boiled egg.

1/4 cup toasted sesame oil

1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce

1/4 cup smooth peanut butter

2 tablespoons pure maple syrup

2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic

1 teaspoon Asian chili-garlic paste

Kosher salt

1/2 pound whole-grain or whole-wheat thin spaghetti or angel hair

3 to 4 cups tat soi leaves, or any other baby green, washed and dried

1 medium cucumber, peeled, halved, seeded and cut crosswise thinly (about 11/2 cups)

In food processor, combine sesame oil, soy sauce, peanut butter, maple syrup, ginger, rice vinegar, lemon juice, garlic and chili-garlic paste. Process until well mixed and smooth, scraping down sides once or twice. It will be emulsified but fairly liquidy. Refrigerate dressing if not using right away.

Cook pasta in a large pot of salted water, following package directions. Drain (but don't rinse) the pasta and let it sit in the strainer, tossing occasionally, until it's no longer hot and wet, 15 to 20 minutes. It should be bouncy but sticky.

Put pasta in mixing bowl and season with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Add most of the greens and all of the cucumbers. Drizzle with about 7 to 8 tablespoons of the dressing and mix well. Taste and add more dressing if necessary. Serve at room temperature, garnished with the remaining greens.

Serves 4 to 6.

-- "Fresh from the Farm" by Susie Middleton (Taunton, Feb. 2014, $28)

Chicken-Quinoa Soup

Nothing rejuvenates and restores both body and soul like a bowl of homemade chicken soup. This version gets a healthy upgrade with quick-cooking quinoa, a super grain that's a source of complete protein. High in carbs, it's especially good for runners looking to restock their energy stores after a tough workout; the amino acids in the chicken also will help rebuild broken-down muscle tissue. In other words, perfect for Pittsburgh Marathon's Runners of Steel.

2 teaspoons canola oil

1 onion, sliced

2 carrots, sliced

1 pound boneless chicken thighs, thinly sliced

1 cup sliced mushrooms

2 ribs celery, sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

4 cups chicken broth, homemade or canned

1 cup water

3/4 cup quinoa

2 teaspoons fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried

Salt and ground black pepper

Chopped fresh parsley

Hot sauce (optional)

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion and carrots. Cook, stirring frequently, for 6 minutes. Add chicken, mushrooms, celery and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes.

Add the broth, water, quinoa and thyme. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Raise the heat to high and bring soup to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes, or until quinoa is tender. Ladle into bowls and top with parsley and hot sauce, is using.

Serves 6.

Nutrition: 214 calories, 18 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 19 grams protein, 7 grams total fat

-- "The Runner's World Cookbook: 150 Ultimate Recipes" (Rodale, Oct. 2013, $26.99 or $9.24 Kindle edition)

Zucchini Farro Cakes, Two Ways

Farro is a healthy, whole grain that dates back to biblical times. It's a great source of vitamins and nutrients, as well as protein and fiber. Here, it's molded into pancakes with breadcrumbs, egg and shredded zucchini.

3½ cups shredded zucchini (about 1 pound)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 cups cooked and cooled farro

3 large eggs

3 green onions, white and light green parts, finely chopped (about 3 tablespoons)

3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

1 cup bread crumbs (I used panko)

2 tablespoons white whole-wheat flour or standard whole-wheat flour

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more if needed

Fried egg or Herbed Goat Cheese and Slow-Roasted Tomatoes (recipe follows)

In a bowl, toss zucchini with 1/2 teaspoon salt and set aside for 8 to 10 minutes. Drain by squeezing zucchini in cheesecloth or a fine-weave kitchen towel. When finished, you should be left with about 11/2 cups of relatively dry shredded zucchini.

In a large bowl, combine farro, eggs, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, green onions, parsley, thyme, bread crumbs, flour, garlic and zucchini. Stir well and let stand for 5 minutes. Knead the mixture a few times with your hands, then form 3-inch patties, about 3/4-inch thick, and place on a plate to await cooking.

Line a large plate with paper towels. Pour olive oil into a large heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Once oil is hot and almost shimmering, put 4 of the patties in the pan and cook until bottom is golden brown, about 4 minutes. Flip and cook the second side for 3 to 4 minutes. Place cooked cakes on the lined plate to drain any excess oil. Repeat with remaining patties, adding a little extra oil as needed between batches if the cakes begin to stick.

Stack 1 or 2 pancakes on a plate and top with a fried egg or a generous dollop of herbed boat cheese and a spoonful of roasted tomatoes.

Makes 10 to 12 cakes.

-- "Whole-Grain Mornings: New Breakfast Recipes to Span the Seasons" by Megan Gordon (Ten Speed, Dec. 2013, $22)

Herbed Goat Cheese

5 ounces soft goat cheese

2 teaspoons chopped fresh chives

1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill

1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon

A few grinds of black pepper

3 tablespoons milk

Put all ingredients except milk in a small bowl and use the back of a spoon to mash the herbs into the cheese. Add milk and stir vigorously to soften the cheese.

Slow-Roasted Tomatoes

So good, and so easy! They're also delicious with scrambled eggs or tossed with pasta.

1 pound cherry tomatoes

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

A few grinds of black pepper

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Arrange tomatoes on a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil so each tomato is covered nicely. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake until tomatoes become shriveled, a bit browned on the edges, and incredibly soft and juicy, about 2 hours. Stir every hour or so to ensure they're still covered in olive oil.

Makes about 1 cup.


Gretchen McKay plans to run the full Pittsburgh Marathon: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.


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