An occasional series on how to fuel for the Pittsburgh Marathon.
Most serious runners will stop at nothing in the race to maximize performance.
High-tech trainers that keep your feet happy while logging serious miles, the latest fitness watch or app that provides feedback in real-time, specially formulated goos and chews that promise to energize your body for hours -- any edge you can get, you'll take.
What it really boils down to, though, is healthy eating, before, during and after your workouts.
To do your best in an endurance event such as the UPMC Pittsburgh Marathon on May 4, you should be maintaining an appropriate nutrition plan not just the week or so before your race but throughout your training. And yes, that includes weekends, when diets easily can go the way of the devil.
One mistake some runners make going into a marathon-training program -- and maybe the reason they decide to attempt the 26.2-mile race in the first place -- is to use the race as a vehicle for weight loss, by fueling runs on a reduced-calorie diet. I mean, hasn't it been drilled into our heads that the key to taking off extra pounds is to consume fewer calories than you burn?
I know that was my plan when I signed up this winter for my first full marathon: To shed that small but still irritating spare tire I'd been carrying around since the holidays.
Working with a nutrition coach provided by my Highmark insurance, I learned that might not be the best idea.
While the body recovers pretty easily after the 13.1 miles of a half marathon, it's a different story with the grueling 17- to 22-mile workouts marathon training entails.
"It's very damaging to the body," my registered dietitian, Andrew Wade, told me. "Your muscles tear during those long runs."
By restricting calories, you prevent muscles and other vital body systems from recovering or performing properly, he explained. Not only that, but also the muscle fatigue that comes from running farther than you are used to can linger, often for days. Deny your body the energy it needs during this tired state, and you're at a higher risk for many of the overuse and impact injuries that can vex a runner.
Pig out whenever you feel like it as a reward for all that hard work, on the other hand -- and God knows you're famished after running for three-plus hours -- and you can sap your energy while playing crazy with your digestion system. Especially if you fill up on refined, processed goodies instead of natural whole foods. Don't know the difference? Think McDonald's vs. grilled chicken and brown rice whipped up at home, or a handful of mixed nuts or a cup of yogurt with homemade granola instead of Oreos or a bag of potato chips.
One way to avoid this sabotage is to eat a small number of calories (primarily carbs) as soon as your stomach feels back to normal -- say, a whole-wheat bagel with peanut butter or a smoothie made with fruit and yogurt. A glass of low-fat chocolate milk also will take the edge off. Then, when you're ready to eat a "real" meal, you won't be tempted to overdo it.
What's a good way to stay on track the 231/2 other hours a day?
A meal plan that helps you break the day's food into countable calories and into grams of fat, protein and carbohydrates can help organize and motivate runners who want to think more seriously about what they put in their mouths in the weeks leading up to a race.
For instance, a runner my age and size (don't ask, because I ain't telling) should be taking in between 1,800 and 2,000 calories per day, with an additional mostly-carb 400 calories split into the meals before and after a workout on easy training days (approximately 100 calories per 10 minutes of exercise). For long run days (more than 90 minutes), I get to add an additional 200 calories per hour of exercise.
I know. What an absolute pain to have to marry math with food. Even Mr. Wade acknowledged good nutrition is a "complex topic" that can be very difficult to navigate; it took more than a week of scribbling every last calorie down to get the hang of it, and that was with recipes that provided nutrition information. I'm sure food editor Bob Batz, who sits within earshot, has gotten pretty tired of me debating aloud the merits of quinoa vs. brown rice.
But once I got used to putting pen to paper, well, it really has made me more conscious of making healthful choices.
Especially since Mr. Wade stressed the plan he gave me was a "perfect world" list.
"Your main priority should be your pre- and post-exercise meals [mostly carbs with some protein] and your intra-exercise snacking," he said. "The rest of the plan is just healthy lifestyle suggestions, and an idea of how many calories you need without exercise."
In other words, don't eat junk.
And if you go overboard at lunch or dinner, or mindlessly spoon in the Haagen-Daz while you're watching TV? It's OK to stray here or there with a few extra calories, so long as you make up for it by cutting back on future portions.
"It's not cheating if it's accounted for," Mr. Wade reassured me, "as long as you're eating good foods most of the time."
Runners differ, of course, on energy sources. Tim Lyman, a running coach at PNC YMCA, Downtown, swears by a peanut butter-and-banana sandwich on whole-wheat before a long run and a whey protein shake after. But during workouts, he only recharges with Gatorade. As for the rest of his training diet, well, whatever.
"I'm pretty sure I ate an entire box of cereal since last night," he told me one morning.
Then again, he's 28, and has that long, lean physique that makes you think he could nosh on Big Macs 24/7 and still manage a sub-three-hour marathon, the lucky dog.
Me, I've had to learn to eat better in the morning (a glass of OJ provides a quick source of carbs) and work in an afternoon snack that doesn't come from the vending machine. Along with thinking about portion control, I've also learned to identify foods I can eat easily while I'm running to keep my energy level where it needs to be at mile 15. Dried apricots, dry cereal and pretzels, to name just a few.
It's a daunting journey, this marathon thing. But I'm learning it still can taste delicious, even if you're wearing the muffin top instead of eating it.
Butternut squash oatmeal
Feel free to play around with the spices in this carb-rich, tummy-friendly breakfast dish from Nick Fischer, in-house dietitian for Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon. He says, "It's only oatmeal, so if you mess it up, start again."
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup rolled oats (instant are fine)
2 teaspoon brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon each cinnamon and ginger
1/4 to 1/2 cup pureed butternut squash
Add water and milk to a small pot and bring to a boil. When liquid is boiling, add remaining ingredients and stir until everything is evenly mixed and distributed. Simmer for 2 to 3 minutes or until the oatmeal is at the desired consistency. Stir often.
If cooking in a microwave, put water, milk and oats in microwave-safe bowl and cook on high (power level 10) for 2 minutes, or until desired consistency. Then add in the rest of the ingredients. The reason that we add the spices, sugar and pumpkin after cooking in the microwave is because you can't stir while it is being cooked. Also, it is easier to stir the pumpkin into a hot liquid rather than a cold liquid.
-- Nick Fischer, Fischer Nutrition
Nutrition: 215 calories, 38 grams carbs, 10 grams protein, 3 grams fat, 6 grams fiber
Breakfast Smoothies, Three ways
Healthy, easy to make and oh-so-portable, smoothies are a terrific pre- or post-workout drink. For added protein, substitute Greek yogurt, or a scoop of vanilla whey-protein powder (available at health food stores). I swapped a little orange juice for the sugar. If you want to use fresh fruit, that's fine -- just add a handful of ice cubes.
1½ cups plain low-fat yogurt
1½ cups frozen strawberries and 1 sliced banana OR 3/4 cup frozen pineapple chunks and 3/4 cup frozen mango OR 11/2 cups frozen blueberries and 1/2 cup pomegranate juice
1 tablespoon sugar, plus extra for seasoning
Place ingredients in blender. Process on low speed until combined but still coarse in texture, about 10 seconds. Increase speed to high and continue to process until mixture is completely smooth, 20 to 40 seconds. Season with extra sugar to taste and serve. Serves 2.
-- "The Complete Cooking for Two Cookbook" (America's Test Kitchen, April 2014, $29.95)
Nutrition: 230 calories, 43 grams carbs, 10 grams protein, 2.5 grams fat, 4 grams fiber
Curry Egg Salad Sandwich
Swapping low-fat Greek yogurt for mayo in this tasty egg salad not only lowers the fat content but also adds protein.
1/4 cup low-fat plain Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons golden raisins
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 scallions, sliced
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
1/8 teaspoon each salt and pepper
4 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
2 whole grain bagels, cut in half
4 slices avocado
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
In bowl, stir together yogurt, raisins, mustard, scallions, curry powder, salt and pepper. Gently stir in chopped eggs.
Divide egg mixture between 2 bagel halves. Top each with an equal amount of avocado and cilantro. Top with remaining bagel halves.
-- "The Runner's World Cookbook: 150 Ultimate Recipes" (Rodale, Oct. 2013, $26.99 or $9.24 Kindle edition)
Nutrition: 421 calories, 51 grams carbs, 22 grams protein, 9 grams fiber, 17 grams total fat
Quinoa Pilaf with herbs and lemon
Paired with grilled chicken breast or fish, this makes for a quick and healthful meal for tired or time-challenged runners; I made it at 9:30 p.m., after a taxing speed workout. Toasting the quinoa gives it a rich, nutty flavor -- my daughter accused me of "cooking with peanut butter" when she got a whiff. Quinoa is one of the most protein-rich foods you can eat (24 grams per serving), and it's also rich in anti-inflammatory phytonutrients.
1½ cups prewashed quinoa
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 2 pieces
1 small onion, chopped fine
3/4 teaspoon salt
13/4 cups water
3 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Toast quinoa in medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until quinoa is very fragrant and makes continuous popping sound, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer quinoa to bowl and set aside.
Return now-empty pan to medium-low heat and melt butter. Add onion and salt; cook, stirring frequently, until onion is softened and light golden, 5 to 7 minutes.
Increase heat to medium-high, stir in water and quinoa, and bring to simmer. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer until grains are just tender and liquid is absorbed, 18 to 20 minutes, stirring once halfway through cooking. Remove pan from heat and let sit, covered, for 10 minutes. Fluff quinoa with fork, stir in herbs and lemon juice and serve.
Serves 4 to 6.
-- Cooks Illustrated, Jan./Feb. 2014
Nutrition: 384 calories,59 grams carbs, 13 grams protein, 7 grams fiber, 10 grams total fat
Beef and snow pea stir-fry
Pasta is classic runners' food. Satisfy your need for noodles with this Asian dish, which comes dressed in a (slightly) spicy peanut sauce. If you don't eat red meat, feel free to substitute chicken or firm tofu that's been pressed and cut into 1-inch chunks.
9-ounce package soba noodles or whole-wheat spaghetti
1 tablespoon canola oil
3/4 pound sirloin beef, thinly sliced into 2-inch pieces
1/2 pound snow peas, trimmed
1/2 cup Peanut Dressing (recipe follows)
8-ounce can sliced water chestnuts, drained
Bring large pot of water to boil over high heat. When it boils, salt the water and add noodles. Cook according to package directions.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add beef and cook, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes, or until lightly browned.
Add snow peas and cook, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes. Add peanut sauce, water chestnut and cooked noodles. Toss to coat everything with sauce.
-- "The Runner's World Cookbook: 150 Ultimate Recipes" (Rodale, Oct. 2013, $26.99 or $9.24 Kindle edition)
Nutrition: 538 calories, 67 grams carbs, 35 grams protein, 15 grams total fat, 8 grams fiber.
1/3 cup peanuts
3 tablespoons sesame oil
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons peeled and chopped fresh ginger
2 teaspoons sugar
Juice 1/2 lime
1 clove garlic
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor. Blend/process for 1 minute, or until smooth and creamy.
Makes about 1/4 cup dressing.
Quick Caribbean chicken
Perfect for those times when you need a really quick meal to bring you back to life. I added chopped red pepper and canned pineapple for extra color and crunch.
12 ounces chicken, cut into thin strips
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 to 1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper
1 teaspoon cooking oil
1 medium sweet potato, peeled, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced (I cut it into small chunks)
1/4 cup chopped red bell pepper (about 1/3 pepper)
1 small banana pepper, seeded and chopped
3/4 cup unsweetened pineapple juice
2 unripe bananas, quartered lengthwise and cut into 3/4-inch pieces
1/2 cup canned or fresh pineapple chunks
2 cups hot, cooked brown rice
Season chicken with salt and red pepper. In a large, nonstick skillet, cook chicken in hot oil for 3 to 4 minutes. Add sweet potato, chopped red pepper and banana pepper. Cook and stir for 5 to 6 minutes more or until chicken is no longer pink and potato is just tender.
In a small bowl, stir together pineapple juice and cornstarch; stir into chicken mixture. Cook and stir gently until slightly thickened and bubbly. Stir in bananas and pineapple chunks, if using. Cook and stir 2 minutes more. Serve over cooked brown rice.
Makes 4 main-dish servings.
-- Adapted from Recipe.com
Nutrition: 326 calories, 50 grams carbs, 20 grams protein, 5 grams total fat, 4 grams fiber
Shrimp with Israeli Couscous, Spring Peas, Mint and Lemon
The most popular seafood in the U.S., shrimp is a lean source of protein. It's also a good way work into your diet selenium, a mineral which may help reduce the joint inflammation that runners can experience from training.
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 cups almonds, blanched
3/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 bunch mint leaves (about 1 cup)
1 pound Israeli couscous
1 pound large shrimp, cleaned, peeled and deveined
2 cups fresh or frozen spring peas
Salt and ground red pepper, to taste
1 bunch mint leaves
1/2 cup toasted almonds
Zest and juice 1 of the lemons; reserve the zest. Make a pesto by combining the lemon juice, pamesan cheese, almonds, 3/4 cup olive oil and mint.
Boil liberally salted water in a large pot. Add couscous and cook for 6 to 7 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Heat a large skillet with remaining 2 teaspoons olive oil. Add shrimp and saute quickly, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Add peas and continue cooking. Add 1 cup pesto, followed by the couscous.
Juice the second lemon and season the couscous with the lemon juice, salt and ground red pepper. Finish with the mint leaves, reserved lemon zest and toasted almonds.
Nutrition: 650 calories, 77 grams carbs, 32 grams protein, 24 grams total fat.
-- "The Athlete's Palate Cookbook" by Yishane Lee and the editors of Runner's World (Rodale, $13.09 Kindle edition)
Low-Cal Oatmeal cookies
It's just not a meal without something sweet for dessert, don't you agree? I need chocolate to get through the day, so mixed 1/2 cup of chocolate chips into the batter, adding about 400 calories (or about 10 calories per cookie).
The first time I made these cookies I substituted mashed banana for the applesauce and my running group gobbled them up. But I think they're better with the original recipe, especially if you ditch the Splenda for real sugar to get your family to eat them, too. Perfect for a quick after-run pickup.
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups old-fashioned or quick-cooking oats
1 cup dark or golden raisins
1 cup walnuts or pecans, finely chopped
1/2 cup reduced-calorie, trans fat-free margarine
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup Splenda
2 large eggs or 1/2 cup egg substitute
3/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Coat 2 or 3 heavy baking sheets with cooking spray.
In another large bowl, stir together flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt. Stir in oats and then the raisins and nuts.
In another bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed, beat together margarine, granulated and brown sugars and Splenda until well blended. Beat in eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in applesauce, vanilla and chocolate chips. With mixer at low speed, add dry ingredients in 2 batches, just until blended.
Drop dough by heaping tablespoons onto prepared baking sheets, spacing them 1 inch apart. Bake until crisp and lightly brown, 10 to 12 minutes. Repeat with remaining dough.
Makes 4 dozen cookies.
-- Adapted from "The Men's Health Big Book of Food & Nutrition" by Joel Weber (Rodale, $26.99)
Nutrition: 84.7 calories, 11.8 grams carbs, 1.9 gram protein, 3.5 grams fat.
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.