The Curious Case of the Bag of Veggies
|October 11, 2013||Posted by Emily under Uncategorized|
A few weeks ago, I read an interview with Pam Smith, the female winner of this year’s Western States (a 100 miler that’s the BFD race of the ultra running world). I met Pam in August at the first marathon I did after moving to Oregon and was a little blown away by a) how freakin’ fast she is (she ran the hilly trail marathon up a mountain in a 3:26 as a training run, nbd) and b) her history with Western States. In the last three years, Pam went from 10th place to 48th to the unexpected female winner of the race.
Obviously I was intrigued by how Pam managed to rocket from a 29 hour finish to top female finisher. So I did what any normal runner would do and started google stalking her on the internet. In this particular iRunFar interview, she talked about a lot of different training strategies that she employed leading up to WS100 (a 20% increase in mileage, lots-o-hills, even more squats), including some major adjustments to her daily nutrition. The shift she made, based on a plan that is popular with weightlifters and bodybuilders, involves being more strategic about when and how you eat carbs versus fat and protein (primarily after workouts and at night). The strategy is rooted in the idea that you’re getting your body to use carbs for muscle repair and glycogen storage instead of fat. Theoretically, this ensures that you will be well fueled for workouts through the carb intake at night, while you spend the rest of the day in a more carb-depleted state, training your body to use fat for fuel and energy storage. Pam compared this to a “train low, sleep high” approach to altitude training.
From Pam’s interview:
You train in the conditions that allow for maximum performance, but then you go about your daily activities under conditions that promote other adaptations to improve your running abilities.
Unlike the weightlifters, my goal was not to “get jacked” but to lean out and optimize performance. I don’t pretend to understand all the hormonal stuff, and there is almost no scientific evidence to support low-carb diets for athletes. Dr. Marty Hoffman and colleagues did some work at Western States last year which supports low-carb training as favorable, but this is all still in its infancy. The lack of evidence is frustrating to science-minded individuals. Really it boils down to anecdotal evidence and personal testimonials. However, I will tell you without a doubt in my mind, changing my diet made a difference. Whether this difference is actually due to a low-carb intake and nutrient timing or just some coincidental factor like decreased calories, increased protein, or increased food quality (less processed food, more veggies), I can’t say. But my crew could tell a difference, too. In 2010, they joked (very lovingly) that I was the “fattest girl in the top 10 at Western States.” This year my crew said, “Holy $hit! You’re ripped.”
If you research this plan (I refuse to call it a “diet”) on the internets, you will find a lot of crazy bodybuilding talk (WANT TO EAT PIZZA, CUPCAKES AND DONUTS EVERY NIGHT AND STILL HAVE A SIX PACK LIKE ME? BUY THIS BOOK AND EAT YOUR CARBS AT NIGHT!) but, if you talk to rational people offline about it, you will hear a lot of anecdotal evidence about how well it works. Personally, I was intrigued by the idea of getting leaner while optimizing performance, and while I will never endorse the idea of pizza and donuts as smart staples for your daily nutrition, I liked that this strategy encouraged a nightly carb indulgence that I could interpret as permission to consume my top carb of choice (beer).
So I talked to my favorite bodybuilder, who also understands more of the science-side of nutrition, and asked him to help me formulate a plan to change my carb strategy from all-of-the-carbs-all-of-the-time to something that would lead to performance gains. Actually, first I told him simply about the contents of the interview, HE suggested it actually would be a really smart idea to test it out, I told him to stop talking crazy talk about not eating (or drinking) carbs for several hours at a time, and he asked me if I’m serious about my big fat scary running goals and willing to do “a little work” to achieve them…which shut me up for long enough to listen to his suggestions.
In case I wasn’t already tortured enough by the threat of not eating carbs whenever I wanted, Reid decided to kick me while I was down, and started a (dun dun dun) google spreadsheet. He made me input a typical weekly training schedule and then filled in when and how I should eat carbs, proteins and fat to best optimize my training.
Since I figured giving up my morning toast and granola bar couldn’t be any harder than a 30 mile training run (which, for the record, is still up for debate), I decided to try out Reid’s plan.
This is Reid in 2009, when he had a pack of cigarettes, Red Sox Hat, grilling utensils and a slice of pizza on him at all times.
And this is Reid at his first show in 2013, when he added muscles, spray tan, and a speedo to his list of daily essentials.
Shortly after I took the plunge and radically altered my nutrition, I noticed that a couple of the guys I run with every Tuesday night were toting around a bag full of raw veggies that they would start to eat, rabbit-style after every run. I knew they weren’t just manorexic athletes since they would also throw back beer after beer with a side of cheese, meats and crackers. So after the first week of observing this rather crazy behavior, I asked them what the hell was up with the post-run head of lettuce munchies. Turns out, they were both practicing a fairly similar approach that involved high fat, low carbs, and, most importantly, beer at night. They told me all about their hflc fandom (high fat/low carb), how much MORE food they were eating on a daily basis, how much better their nutrient intake was, and how great their morning shit has become since eating a bag of raw produce on a daily basis.
In case I needed more anecdotal evidence to fuel my new nutritional experiment, these beer loving, awesomely strong and impressive ultra runners way provided it to me.
So I’m currently going into week 4 of this stuff, and I have to say, I kind of love it. The first few days were brutal, and involved a lot of me yelling GIVE ME CARBS OR GIVE ME DEATH over gchat to poor Reid (it’s miraculous that our friendship survived the night he taunted me with a brewpub pretzel and beer cheese sauce), but once I got over the initial torture from training my body that it doesn’t actually NEED carbs on the hour every hour, shit got a lot easier and more enjoyable.
It’s funny because at first, this all seemed like a deprivation based diet (because, you know, I CAN’T EAT CARBS ALL OF THE TIME?!) but I’ve never eaten so much good food and felt so healthy about it. It trains you to embrace fats and protein and enjoy good, quality (and fun! beer!) carbs at the right times. I’m also eating healthier than ever before since you have to turn to veggies and whole foods where you would normally eat bagels and granola bars.
To give you an idea of what my daily nutrition looks like:
Pre-breakfast: Spoonful of peanut butter and an ice cold glass of caffeinated nuun
Breakfast: One pound of spinach (at least, not joking) baked with sharp cheddar cheese and over easy eggs, side of brussel sprouts
Morning snack: carrots, raw veggies, edamame, string cheese or nuts
Lunch: Huge ass salad with the other pound of spinach from the bulk bag, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, pickles, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, feta, hard-boiled eggs
Afternoon snacks: Similar to morning snacks, or my newest discovery from the hippie capital that is Eugene: tempeh jerkey
One or two pints of good beer
Dinner: Pasta with veggies, chickpeas, hummus, tempeh OR burrito with sweet potato, black beans, rice, kale and plantains OR veggie burger with soup OR something else carbtastic
It’s still really early in this experiment so I can’t tell you a whole lot about my progress yet. Plus, I’m still trying to figure out how to actually measure progress (I don’t weigh myself and don’t think that’s a solid approach regardless, and I’ve rejected Reid’s suggestion of creepy bathroom selfies), but I can tell you that I feel really good. You may remember that I did not feel so hot coming off the cross country move and 5000 mile roadtrip that were fueled with a lot of junk and a lot of beer and not so much sleep or strength training.
That terrible bloated feeling is definitely going away and I feel healthier on a daily basis. I’ve been shocked by how level my energy is and by how little my training has been affected by the significant reduction in carbs. If anything, it’s been way better. These past few weeks have included some of the best and strongest miles of my training cycle, which could be entirely unrelated to my nutrition, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be hurting my running.
I’ll obviously keep you all updated on this new thing and if you have any questions, ask away and I’ll do my best to answer them!