Thursday, January 30, 2014

Nutrition: A Key Variable in My Comeback Equation

The Maffetone Method that I am following is not just about training at the proper intensity to develop my aerobic system and to teach my body to more efficiently burn fat for fuel. It is a more holistic approach that challenges the athlete to not only re-evaluate their training methods but also to look at nutrition and stress levels as other key variables that affect his/her overall health and fitness.  If I am going to give his method a fair try, I need to embrace the whole approach, not just some of it. If I am going to bother to do this thing, I might as well do it right.

I have known for a long time that nutrition was a weak link in my training. I have made occasional half-hearted attempts at improving my diet, switching to a primarily vegetarian diet for a while, but have not really made the type of serious changes needed. Over the past few years my weight had climbed 8 to 10 lbs over my previous optimal running weight of 120.  In the past six months, my weight had gone up an additional 5 lbs, to peak at 134.8 two weeks ago, three days before my 52nd birthday.

Part of my problem was that, like many runners, I did not want to admit that I had to give up anything to achieve my goals. I wanted to be able to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, run a bit, and magically be at an optimal weight. Well, obviously that does not cut it.

As I started the section on Diet and Nutrition, a sentence in the opening paragraph really grabbed me:

 In the first section, I discussed various ways to improve aerobic function , including increasing speed, burning more body fat for energy, and various approaches to training and racing for optimal endurance performance without injury. But unless you also pay attention to diet and nutrition, many of these positive changes will be negated.*

I knew that. I think we all know it at some level, but for some reason it really sunk in this time. Why would I want to work so hard, for so many hours, in training  just to sabotage it with poor eating habits? 

Maffetone recommends that athletes get their nutrition from high quality food sources. He recommends avoiding refined carbohydrates and the overload of sugar in the American diet. He talks about carbohydrate intolerance and how it affects athletes’ performance.  He recommends a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, quality protein sources, and good fats. He also recommends low glycemic carbs to avoid insulin reactions. Nothing new here, it is what most dieticians would recommend.

For me, though, this meant a major change to the way I was eating.  The first step was to eliminate refined sugar and carbohydrates. I had a serious addiction to bread, pasta, bagels, crackers, rice, etc. Even though some of those would be considered “healthy” by some standards, there was way, way too much refined carbohydrate in my diet. For right now, I am avoiding almost all starchy carbs and replacing them with other fruits and vegetables. I also have upped my protein intake considerably.  I made the decision to eat meat again. (I may change that at a later date, but for now it is what I am doing).

I also had a serious hidden addiction to sugar. I did not know I had an addiction to sugar. We didn’t even have sugar in the house (we use Splenda for everything), but when I looked closely, there it was. Seriously, people, they put it in EVERYTHING these days. You never realize how much sugar is in things until you start looking – and how hard it is to avoid it when trying to.

My diet is pretty stripped down for now. I am eating pretty much just vegetables, fruits, yogurts, some beans and legumes, eggs, meat, and cheese. I will eventually add in some low glycemic carbohydrates and whole grains, but for now I am leaving those out of my diet. I am keeping my carbs under 150 grams a day.

Based on my previous tries at this type of diet, I thought I would be hungry all the time. There was a key difference this time, though. I decided not to worry about fat or calories. Before I had always gone low carb, low calorie, and low fat, and ended up hungry and miserable. This time, I didn’t worry about fat or calories and just concentrated on the refined carbs and sugar.

I got off to a rocky start. At the end of my first full day of eating this way, I got a headache. It was a migraine and was the most excruciating one of these I had ever had in my life.  I couldn’t do anything but lie in bed and wish I was dead. After about an hour of that, I got nauseous. About a half hour later, I was throwing up. Exhausted and miserable, I finally went to sleep.

When I woke up the next morning, the headache was gone. I decided to keep going with the eating plan -- unless the headache came back. It did not. And, amazingly I was not feeling starved and deprived as I expected I would. In fact, over the next few days, I was feeling really good, not focused on food, and full of energy.  What was also amazing is that I was coming in consistently below my calorie goal each day without even trying.  I am now two weeks into this form of eating and have lost 3.8 pounds.

What is even more amazing to me is that I am not bonking on my runs (something that had happened when I tried lower carbohydrate approaches in the past). One of the things Maffetone says is that the slower running encourages the body to burn a higher percentage of fat and a lower percentage of glycogen for fuel. He also says that adjusting the diet helps with this. It appears to be working.

The big test will come this weekend in the 12 hour “race” I have entered this weekend, the Whispering Pines 12 Hour Run/Walk  I intend to keep my heart rate in my training zone for as long as I can keep going.  For fuel, I intend to use fruits and honey, along with no sugar electrolyte drinks.  I am anxious to see how it goes. I will report back.

Have any of you ever tried eliminating refined carbohydrates and sugar? How did it work for you?

* Maffetone, Philip (2010-09-22). The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing (p. 200). Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


  1. Yet another post jam packed with information! I'm currently trying to work on lowering/eliminating most sugar from my diet. I've had a serious candy addiction for some time now. Not going cold turkey, though....just significantly decreasing.

  2. What about Owen's high carb diet for runners?

  3. Kate,
    As much as I admire Owen's training advice, I have not found a high carbohydrate diet to work for me. It is almost impossible to lose weight. I am going to try this new nutritional approach for a while and see if it is more effective. I do know that so far I have more energy and don't have the afternoon lull that I had with the high carbs. I also am not as hungry as I have been on diets before. We will see how it goes.


I would love to hear from you!! Please feel free to comment, ask questions, leave ideas for future postings, or just say "hi."