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Nutrition, the good, the bad, the ugly

Thank you so much for your kind feedback last week.  I’m so glad that my bad race experience could help others to be more realistic about their race preparations and find so many things that can be improved to ensure a better race.

Today’s article is about nutrition. Both to support your training and during racing.

Nutrition is the first thing I studied when I decided I wanted to work toward setting up my own website and coaching service dedicated to helping runners just like you. Nutrition can be the most difficult thing for a person to change however, because of an emotional connection to food. Added to which, the diet industry doesn’t help, by encouraging us to label entire food groups as good or bad. This becomes even more confusing when the same food is labelled as good by one company and bad by another. How about we change the labels people! I vote for nutritious and tasty as being the words we use to describe our food, rather than good or bad.

Your beliefs about food/ nutrition start to be formed during childhood, depending on what your parents did or didn’t teach you. And then there is the food industry, constantly marketing to you. Add to that the diet industry and the supplement industry, and no wonder it’s all very confusing. Unless you have grown up with a very strong conviction, right from childhood, it’s almost impossible not to be swayed by the latest fad. Whether that’s a diet fad, or a sports supplement fad.

So, a bit about my journey with food:

My mother was a home economics teacher in West Africa, and my father was born immediately post-war in England. Growing up, we had very little money, as my mother’s qualifications were not recognised in the UK, and as such we were dependent on only one income. My father grew fruit and vegetables in our garden, and we got the cheapest meats from the butcher in the village.
We would perhaps take a car trip to a supermarket once in 2 weeks to stock up on things to fill the freezer, but predominantly, it was fresh fruit and veg from the garden or a greengrocer, and meats from the butcher.
It wasn’t an absence of anything unhealthy, and there were treats available – sweets on the way home from school, and the typical cake and biscuit frenzy when visiting the grandparents (however more often than not these were home made). And I LOVED ice cream.

When I was a teenager, I worked in a local Italian restaurant, and this taught me so much about food preparation, as I worked both as a waitress, and in the kitchen. Again, food was sourced from wholesale suppliers, but it all came in fresh, other than the seafood, which came in frozen.
I also had a brief stint working in a Supermarket that specialised in frozen foods. At first I was amazed by the low cost of these foods, and the ease of preparing some of them – just put in the microwave for x minutes. However, the taste often left a lot to be desired, and looking back now, I wouldn’t touch most of these items that seemed so convenient back then.

At University, I was lucky enough that my College provided accommodation for me throughout my degree, however, part of the downside was very limited kitchen facilities. Evening meals were 3 courses, but they were made from scratch by a chef every evening, and I usually survived on cereal, boiled eggs (boiled in my kettle!), and sandwiches for breakfast and lunch, before going to hall for dinner. In the final year we had better kitchen facilities, and with that, we all took to cooking for ourselves. We shopped in a supermarket, and took it in turns to cook, eating together.
We planned our menus and cooking schedules weekly, and in order to keep to a budget we had a simple rule, that if you wanted to cook anything extravagant, it was up to you to pay for the extra ingredients yourself.

After University, I still enjoyed cooking, and as I did it more often, I rarely use recipes any more unless for a special occasion. I researched a lot on food sourcing, and especially like the books Fish and Meat by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall. And it’s from reading those books that I decided not much meat/fish is needed in one’s diet, but if you are going to have it, it better be organic. Interestingly enough, I tried a chicken that was a third of the price I pay for my organic chicken just last week, and whilst it came out of the oven smelling and looking delicious, on a few mouthfuls, the flavour and texture just do not compare, and as such, I’m sticking to my guns.

Now, I rely on my fruit and veg box delivery, topped up with eggs, avocados, milk and about 4 portions of meat and fish each week. I have a loose schedule that I keep to, that fits in with my training schedule, such that the more carbohydrate heavy meals are around my more intense runs, and red meat comes after races and long runs for example. Every now and then I will do something different from a recipe book, but food preparation has become habitual for me, and I know I can identify nutritious versus not nutritious. We do eat out from time to time.

Why have I told you all this? Well, my beliefs about food have come from my parents; the idea of cooking a meal from scratch has never been far from my consciousness, so its not something I find difficult. It is in fact something I find incredibly important and crucial to taking control of your nutrition.

What about your weight?

When I worked in the City of London, I paid no attention to my nutrition and was quite extravagant both in eating and drinking, and put on weight. This continued for quite a few years such that clothes I found quite loose started to become tight.

When I stopped working in the city and was just starting out as a personal trainer, it is probably the only time I’ve consciously tried to lose weight, and by following one simple principle, I was able to lose half a stone in just a month quite easily, and the rest followed at a slightly slower rate the next month.

What principle is that?

Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants.

This comes from Michael Pollan’s book, and is put very simply, but to expand on it.
First, define food as anything that comes from a plant, or had a face. Or comes directly from something that had a face (eggs, milk, cheese).
Second – Not too much refers to portion control.
Third – Mainly plants means load up on fruit & vegetables and pulses, and have less of the meat and dairy

So, what does this all have to do with running? What magic pill can I take to make my running better?

You will notice, I haven’t mentioned supplementation at all yet.  It was not part of my upbringing.  We always ate ‘real food’. There is certainly a place for supplements, but it is not the first step. The first step is to fix your diet so that you are eating food on a regular basis. Supplementation comes last, not first.  If you check out my optimal nutrition pyramid, you will see that supplementation is the last thing we add.  We build the base by sticking to a plan, having plenty of water, getting our macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) in balance, making sure we have a variety of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).  Then and only then do we add supplements, if needed.  When its vitamin and mineral supplements, these should be recommended by a doctor and under prescription.  The aim should be to get our vitamins and minerals from high quality food in a healthy balanced diet.

Nutrition Pyramid

However, certain sports performance products can be very beneficial to runners, both for improving performance, and for promoting recovery (although, again this can be done just as well with real food). To understand these, click here to download my free marathon nutrition guide.  Sports nutrition is another big industry, that certainly has its place amongst amateur athletes, but its important to understand which products are helping you, and which are potentially harming your efforts to live a healthy life with a healthy balanced diet.

Marathon Nutrition Guide

So, what plan can I follow?

If you focus on a healthy balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, eggs and dairy, eating real food, and nothing that comes from a packet, then you’re really on to something.

If this seems totally impossible to you right now, don’t worry. I can help, and here’s how:

1) Figure out where you are now – monitor your food and drink intake
2) Identify any obvious patterns that may be holding you back
3) Create an achievable rule to address each of the damaging patterns and stick to it
4) Identify some easy wins – adding more vegetables for example
5) Commit to weekly meal planning, and figure out How you are going to stick to it (for me, online shopping is crucial to ensuring the right foods come into my house)
6) Monitor your progress
7) Congratulate your wins, but don’t dwell on lapses

It seems simple, doesn’t it? But in reality, it can be quite difficult, and I’m here to help you. The Elite coaching package does just this, helping you to address your nutrition worries, whilst also giving you a strength and running plan to go alongside it, ensuring you can become the best version of you. If you would like to discuss the elite coaching package, then click here to book a call.

As always, leave comments and questions below.

Happy Running!

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Angela Isherwood

Angela Isherwood is the founder of I Run Success
She is a REPs Level 3 Personal Trainer, a Run England Running coach, and a multiple marathon runner. She is a London Marathon Good for Age runner, a Boston Marathon Qualifier, a parkrun Run Director and Trainer for Goodgym Colchester.

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