Things I Wish I Had Learned About Nutrition in Cross Country

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At least three times a week I lace up my running shoes, turn on my Strava and my music and hit the open road. I run for fitness, for the alone time, and the elated feeling that results from flushed cheeks, labored breathing and shoes hitting the pavement as I get closer to the end goal. And when it’s over, that runner’s high remains for the rest of the day. A true dichotomy between love and hate, running has become one of my favorite ways to start my day.

This sort of exercise wasn’t always my favorite, however. I started running in junior high when my dad thought it would be a good idea to put me in cross country. As a dad should behave, he was just trying to get me involved in an activity somewhere. The adolescent school years can be quite unforgiving unless one has an activity they can be apart of and make lasting friends in the process.

It’s a shame, but cross country did nothing to encourage the runner within me. In fact it made me turn and run in the other direction (no pun intended). It took me a while to realize that I could run, not for speed or racing, but for my own personal enjoyment. I realized that running wasn’t something I needed to hate or fear, but I needed to approach it in my own way so that I really could enjoy it.

My chief complaint about cross country is the lack of education regarding nutrition. How you fuel before, during and after a run is just about as important as the run itself. But no one educated me on this. Nobody told me that eating pizza and fries was an unsuitable way of fueling up for a practice or that french toast sat in the stomach like a rock before a race. I didn’t know anything about nutrients, carbohydrates or simple sugars – I just ate what a typical junior highschooler ate. I know the adolescent body seems indestructible but even then I had a very sensitive stomach. I could have benefited from a little knowledge on the subject.

Now that I am training for a half-marathon, I’ve been paying very close attention to my race nutrition. A large part of my training involves trial and error – seeing what foods or methods work and which ones don’t. So come race day, things should go smoothly.

When it comes to endurance sports like running, the normal conventions of nutrition seem to get thrown out the window. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  • Anything otherwise healthy for you, is not good before a run. This includes high fiber foods and even healthy fats. Yet foods you would normally stay away from, like refined carbs such as processed white foods, are advantageous. I’ve found that a Larabar usually works for me pre-run.
  • If you’re going to be running for an hour or more, you need something to keep your muscles working. You need something that can be quickly absorbed and put to use as energy. Runner’s gels are always a go-to. But there are some other ways of getting energy you might not have heard of. I found an entire list with descriptions that is not limited to frozen grapes, dried fruit and even gummy bears and marshmallows. My dad likes to have Doritos and a Coke during an ironman. It makes no sense, but it does.

Certainly my pizza eating days of junior high are over, but it doesn’t stop at the obviously bad foods. The idea that healthy foods can actually stifle one’s running ability was a complete revelation to me.

What are your favorite ways to fuel upĀ for an endurance activity? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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