Old Dog, New Tricks.... Who Knew?

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Like most elite runners I have always taken my breaks from running pretty seriously.  What I mean is… I switch from “ALL IN” regarding training my butt off and watching everything I eat to “ALL OUT” - which is basically doing absolutely nothing and eating any and every bad thing (and by bad I mean awesome) that comes within reach for the better part of two weeks! This had been my annual routine for the better part of 15 years and usually ended with me either feeling terribly ill or just being a good 10 lbs over my racing weight. Either way it is safe to say that my first run back post break was not very pretty and resembled nothing of what you would expect from an elite runner. 

So in 2011 I decided to get off the merry-go-round and try something different. Ok it wasn’t all my idea. It was more or less suggested to me by my newfound nutrition guru once he saw what effect all of this bad food was having on my body. I guess that I was holding strong to the old saying that a distance runner could eat anything as long as they put in the miles. Unfortunately that isn’t really the case. 

After dealing with the aftermath of my last post-season break I decided that it was time to finally listen my nutritionist and get to work. In doing so I began to read more and more about food and sports performance. I became really curious about the effects of a high carb diet on both athletic recovery and the aging process. Let’s face it - none of us are getting any younger. So I decided to give eating lower carb a try over my next post season break.  I figured it would be easier to forgo the carbs when I wasn’t doing much exercise, which actually proved to be correct.  It really wasn’t hard to adapt to this style of eating since I typically ate plenty of meat and veggies already. I just had to focus on staying on top of eating healthy fats while reading a few more labels than I used to in order to not let too many extra carbs sneak in the back door. 

A typical day’s meal plan during my training and racing seasons would look something like this:

Breakfast: Black coffee, granola with fruit and almond milk

Lunch:  Turkey sandwich on whole wheat w/lettuce, tomato & spicy mustard

Afternoon Snack: Green tea, 1 piece toast with butter & peanut butter

Dinner: Steak, rice or potatoes, colorful salad or a cooked veggies

Dessert: Dark chocolate (min 70%)

Total: Carbs: 200g Sugar 61g

A typical day’s meal plan with my new adapted low carb diet looks like this:

Breakfast: Bulletproof coffee(french press coffee blended w/butter & MCT oil)

Lunch: Salad w/chicken, lots of greens, peppers, tomatoes, cucumber, walnuts & olive oil

Snack: Green tea, 2 squares dark chocolate (min 85%), macadamia nuts(maybe 8-10)

Dinner: Steak, cooked asparagus, sweet potatoes

Snack: More dark chocolate, 2 squares (min 85%)

Total: Carbs: 71g Sugar 28g

What came as a surprise was that when I started back running after 10 days completely off is that I didn’t feel terrible!  Typically, throughout my whole career, each time I started back after a break I felt like I had never run a day in my life and this would be followed up by an incredible soreness up and down my legs the next day. I just thought that is what happens to everyone when you get out of shape. It was a sort of rite of passage to coming back to fall training camp. I even remember the previous summer some fellow “older” athletes had joked with me about how it just gets worse each year! It was then that a light bulb went off. What if it didn’t have to be this way? What if I didn’t have to be sore each and every time I came back from a vacation? Maybe after eating relatively clean for a whole season and then eating all of the worst foods I could get my hands on for 2 weeks was the culprit…or at least part of it.  

I thought back to what is probably the most awkward and painful run I’ve even gone on…starting back after an injury at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I had torn my left plantar fascia in the heats of the 5000m and ran on it injured in the final (since I had still managed to earn a spot in the final!).  Given that my season was then over due to the injury my husband and I changed our plane tickets and went straight from Beijing to the Costa Brava in Spain for a break on the beach.  

My vacation diet looked something like this:

Breakfast:  Coffee and 2 donuts (or 2 croissants, or sometimes both), head to the beach

Lunch/ Late Morning Snack:  Ice cream, potato chips, maybe some french fries 

Snack: Late afternoon glass of wine, something from the dessert case

Dinner: Pizza, Pasta, the occasional steak (I didn’t even eat seafood back then…) more wine and finish it off with another dessert (chocolate cake or similar)

Total: Carbs: 400-500g+ Sugar 100-125g+

After returning to the US and a total of almost 3 weeks off due to the injury I began getting therapy for my foot so that I could start getting in shape again. The sports therapist suggested that I start back running so we could track the progress on my previously torn plantar.  Ouch - I had never felt worse in my life!  I remember thinking that no one passing by would ever believe that I ran in the Olympic Final just a few weeks earlier.  Absolutely no way!  At the time I chalked it up mostly to feeling sorry for myself that I got injured at the Olympics…but now I realize there was a little more to it than that.

This dramatic difference in how I was able to return to running after a break of eating clean and low carb (still some wine consumption just for basis of comparison:) really put in my face the difference that nutrition can make in how we feel.  I have the genetics that for much of my career allowed me to eat a high carb diet, maintain my racing weight and train and compete at a high level.  It was when I got a little older and started thinking more about aging that I started looking at things more deeply from an anti aging and longevity perspective and realizing that there was so much that I was missing. It wasn’t all about how much I weighed on a scale, but also about how my body felt when I ran and how it recovered from the stress of all the years of training.

While I don’t recommend that an athlete forgo their well earned post season break of enjoying all the food and beverages that they abstain from during the season, I’d encourage everyone to look at the patterns between what they eat and their levels of inflammation and recovery patterns.  Another thing I learned from my “guru” that is really simple is ask yourself a question after you eat: How Do I Feel?  Do I feel like I need a nap, like I could go back for another workout, like I couldn’t even move for another hour? These are important questions to ask and to answer.  In doing this you will start to make connections between what works for your body and what doesn’t. You will start to learn that food really is fuel and what you eat dramatically effects how your body will react.  I hope that my experience will encourage you to question the way you do things, even those things that have been a long standing way of life!

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Jennifer Rhines