It occurs to me, in my more embittered moments, that my decision last year to get serious about correct nutrition for the marathon runner on a PB mission, rather than just eating well and hoping for the best, coincided with a noticeable downturn in running success.
I bought a book (rather different to the one pictured above), on the recommendation of a hard-core runner in my club, all about the rules of marathon nutrition. I followed the advice on fat loading, carbohydrate and caffeine depletion, then judiciously timed carbo loading with a race-day caffeine hit throughout my weeks of training for last September’s Berlin marathon. The result? An uncomfortable race, fraught with gut issues and accompanying mental stress, and, ultimately, a disappointing time.
Berlin 2017 wasn’t my first brush with the fabled runners’ trots. I’d had a stinker (literally!) of a Beachy Head Marathon the autumn before, with many desperate dives into bushes to, er, unburden myself, finishing weak and nauseated, much later than I’d planned.
This spring, I’ve been persuaded to eschew all the science bits and get back to basics. I’m one of Kate Percy’s team of Naturally Fuelled Runners, training and racing on additive free wholefoods, and the recipes built around them, contained in the excellent cookbook Go Faster Food for your Active Family.
Kate Percy and her family are the very model of a sporty, energetic, multi-faceted team. Kate’s a sports nutritionist and a runner, Good For Age and fleet of foot. Her husband, a rugby chap, ran the New York City in an enviable time, using Go Faster foods in training and racing. Her daughter rows, sprints and hurdles for Cambridge University, her two sons are all about rugby and kayaking.
When I met Kate, and had bored her sufficiently with my catalogue of racing woes, we had a fascinating chat about harnessing energy from our food and whether gels really work as rocket fuel for tired runners.
When I described the deleterious effect a couple of caffeinated gels had had on my bowel during my most recent marathon, Kate was sympathetic, and described the positive results her athletes had experienced when refuelling with the little power packs she’s created for runners: Go Bites are made with energy-dense dates, apricots, nuts and seeds. They’re delicious, not gloopy, and their effect is a slower but lasting power hit, a far cry from the glucose surge delivered by gels whose intensely sweet ingredients – maltodextrin and sucralose – can have the unhappy consequence of upsetting an already stressed gut.
Despite being anxious – on my gut’s behalf – about putting all my faith in dried fruit and nuts, I’m curious. Will a concerted effort to eat wholesome, additive free diet in the weeks prior to the Virgin Money London Marathon, which I’m running for the fifth time this April, do anything for my speed and stamina in the long run? I’ve committed to making my meals from scratch, basing most of them on Kate’s recipes. As a rookie vegan runner, I’ll have to adapt her ingredients, replacing the meaty elements with tofu and beans, and the dairy with all things coconut, but that shouldn’t be too difficult. The challenge, for me, is convincing my inner sceptic that the presumed rocket propulsion I associate with gels with highbrow names like Science in Sport, can be achieved with three little balls made rather festive (and somewhat chewier) store-cupboard ingredients.
This is quite a common conundrum, in fact. It seems that many athlete studies have found that jolly confectionery like Percy Pigs, candy shrimps and jelly babies do much the same job as gels, and taste much better. Those foamy candy bananas we used to buy with our pennies as kids melt in the mouth and deliver a similar saccharine hit to gels. However, many athletes dare not leave it to Percy Pig and his ilk to power them through the magic 26.2 miles, so they tear into their gels and decide the isotonic ingredients equate to a stronger, fleeter finish and a triumphant swerve around the dreaded Wall.
There’s no doubt that swallowing a couple of mouthfuls of gloop while running near exhaustion is much easier than chewing through a handful of jelly sweets, but if the apparently instantaneous effect of gel has the side effect of stomach issues, its quick-acting consistency may be more of a hindrance than a help.
In my case, a longstanding Achilles problem has meant, once again, that I’m facing a marathon chronically undertrained, so I may as well spend the time I am not running preparing delicious food under the auspices of Kate Percy’s Go Faster banner, and do my poor, wrung out digestive system a favour.