If there's one thing that I know as a journalist, it's always ask the experts. If you've got a question about something—anything!—ask somebody who knows what they're talking about and is qualified to give you the lowdown.
So that's why when I got the chance to interview Dr. Shannon O'Grady, CPO and COO of Gnarly Nutrition, right as I'm headed into my big race season (three marathons, an ultra, and a 10K), I jumped at the chance. Shannon had so much great information to offer about how I can fuel myself throughout the entire training process, stay properly hydrated, and even take in fuel on race day.
Below is a sample of our interview, with some answers shortened or paraphrased for clarity. Stay tuned for more of our interview in the coming weeks!
So, Shannon, just to start us off, let's say I'm training for a marathon—because I am training for a marathon—what is something that a marathon runner should think about when they're planning out how to fuel themselves?
There's the old adage, “Don't try anything new on race day.” You need to make sure that your stomach is going to be happy with the fuel that you're choosing, with the quantity of the fuel you're choosing. You need to make sure that you're getting in enough fuel to last the length of time it's going to take for you to do the race.
On race day, some people like to get up, you know, two to three hours early to get something solid in there in their stomachs. And that gives them plenty of time to digest and assimilate those nutrients. And for some people, if they're good sleepers, they'd rather get a good night's sleep and maybe have a smaller meal closer to the start time, anywhere from like 30 minutes to an hour before starting.
You mentioned getting something that's going to break down easily. What are some good easily digestible things that we should be eating, pre-training or pre-race?
Let's say you were the person that's going to wake up two to three hours before start time; then you can have something that’s maybe a little more complex. And when I'm saying complex, I mean complex carbohydrates, maybe a little bit of protein. That could look like a bowl of oatmeal with a little bit of protein powder on it, or it could look like some pancakes with some fruit and maybe a little bit of bacon or sausage on the side. It could look like a bagel with some nut butter and banana on it. That meal should be primarily carbohydrates.
You want a little bit of protein. The reason why a little bit of protein is helpful is your body's going to break down those amino acids. And those amino acids circulating in your system are really going to help minimize muscle protein breakdown, which is inevitably what makes us sore after. So it's kind of like kickstarting the recovery process.
And then you want to minimize fat and fiber. And the reason we want to minimize those isn't because they're bad, but they slow down the rate of digestion. The closer you get to start time, the lower in fat and fiber your meal should be, and potentially also the lower in protein. Then we should really be prioritizing simple carbohydrates. This is where fruit is a good option.
Maybe you use an energy gel—that would be a good option. Even a carbohydrate-based electrolyte drink that has carbs and electrolytes. It’s also about hydration, so you're getting in calories and you're hydrating at the same time.
But if you're taking in that kind of meal in the 45 minutes to the hour before your start time, you want it to be substantially smaller. Then we're looking at maybe 100 to 150 calories.
I have to ask this because I've done ultras and trail races where I'm out there all day: How do I nourish myself and fuel myself when I'm out on the trail for eight or nine hours at a time?
It's definitely a little bit of a different beast. This is when getting in the pre-race meal becomes more important. Trying to maybe take in more carbohydrates before your race day becomes more important. And practicing some nutrition beforehand is extremely important.
But typically, you want to get in a range of at least 60 grams of carbohydrates to the upper end, for many people, is close to 90 grams. There are people that can take in more than that, but it takes what science calls training your gut to really assimilate that many carbohydrates.
So when we're talking in grams, that's 240 calories to about 360 calories. And you want to try to get that in on an hourly basis. There's going to be a fair amount of variation in that.
We hear now more about athletes becoming fat adapted and getting used to using their fat stores—not taking in fat as a fuel, but using their fat stores that they have onboard. Even the leanest athlete stores tens of thousands of calories in fat stores. So the more fat adapted you are, your body's used to using those fat stores, and potentially the lower carbohydrate intake you might have to take in.
So you might be with a friend that's been doing ultras for 20 years and they might only need to take in 200 calories. But if this is your first ultra, it's probably in your benefit to try to practice getting closer to that higher end, closer to 90 grams. Consistency is the key, especially in an ultra.
I'm vegan, and I know other people have dietary restrictions. Some people have allergies or food intolerances, or they're eating a certain way for religious reasons. If somebody has dietary restrictions, are there ways for them to navigate that and still eat best to fuel themselves?
One hundred percent! So we can start with veganism or plant-based athletes, right? I hear so much, you know, “Oh, plant proteins aren't complete,” and in reality, that's not true!
You know, the definition of a complete protein is all nine essential amino acids are present. You do have plant proteins that might be lower in one or two essential amino acids. And that's where you get the idea of combining complementary protein, something like a grain and something like a legume, to bring up levels of amino acids that both might be low in.
There's also a lower level of digestive efficiency as far as plant proteins go. And that's just because plant proteins typically have more fiber. That might mean we don't see all of the amino acids in a plant protein. That fiber is really important for our gut, too. So it's not necessarily a bad thing. You might just need to eat a little bit more protein to make up for that.
Plant-based proteins like pea protein and soy protein come pretty darn close to animal-based proteins as far as amino acid content. They're really minimizing the difference between the two, and I would put them on par with a lot of animal-based proteins.
And I would pass that on to almost any kind of dietary restriction or choice that might restrict what you're taking in, whether it's plant based or maybe it's an allergy to soy or an allergy to gluten or allergy to milk. Right? All of those can restrict where we get our protein and our carbohydrates.
After my interview with Shannon, I was lucky enough to receive some samples of Gnarly's products, including the Hydration Drink Mix, the Vegan Plant Protein Powder, and the Fuel2O Sampler Pack. I gotta say this is way better than any of the other stuff out there on the market! I love that they're made with ingredients I recognize and they blend well into liquids, so there's none of that chalky taste or artificial ultrasweetness that you see with similar products. The best part though? They really make me feel great! I was able to fill my handheld with the hydration mix for a long run in the heat, and the electrolytes kept me pumped. (Seriously, you don't realize how much dehydration hinders you until you take care of yourself the way you're supposed to.) The protein powder works well in a smoothie and seriously reduced any soreness or fatigue I might typically feel after an extra-long run. I'm gonna be a customer of Gnarly for life!