Sunday, September 29, 2013

The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition, by Matt Fitzgerald

This book has been on my radar for a while, so last week I finally picked it up & gave it a read. (At 278 pages, it's a quick one, particularly since the last 86 pages are an appendix of training & nutrition plans.) If you're not familiar with Fitzgerald, he's a certified sports nutritionist who's consulted for a number of sports nutrition companies, helped several big-name elites (including Kara, Shalane, & Ryan) get their nutrition in line, & also works with average recreational runners to help them boost their performance by improving what and how they eat and drink both during training and on race day.

The thing I appreciated the most about The New Rules is that it's entirely research-based. There is nothing more frustrating to me than when people spout training advice based on anecdotal evidence, something they heard from their friend's brother's roommate who totally met Meb one time, or "facts" that "everybody knows" because we've all been repeating them back to each other on the internet since 2002. None of that here; when Fitzgerald makes a claim, he backs it up with science.

And I learned so much from it! Nutrition for running is an interesting enough topic to me that I've done a good bit of reading about it here and there, and I figured I had a fairly solid understanding of the basic tenets. And while no, there weren't tons of places where I felt like I was wildly off the mark, I was still surprised at how much useful, detailed information there was that I hadn't heard before.

For example, I was surprised to learn that one of the biggest mistakes runners make nutrition-wise is not eating enough carbs, either for fear of gaining weight or out of some misguided belief that carbs are bad, or because they just don't realize how much they need and how little they're eating. Carb starvation, says Fitz, is problematic because it tends to result in slow recovery and low energy levels, which can compromise your ability to benefit fully from your workouts.

So that's Rule #1: Know how much carbohydrate you need (the book includes instructions for calculating that - I came up with ~280g per day based on my recent training, and ~460g per day during peak marathon training), and make sure you get it.

I also love how Fitzgerald makes everything so simple and practical. He divides pretty much all food into eight categories which are, in order of quality:

    1) Vegetables (required; includes beans & non-sweet fruits like tomatoes & squash)

    2) Fruit (required)

    3) Nuts & seeds (optional)

    4) Lean meat (optional; includes seafood, meat from grass-fed/organically produced/free-range animals, & other meats under 10% fat)

    5) Whole grains (optional, but highly recommended as many endurance athletes have a hard time meeting their carbohydrate needs otherwise)

    6) Dairy (optional but still considered high-quality food in moderation; also includes non-dairy substitutes like soy or almond milk)

    7) Refined grains (low quality)

    8) Fatty Meats (low quality)

    9) Sweets (low quality)

    10) Fried foods (low quality)

Besides "get enough carbs," Fitzgerald's only other rule for runners in terms of nutrition is to eat more from food group x than the group below it, and less than the group above. Ie, if you eat say 25 servings of vegetables/beans in a given week, you should only eat 24 servings of fruit, 23 servings of nuts & seeds, 22 servings of lean meat, etc. That's it! You don't have to be perfect every day, but based on the research Fitzgerald cites, if you eat more or less from those groups in that order on average, you are probably fueling your running reasonably well without risking weight gain.

(A couple of other notes -- 1) He's impressionistic about what a "serving" is. He gives a few examples, but basically just recommends using common sense about that. 2) You can also divide things up between different groups--for example, if you have a serving of fried calamari, you can count it as half a serving of lean meat and half a serving of a fried food. 3) Alcohol can be ignored up to two drinks a day, since there is no evidence that that amount has any measurable effect on performance, but sugary cocktails should be counted as a sweet.)

Of course the trouble a lot of us have with trying to manage our nutrition in any meaningful way is tracking it in a manageable way. But Fitzgerald makes the very good point that most of us track our mileage and cross-training obsessively, so saying it's too complicated to track what we eat is kind of a lame argument. I decided to try it for a couple of weeks just to get a sense of how hard or easy it is, and I have to say that since all you're really doing is making tally marks in each of the 10 categories, it was actually completely reasonable.

What have we learned?

    1) #winning at vegetables

    2) I don't eat nuts & seeds, like ever

    3) I {heart} dairy (seriously, like half my diet consists of Greek yogurt & cottage cheese)

    4) Not that into grains (unless it's quinoa, brown rice, or the flour in the pumpkin squares I made Friday)

    5) Apparently I eat less meat than I would have thought

    6) We clearly went out to eat Friday night (mmmmm steak & tres leches....)

So it was interesting to see that I don't suck at this, but could still probably do with a little tweaking. The hardest thing is definitely estimating servings, but I didn't agonize over that too much.

Finally, let me make it really clear that the two Fitzgerald rules are not a weight-loss plan. In fact, he goes out of his way to share research on athletes who try to seriously train for an event while simultaneously losing weight, and the results are not pretty. Basically, trying to do these two things simultaneously means it's impossible to do either of them very well. The purpose of the two rules is to ensure that you adequately fuel your training, get all the vitamins and nutrients your body needs to stay healthy, and avoid unwanted weight gain.

More on The New Rules next week (or, y'know, whenever) -- I have so many other cool things to share with you!


  1. Interesting! Sounds like an easy way to track. I have his book Racing Weight, but I never tried getting down to a certain weight for a race. I know it would help my speed, though, and I like how he approached nutrition.

  2. I'll have to look for this book. Thanks for the info!

  3. I will need to get this book for when I start thinking about a half marathon PR someday. I think I fall in the category of over eating carbs though- can't get enough of them!

  4. I found you through Kristy's blog PGHrunner and thought I'd come say "hi" :)

    What a great review! Also, you did a great job tracking your food intake. It makes me curious to see what I really eat in a week.

  5. Just ordered the book. Thanks for reviewing it!

  6. Those sound like easy-to-follow, solid rules to me! Although I think that tracking your food is way more annoying than tracking your mileage. Your mileage is one number (although, of course, you might be tracking an interval workout or whatever, but that's not going to require too much more effort on your part) and happens once a day, typically. Food is something that happens constantly and is easy to forget if you don't write it down immediately. I could probably benefit from tracking my food for a few days, but I'm far too lazy! Maybe some other time.

  7. I read this book months ago and meant to write a review, but kept putting it off. I'm glad I didn't because I basically agree with you and my review would've been totally redundant. :) I agree that the book made diet and nutrition approachable, though the training plans were kinda the antithesis of that. Oddly, the part I've used the most is the section on heart rate monitoring. I've used his lactate threshold test a couple of times. Not sure if it's accurate, but at least it only takes 20 minutes and only about 5 minutes at hard effort.

  8. I love the 10 categories and how to eat them in descending order. I think my brain can manage that!