When I trained for my first marathon ten years ago, it took a lot of trial and error to figure out my pre-run nutritional needs and sensitivities.
I started out eating normally before runs. It took only one or two long runs to realize a full stomach before a run means extreme stomach cramps or feeling like .. Well, there’s no delicate way to put this … I felt like this was going to happen:
I switched to eating nothing before long runs, which also resulted in severe stomach cramps in the form of hunger pangs. There was also the lack of fuel in my body that resulted in exhaustion that would continue for hours after I completed my run. Eventually I discovered the balance of eating only a granola or energy bar and some yogurt at least 20 minutes before my run. That was working pretty well even though I still lost energy before the end of a run. I assumed this was just par for the distance-runner course until my most recent discovery: steel-cut oatmeal. It was a completely accidental discovery.
I went on a girls camping trip from a Sunday to Wednesday over the summer to the Indiana Dunes State Park. The park is semi-local for all of us who went, so everyone but me had family, home or work obligations to tend to on Monday morning. That is when I decided I would do my long run for the week. The problem was, I woke up to the sound of thunder and heavy rainfall. The longer I waited for the rain to clear, the more hungry I got. I decided to go ahead and eat a full meal as it appeared it would continue to rain.
I packed steel-cut oats for a slow cooker recipe I planned to make, but since it was only going to be a breakfast for one, I didn’t make the recipe. I still wanted to use the oats so I decided to go with a single serving of plain old oats with raisins, brown sugar and a banana.
I eat oatmeal quite often, but I can’t remember ever making anything but instant oatmeal (I know). That’s the result of several years having breakfast at my desk at work. The thing with instant oats is, they fill me up, but only for about a half hour. Then I feel more hungry than before I ate them. I figured the same would be true of the steel-cut oats.
About a half hour after eating, I didn’t feel full but I was certainly not hungry. The rain had also cleared up at this point so I decide to go for my run. I wasn’t sure how long the rain would hold off, so I left in a little of a rush and forgot to take water with me, a very stupid mistake since the rain had left high humidity in its aftermath.
I headed toward the Calumet Trail, which I had heard a lot about but had never run. It’s a pretty popular and heavily-used trail in Northwest Indiana so I assumed – incorrectly – it would have water fountains along the way. I kept running, looking for water to no avail, expecting to crash at any moment from the humidity and lack of water. But, despite my thirst, I kept moving at a pretty solid pace. MapMyRun confirmed the consistent pace when I finished.
I completed my 6-mile goal about a half mile from the campground. I still had plenty of energy so I decided to do speed work the rest of the way back. I finished the workout feeling great.
My fellow campers were making their way back to the park as I finished up. At this point, the sun was actually shining, so we headed to the beach. We weren’t sure how long the weather would hold out. So, not wanting to waste the period of sunshine, we stayed at the beach through the afternoon without eating lunch, only light snacks.
Even without a long run, it’s highly unusual for me to skip a meal. I get hunger pangs, feel lethargic and feel just not well, in general, until I get food in my system. But that was not the case on this day and I could only attribute it to the oatmeal.
Concerned it might be a fluke, I tested the oatmeal numerous times afterward with similar results. It became my go-to pre-run meal.
I saw this article on the Runner’s World website a few days before my race about finding the right pre-run meal that won’t cause intestinal distress. I was surprised oatmeal was not mentioned at all. But I think it’s all about finding what works best for you. I remember talking to a marathoner a few years ago about pre-race meals and she said she eats a full meal of eggs, bacon and toast before a long race!
I went with oatmeal topped with bananas, raisins and brown sugar before the race Sunday and felt great. I had a good amount of energy for most of the race without any stomach issues whatsoever. And I wasn’t hungry until several hours after the race.
I learn something new, or find new routines, every training season. This shall go down as the Season of the Oatmeal.
Fellow runners: what are your pre-run nutrition rituals? What foods give you the right balance of energy but not too much fullness?