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Calories Are Not Created Equal

rotterdam marathon pale sxcAs I was training to race in the 2012 Olympic Trials Marathon, I wondered if a diet change, switching to primarily fresh and organic foods, would help my performance.

The Trials for the marathon are exactly like what you may have seen on NBC: athletes that have met a certain standard (sub 2:46 for the marathon) are allowed to compete, and the top 3 advance as our Olympic Team. This was my first time competing at such a level, and I knew I would have to train harder than I ever had before, but also focus on all of the little things as well. The biggest of those little things was nutrition.

Previously, I ate mostly packaged food and snacks labeled as “light” (a common snack was a light yogurt, 4 light oreos, and a coffee mixed with a diet hot chocolate). My husband and I would often eat frozen pizza or chicken nuggets and fries for dinner. I counted calories, so even though these foods were caloric, I made sure my total caloric intake wasn’t more than I needed to have in a day.

I often wondered why I didn’t look like the women I was racing with—they were so lean! They were also able to train at higher volumes; I was often injured and felt run down when I increased my mileage. I wondered if it had to do with diet, but often dismissed the idea since I knew I was eating the right number of calories per day. That’s all that matters, right? If the furnace is hot enough, it’ll burn anything? That was our men’s college cross country team’s motto. Plus, if you’re targeting 2,000 calories per day, what difference could it make if those were coming from light yogurt, a frozen meal, and pizza versus oatmeal and vegetable stir fry?

I embarked on an experiment to see if switching to a whole foods/organic based diet would help. It was a very difficult transition for me to make (I didn’t know what over half of the vegetables were when I first entered the store! And even if I did know their names, how do you cook or what do you make with them??). The first four weeks of transition were tough. I often craved sugar more than anything imaginable. I stared into our pantry cupboard, just willing packaged snacks to appear. I wanted to make boxed brownies so badly! I specifically didn’t buy processed or packaged foods, as I knew if I had them in the house that I would find them and devour them. My stomach had a harder time processing the organic and more plant-based diet as well. I needed to plan my runs around where I knew bathroom stops were located. My stomach often gurgled. The one positive thing I noted in this period was how much more I was able to eat. I was able to add AM and PM snacks of organic bread and peanut butter, a big bowl of oatmeal with walnuts and craisins, or vegetables dipped in hummus. It was so nice to be able to eat more often and in larger quantities!

Although the transition was difficult, I am amazed at the results and am so glad I made the switch. I never expected the results I’ve come to reap. I recover from workouts quicker, which allowed me to train more each week. My previous mileage before the switch was a high of 90 miles/week, which left me feeling tired and spent. I was now able to train at 100 miles/week in back-to-back weeks without the same feeling. Amazing! My body composition has also changed—it hasn’t been a drastic overnight change, but I am finally starting to be leaner and look more fit.

I also never imagined how different food would taste! I remember buying my first organic peach and being amazed at how delicate, flavorful, and satisfying it was. Some of the recipes I’ve tried have been the most flavorful and satisfying of any I’ve had!

It’s been quite a journey, but I have so far to go. I finished 69th in 2:44:12 at the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials. For 2013 my goal is to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Trials, so I’ll be targeting a fall marathon as the qualifying period opens in August. The standard was lowered to sub 2:43 for women, so I know I’ll have to be even more disciplined with my training and smart about my nutrition. I will be training at or over 100 miles/week consistently for this cycle, with a maximum weekly mileage of 120 (~17 miles/day). I’ll also be trying to eat as healthy as possible, fueling my body with the right nutrients and the best quality foods, including more protein powered foods and recipes including Sunwarrior protein powder. I’m still experimenting with foods, learning what and how to cook, learning about healthy snack ideas, and more. I feel like the training is almost the easy part! It will be an adventure, no doubt.

Follow the journey!

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