After years of being an on-again, off-again runner, I decided to sign up for the half marathon at this weekend’s Baltimore Running Festival. While training, I’ve found myself frequently wrestling with one issue: what to eat before, during and after long runs.
Conventional wisdom holds that you should load up on carbohydrates the night before. Running stores tell you to suck on packages of goo — toxic-tasting sludge — during the event itself. And it seems that every other blog on the internet orders you to drink chocolate milk within 30 minutes of finishing.
To get some clarity, I reached out to Dr. Matt Sedgley, the director of running medicine for MedStar Health and director of medicine for the Baltimore Running Festival, which includes a marathon, half marathon, 10k and other options.
Sedgley estimates that he’s participated in a dozen triathlons and five half marathons. But, at 6 foot 8 and around 300 pounds, he says, “I don’t run very fast.” Nothing wrong with that. “Look,” he said, “Only one person wins the race, the rest of us are just having fun.”
During our interview, we touched on everything from the biggest mistake novice runners make to the surprising snack he gives to injured runners. And did you know there is such a thing as too much water?
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Christina Tkacik, The Baltimore Sun: I think that the conventional wisdom a few decades ago was that you should eat a lot of bread and pasta the night before a really tough workout or race. Is that the case?
Dr. Matt Sedgley: I remember being in Chicago for the Chicago Marathon probably 10 years ago, and people were just pounding pasta. Carb loading does seem to work for some folks. But there are runners who are very anti-carb, they’re pursuing a ketogenic diet [or they have a gluten allergy and can’t eat bread].
Fuel in a way that you’ve been training to fuel. So if you are buying the energy bars, or the goos, and the gels…and that’s been working for you… I wouldn’t change that at this point. You’ve only got a few days to the race. One of the biggest mistakes I see in novice runners is when they go to the expo or they go to their running store and say, I’m going to try this sugar gel over here, and I’ve never done it for the last 12 weeks. It doesn’t agree with them and their body’s like, “What is this?” And that’s something that you don’t want to find out at mile nine.
So what should you eat on the day of the race, and how far ahead?
When I get to a big race day, I don’t want a lot of food sitting in my stomach. I actually wake up fairly early, and for my fueling strategy, I have almost a comfort-type food. I will get a bagel, I’ll get some peanut butter, I’ll get some banana. It’s not anything that upsets my stomach.
[Just before starting a race] I’ll use a Clif Shot [energy gel]. Basically every five kilometers or every three miles I’m both hydrating and eating. I figured that out for myself is what I need so I don’t hit a wall later. You’ve only got so much sugar in your body... so that you need to be fueling while you’re running.
I did want to talk about the goos. I’ve gotten into using some of them but they really don’t taste very good. The guy at the running store told me they would taste like frosting, and I’m like, I don’t think they really taste like frosting.
That may have been to make the sale.
Yeah, that was a good sales call on his part. But I was wondering, are there alternatives to goos? Are there kind of more basic things that you can eat during the race?
I think you have to find something that works for you. I personally find that I need a lot of salt or else I cramp up. Some people aren’t a big fan of energy bars. They like bananas. Some people swear by chocolate milk, I can’t quite do it.
I did want to talk about chocolate milk. It’s something that I’ve read over and over again, that chocolate milk is kind of this platonic ideal of recovery beverages. But when I’ve had it myself [after a long run] it makes me feel ill.
There’s a lot of research that says a little bit of carbs and a little bit of protein after a workout is actually good for replenishing what the muscles need. I think the challenge is again, some people aren’t really in the mood to have dairy products after a long run. Some of these races will have a beer garden at the end. I don’t know how people do that. That just isn’t something that my stomach will accept. I actually love getting something salty like a broth.
Is it necessary to have Gatorade or a sports drink post-race?
The key thing is, and this blows people’s minds, but our human blood is pretty salty. The average sports drink doesn’t have the amount of salt that’s in our blood, it’s actually closer to water than what our body needs.
A large number of the injuries we see at the finish line tents and on the course are people who are drinking so much water, they actually lower their salt levels and they cramp up and then they get ill. Our treatment is actually to give them Utz potato chips [because of the salt].
People say, well how do I know if I drink too much or too little? If you’re thirsty, drink. That’s your body telling you it’s time to take in some fluids. If you are not thirsty and you pass all those water stops, don’t feel compelled to drink.
That’s so interesting and is this one of the few times in the world that you’ll hear about Utz potato chips being part of a treatment for anything.
Those salty chips do give you what you need. And again, I would caution people, if you’re not thirsty, don’t drink. We do get people who over hydrate.
That’s really an interesting point as well. If you’re not thirsty, don’t drink because you can actually dilute your blood salt level.
We have actually have people die from it. It can be quite serious.
I have seen on social media that the Baltimore Running Festival is going “cup-less” this year. How can athletes ensure that they’re staying hydrated?
It’s pretty easy to get yourself a hydration pack. They’re not that expensive. And they’re refillable, so you don’t have to carry lots of weight throughout the race either.
I’ve read that you need to make sure to eat within about half an hour of completing a long run. Is that true?
Anytime you workout, it’s really ideal to have a little bit of carbohydrates and a little bit of protein, somewhere around 30 minutes to 60 minutes [afterward]. Eat something, your body will thank you.