Thursday, September 26, 2013

Pasta Party!

I've had "All You Can Eat" pasta two nights in a row this week and I think it is time to write a post on one of my pet peeves, the association of pasta with distance running.

From our youth, we are taught that you need to "eat carbs" before a race and big events are often preceded by celebratory Pasta Parties, where athletes gather to eat (in my case inhale) pasta most commonly served with red (tomato) sauce and cheese.

Exhibit 1: A photo of 2004 Northside College Prep Cross Country Pasta Party

Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy these festive pre-race events. They're great for creating a sense of camaraderie and they can be a lot of fun. What I take issue with is the intentional focus on consuming carbs and widespread acceptance of pasta as a defacto fuel of choice is probably not the ideal pre-race ritual.

While I'm not a physiologist nor nutritionist and I readily acknowledge that everyone is (very) different I would like to point out a few reasons to reconsider the Pasta Paradigm. I'll be offering up a few alternatives in a later post (this one is kind of long).

I attribute a lot of my ability to train at higher volumes over the last few months to embracing (at least theoretically) the Thrive Diet's One Step Nutrition philosophy.

One Step Nutrition
This philosophy prioritizes foods containing simple carbohydrates (think fruits), fatty acids (nuts and seeds), and Amino acids (leafy greens) over foods containing complex carbs (processed grains), fats (animal fats), and protein (animal protein). 

While foods that contain simple carbs, fatty acids, and Amino acids put less strain on your digestive system leading to a plethora of benefits including faster recovery and digestion.

Pasta is full of complex carbohydrates
While some complex carbs are a necessary part of your diet, they do put additional stress on your body. When you're preparing for peak performance additional stress should be minimized!

Pasta is lacking in nutrients
Pasta lacks fiber which helps remove toxins from your body and triggers your sense of fullness. I've always had problems with over-indulging when eating pasta so this makes a lot of sense to me.

An aside on "carb loading"
Pasta's lacking nutrition isn't the only factor when it comes to my over-indulgence when eating pasta. For me the idea of wanting to have "enough" energy was always a license to over-indulge. The funny thing about this is that it is unnecessary to over-indulge as your muscles can only store about 2 hours worth of rapidly accessible glycogen. If you're eating a reasonably balanced diet it is pretty easy to top this supply off before a race.

Additionally, if you're racing for longer than 2 hours you'll be relying in some part on your nearly endless body fat stores of energy. Even the most lean people on the planet have enough energy stored in body fat to fuel many marathons.

Finally, pasta often contains gluten
Gluten is a protein with a pretty bad rap. Like I said, I'm not an expert, but for some people this causes mild to severe GI distress (I'm sure there are better blogs to read about this). Since most things that contain gluten also fall under the umbrella of my other two issues with pasta, it's probably best to avoid before a big workout or race. I know I feel better GF before a hard workout or race.

Red (tomato) sauce can cause indigestion
I often experience indigestion(acid reflux) after eating tomato sauces. This is particularly severe when the sauces contain additional sweeteners and fats from the meat and/or cheese ingredients.

While I enjoy cheese, I've had a sensitivity to it and other dairy products for my entire life. It leaves me headachey and often times with excessive congestion.

Beyond allergic stress, the fats present in cheese can slow digestion. Same goes for cream sauces.

Running on Empty
No matter the race distance I like to make sure my GI system is as close to empty as possible. For me, the typical pasta dinner is full of foods that can make this a challenging pre-race meal as it lacks fiber, can trigger acid reflux, and can be high in animal fats.

If you've ever had GI issues on a run or (much worse) during a race, I think I rest my case.

What is your pre-race fueling strategy?


  1. I just had this conversation with a new runner the other day! Also, for the entire 4 years I was a college swimmer I couldn't touch red-sauce, it would always ruin my next workout. My training partner just recently made the red-sauce connection with some of her own GI-meets-running issues. I'd like to see runner being more honest about what they really eat! I told my chiropractor the other day that I get really flustered when runners talk about finishing a long run so now they can go eat 4 cupcakes, because, if you want to perform better, you can eat NO cupcakes! (or at least don't gorge yourself! sheesh)

    1. On many levels it is interesting how interconnected food/eating is with running.

      There is a very fine line I feel between obsessing about weight/leanness and considering it as a part of fitness/race prep. It wasn't until I read Brendan's description of high volume training (stress) and poor nutrition as it relates to being lean that I really had an "ah hah" moment on why I could run so much and not be as lean as I thought I should be. I still struggle with eating junk, but I'm much better than I used to be.