Food as Fuel Part I: Food Beliefs of Triathletes & Marathoners

Triathlete at the 2007 Carpinteria Triathlon enjoying a post-race binge.

Triathlete at the 2007 Carpinteria Triathlon enjoying a post-race binge.

With the current food movement extolling the health benefits of whole foods, organic foods, home cooked or slow foods, gluten/fat/sugar/salt-free and 100% natural foods, I thought it was curious that many endurance athletes, self-described health and fitness conscious folks, who even believed themselves that home cooking with natural ingredients was better for their health, regularly processed and fast foods on the go. 

Instead of eating meals and snacks made of local farm fresh ingredients, the marathon runners and triathletes I interviewed regularly gulped down processed, packaged and pre-made convenience foods chock full of artificial ingredients known only to food chemists with PhDs. And forget about sitting down to a meal with friends or family around the table. Many of the athletes I surveyed frequently ate alone– taking their meals in the front seat of a car, under a tree on a trail or from their bike jersey’s back pocket. Finally, they don’t even think of a meal in the same way. Instead of meal made up of a variety of ingredients found in nature, they’re computing food calories and ideal proportions of macronutrients to optimize their athletic performance. What’s the deal?

By looking at the dietary habits of nearly 150 triathletes and marathon runners in my area—what they eat, when they eat, how they eat and their food-related rituals and beliefs—I hoped to explain why they are “a little different” when it comes to their eating habits. The following report is an edited down version of a research project I did for a food anthropology class in the Fall of 2008. I edited out most of the social science lingo, methodological details and references to old dead French social theorists to spare you.
Methodology: 
To figure out why triathletes and marathon runners are preaching, but not necessarily practicing the whole foods/slow food trend, I surveyed 108 marathon and ultra runners of two local running clubs and 33 triathlete members of a local triathlon club. In addition to the online surveys, I interviewed several race participants about their food ways at the Carpinteria Triathlon, September 28, 2008 and Santa Clarita Half-Marathon and Marathon races, November 2, 2008.
 My sample of respondents was purely convenience based. However, they represent “typical” triathletes and marathon runners per the demographic information from online media kits for Triathlete and Runner’s World magazines (Triathlete 2008; Runners World 2008). And, full disclosure, they were also my friends and friends of friends who self-reported their eating habits while training for and during their last “important” triathlon or marathon race. Their self-reporting may not be entirely accurate due to poor memory and potential social embarrassment. For example, my eight time Ironman athlete and personal trainer friend may not have come clean about his weekend beer and gummy bear consumption. In other words, the results should be taken with a grain of salt (ouch, bad pun).
The eating habits and dietary beliefs of the interviewed athletes seemed to mimic the ideals of sports nutrition within both sport sub-cultures of triathlon and long-distance running.  These ideals are represented in sports nutrition articles in both peer-reviewed research journals and popular triathlon and running magazines such as Triathlete, Runner’s World and Marathon and Beyond.
However, this is with the one significant exception: post-race binging. Very often, after a major race, my surveyed endurance athletes threw out everything they knew about performance enhancing nutrition and recovery and did the exact opposite. Basically, it seems that these normally sports nutrition disciplined and solitary eaters found their inner post-finals college party selves and went crazy–dietarily speaking. Many of the triathletes and marathon runners surveyed went on a post-race communal consumption binge: drinking enough beer or margaritas to make a fraternity guy (or sorority girl) wobbly, and happily consuming normally what they considered to be “bad foods” foods such as burgers, French fries, pizza…But I am getting ahead of myself.
Research Results:

The “good foods” and “bad foods” according to triathletes and marathon and ultra runners

The surveyed and interviewed athletes generally categorized foods as either “good foods” or “bad foods” most consistently by their digestibility (important for consuming foods while training and racing), their functional ability to increase the athlete’s endurance, and their perceived healthfulness. When asked to name “good foods” and “bad foods” triathletes and marathon and ultra runners athletes alike seemed to categorize most foods by the foods’ perceived health and athletic performance enhancement functions.
“Good foods”
Good foods were described as “healthy”,“nutritious”, “high carbohydrate”, “anti-oxidant”, “fresh”, “whole grain”, “organic”, “non-processed”, “vegetarian” and “raw”. Some of the descriptions they used for good foods seemed to be symbolic of the body image ideals of these sport cultures such as “lean”, “in moderation”, “light”, “low fat” and “whole”.
Believing that they are what they eat, triathletes and marathon runners seem to prefer eating “light”, “low fat” and “whole” foods and thereby would imbue their bodies with those qualities and thus they, in turn, would seem to embody their sport cultures.
Moderate amounts of high carbohydrate and micronutrient rich foods were uniformly cited as generally “good foods”, a category which matched the prevailing sports nutrition discourse (Ryan 2007; Maughan 2002 ;USDA 2008). What I didn’t see that surprised me were foods being categorized “good” because they were “organic” or “natural.” Perhaps the mainstream acceptance of those labels have made them no longer differentiating or meaningful or perhaps these are just not as important to these athletes as the foods functional qualities in regards to one’s athletic performance. Though a few respondents did say that they preferred vegan or vegetarian foods.  Also, many foods that were good were noted as “lean” which reflects the dominant fitness trend and embodied culture of runners as lean and athletic (Bourdieau 1984: 214).
 Representative examples of “good foods” from surveyed triathletes are:
“carbohydrate foods like bagels, oatmeal, energy gels, bars like PowerBar.”
 “I find whole foods are best and I also try and avoid a lot of dairy …”
“high carbohydrate foods like bagels, oatmeal, energy gels, bars like PowerBar”.
“fruit and vegetables and juices. Yams/sweet potatoes for high carb content.”
 “WHOLE GRAIN BREAD, BANANAS, PASTA”
Representative examples of “good foods”  from surveyed marathon and ultra runners are:
“lean protein sources, wild salmon, grass-fed beef, veggies, fruits, nuts, fish oil, olive oil, coconut oil, protein supplements, maltdextrin for recovery.”
“whole grains, fruits & veg[ie]s”
“skim milk, yogurt, whey protein, bananas, apples, berries, oatmeal, lots of broccoli, olive oil, chicken breast, salmon, … wheat breads. Water”
“Chicken, fruits, oatmeal, salads, beans, pasta, seltzer water! … fresh, stuff that is lower in fat content, stuff that will fill me but not fatten me…”
“Bad foods”
Bad foods were described as the very qualities triathletes and marathon runners eschew with their active life styles. Symbolic of these “bad foods” qualities are their negative descriptors such as “fake”, “processed”, “high fat”, “fried” (“fried” is also a slang term for “tired”—a state these athletes try avoid when training and racing), “preserved,” “fat” (race times are slower generally the heavier one is), “heavy,” “artificial” and “junk” (term for over-training without a specific performance goal is called “doing junk miles” in the lingo of both of these sport cultures).
The categories of foods are based on their functional role of health and athletic performance enhancement. These functions are based on what many of the athletes believe is scientific research on exercise physiology and sports nutrition as well as the health and fitness trend in American culture. This is a significant departure from food choices based on religious beliefs, flavor and family customs or traditions.
 These “bad foods” generally mirrored the same foods categorized as “bad” in the American media lately. Foods that contain high fructose corn syrup, MSG, too much salt, and trans fats are “bad”. These athletes usually consider fried foods and “drug foods” such as coffee, alcohol and refined sugar are as “bad”. Also, considered “bad” are red meat, processed foods, fast foods.
Representative “bad foods” from surveyed triathletes are:
“simple carbs, alcohol, processed food”
“Alcohol, preservative laden foods, ice cream”
“fried foods, lots of meat, lots of alcohol, soda!”
“CHOCOLATE, COFFEE, SUGARS, STARCH”
“anything with fake sugars desserts fast food of any kind”
Representative “bad foods” from surveyed marathon and ultra runners are:
“French fries, alcohol, sweets”
“Anything that takes a while to digest or impedes digestion. I tend to avoid: meat, friend foods, especially fried meat, cheese, anything ‘heavy’”
“Liquor, fast foods, red meat, salt, processed foods”
“Too much fat”
“Processed foods tell me ‘evil’. Although I used soda in ultras, just consuming them (my big vice) is not good at all. Dairy products…Eating too much puts on fat. Take out food. Coffee…”

Post-race celebrations: Reversal of food categories

Something interesting happens to the endurance athletes’ categories of “good foods” and “bad foods” after they finish an important race. At many a post-race awards dinner or party the categories of good and bad foods seem to get reversed. What is normally a  “bad food” is now a  “reward” or a “treat” and consumed with gusto. Once these athletes cross the finish line many of them seem to ignore their food prohibitions and, basically, go nuts. Post-race celebrations seem to function as a rite of reversal (a socially acceptable way to blow off steam) for triathletes and marathon runners who normally abide by their strict dietary and training regimes each day (Turner 1964). Many triathletes and runners stay up late after they finish a race (or try to anyway) and celebrate in an un-characteristicly  hedonistic fashion over-indulging in normally forbidden and unhealthy or “bad” foods, beverages and other activities… By purposely breaking their dietary rules in a post-race ritual of (food and lifestyle rules) reversal, they are reinforcing their fealty to these rules. Or, in other words, like your writing teacher taught you in high school or college, you have to know the rules, before you can break them.
Some representative “broken rule” responses of what triathletes said they ate after they raced on race day include a lot of “bad foods”:
“anything/everything and beer”
“love burritos and margaritas!”
“French fries, burger, salty foods. Wine or beer. Treat foods.”
“whatever I’m craving at the time, frequently something full of fat and salt (like pizza) after a long race.”
“A big fat steak!”
 The marathon and ultra runners I surveyed had similar food category reversals. Here are some of them:
“… ice cold Sierra Nevada beer, big salad, maybe even some nachos. Mostly salty cravings and fat cravings”
“very much so, often I will eat a very large, fatty, high protein dinner, like a gigantic cheeseburger, or fried chicken.”
“1 or 2 beers, some sort of red meat. This is very different from my normal diet which is primarily vegetarian.”
“Beer and Mexican food. Spicy.”
“BEER OR MARGARITAS… BECAUSE I CAN!!!”
I like to think of these crazy post-race binges of triathletes and marathon runners as  their to equivalent of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Competitive triathlete women, normally never seen by their training mates in anything other than lycra with their hair bound up in a pony tail, are dancing in high heals (or barefoot) in some kind of feminine dressy thing, hair flying free and beads optional…and eating anything and going for the cold beer and nachos. Post marathon race men, usually decked out in some form of sweaty running shoe, tank and shorts ensemble, are showered up and jeans clad at a hotel bar chowing down ice cream and pie, after re-hydrating with a chilled bottles of their favorite beer and, maybe, tequila shots.  Normally devout and disciplined, once a year (or on this case after a milestone race), the triathlon and marathon faithful relax and party like it’s 1999.

Life is full of contradictions isn’t it?

Read Part II: “Food As Fuel: Eating Habits of Triathletes and Marathon Runners: How They Fit Food in Between Work and Working Out.”  This includes what triathletes and marathon and ultra runners to told me about their mealtimes: how many meals a day (usually more than three), when they eat (lunch is rarely at noon), how much they eat and the structure of a “perfect” endurance athlete meal.
Read Part III: Food As Fuel: Why Triathletes and Marathoners Eat so Weird According to Old Dead French Social Theorists. That’s my working title for Part III for now anyway.

In the meantime, here are some healthy unprocessed meal ideas from Opra Winfrey’s ex-chef and marathon runner Art Smith in the October issue of Runner’s World:Comfort Fuel (Runners World, October 2011)

Happy trails and, if you just finished a race,  “Cheers!”

Note: I do not benefit from mentioning or linking to any products or brand names mentioned in this post.

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