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.
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.”
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!”
“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.”
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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An anthropological look at energy gels for endurance athletes

An energy gel is semi-liquid or pudding-like, sweet and easily digestible source of 25-30 grams of complex carbohydrates that are sold usually in single-serving disposable sachets containing about 2 Tablespoons (36 grams) of gel. The purpose of energy gels is to supply energy to an endurance athlete. Endurance athletes ingest energy gels in order to replace depleted liver and muscle glycogen stores used up while racing or training.

Professional coaches, sports nutritionists and exercise physiologists for endurance athletes recommend carbohydrate replacement for continuous physical exertion that exceeds 60-90 minutes in duration. After that time, muscle glycogen stores become depleted and to maintain optimal performance, the energy must be replaced in a quickly metabolized and digestible form. (Muaghan) Ingesting about 25 grams of carbohydrates just before endurance athletic activity is also recommended to maintain an optimal level of blood glucose for athletic performance. (Ryan)

Most energy gels are made of a type of polymer for the gel-like substance with complex or long-chain carbohydrate energy from maltodextrin, grain dextrins and contain a preservative and flavorings such as vanilla, fruit puree, cocoa or sugar (fructose or sucrose).
Some energy gels include caffeine or ginseng that works as a muscle stimulant and relaxant. Some energy gels also include a blend of salts called electrolytes that are lost through perspiration. Electrolytes lost in perspiration include sodium chloride (table salt), sodium citrate and potassium chloride. Replacing electrolytes lost during sweating is important because the body needs electrolytes in order to process glucose energy and to maintain physical and mental bodily functions at an optimal level. (Ryan)

You can make your own energy gel with electrolytes with natural ingredients such as honey, blackstrap molasses and table salt. See the recipe “Homemade Power Goop” in Appendix A. (Nolek)

When and where energy gels are eaten:
Energy gels are usually eaten from small disposable sachets carried by the endurance athlete herself while training or racing. They are eaten while the athlete is moving—for example while he is running, cycling, climbing, skate-skiing or other endurance activity. The athlete either hand carries an energy gel, but more often wears special athletic clothing with small pockets to accommodate the sachets. Or, as with cyclists, mountain bikers and triathletes, the athlete tapes the gel sachets to their bike’s top tube or has a special food pouch strapped to the bike frame for rides.
Sports nutritionists recommend that athletes ingest about 25 grams of carbohydrate one hour before competition so energy gels are also ingested as a “snack” just before racing. However, a banana also works just as well. They often eat these foods alone or together with other athletes while they are exercising. They are running, sitting on a bike seat cycling, or in their car driving to a place to workout.. They are not mindfully enjoying their food for its taste but are using food as fuel to optimize their bodily performance—thinking of their body as a athletic machine.

Semiotics of energy gels:
The highest authority for sports nutrition and consuming energy gels seems to be science. To make an analogy with Mosaic dietary laws, where Hebrew kashrut dietary authority is written testimony in Hebrew Bible, and following these laws is both an identity and a practice for gaining spiritual perfection. (Soler) Following the scientific sports nutritionist prescriptions can be both an identity for an athlete and is also practice. (Maughan) However, instead of pursing spiritual perfection, it is for gaining optimal athletic performance and self-perfection. According to Jean Soler, the ancient Hebrews believed that the first food given to man was vegetarian and pure in the Garden of Eden at the beginning of time. During the Exodus, the Hebrews survived for 40 days in the desert solely on a sacred food from heaven called manna. Manna was believed to be the most pure food and tasted “like wafer made with honey”. (Soler) Using the scientific bio-medical or mechanistic epistemology of athletic performance, Western medicine, Olympic Training Center (OTC) certified coaches and exercise physiologists consider “food as fuel” and “food as chemistry” that the human body needs for normal function. (Maughan) Coincidentally, the energy gel manufacturers claim that their products offer the most pure and most effective form of complex carbohydrates in a gel form that has the consistency of honey, often looks like honey and can be made at home with honey. Endurance athlete manna. (Nolek)

Food packaging and its meaning:
Energy gel manufacturers foster the belief that their products are a superior science-based source of energy for endurance athletes with the words and image symbols present on their packaging. Below is a review of some carbohydrate-only energy gel packaging’s meaning laden-branding in words and images:
Hammer Gel: “Hammer” connotes a hard steel tool for pounding nail, “Rapid Energy Fuel” emphasizes the mechanistic bio-medical view of the human body with power and speed; packaging artwork is of a bike crank stylized to look light electricity (power) shooting from it. Using cyclist lingo, “to hammer on the bike” means to go very fast with extreme effort. The word chosen to describe the viscious syrupy food is “gel”(from the word “gelatin” that is made from beef) and not “honey” or “pudding” or “custard” which has less forceful connotations.
Cliff Shot: “Shot” connotes a fast bullet projectile shooting from a weapon; Cliff (the company founder’s dog’s name is similar to the word “cliff” which means a dangerous perapice and opportunity for a wall climb by an climber, the packagine also includes the words “90% organic entirely natural” to emphasize it’s purity.
PowerBar Gel: “Power” means energy obviously, but it also means “strength” and social dominance as in “political power” The word choice of “gel” sounds more athletic than “pudding’; however this company goes a step further towards emphasizing it’s science-based authority with “C2 Max higher octane carb blend.” “C2 Max” is a play on the term “VO2” max which is popular test that elite endurance athletes take to determine the upper limit of their performance. (Maughan)
Gu Roctane: “Gu” is similar to “gel” as a descriptor and doesn’t have the sweet leisurely connotations as “pudding” or “honey”. “Roctane” seems to be a made up word that connotes “rock”—a very hard and inert substance that doesn’t deteriorate with time. The package emphases this symbolism with the words “Race with the Roc”.

The science of sports nutrition is a both a belief system and a practice with that what an athlete ingests as important as when, where and in what form. (Maughan 140) Conceptualizing the body as a bio-machine, carbohydrates (CHO) are the fuel that the body can metabolize most quickly into energy or blood glucose. By replacing energy burned during exertion, the gels maintain a constant supply of energy available to the athlete thereby increasing the athlete’s endurance and optimum performance. (Ryan)

A very short history of sports nutrition for endurance athletes:
A company based in Berkeley, California called GU Energy in 1991 invented the first energy gels. (GU Energy) PowerBars were invented in 1986 and PowerGel came out in 1996. (PowerBar).
Before energy gels, bars and beverages became readily available in the 1990s, American endurance athletes used easy-to digest and relatively inexpensive natural foods and beverages to maintain their energy levels from word of mouth and trial-and-error.
Dave Scott, a five-time winner of the Hawaiian Ironman World Championships explains what he used to eat to maintain his energy while training for hours on the bike and while running. He said:

Nutritionally speaking, we didn’t know a whole lot in the early 1980s. Each athlete would seemingly load their water bottles with a unique, home-brewed concoction. The drinks were usually extraordinarily sludge-like with a slight brownish tint. I had heard that these “loaded caloric bombs” often exceeded 1500 calories per water bottle.
The common recipe for optimal nutrition was a combination of ground or pureed candy bars, honey and dextrose tablets blended with the chef’s favorite beverage. Its not that I was smarter, I just didn’t like candy bars, and I thought honey and Coca-Cola didn’t sound terribly appetizing.
I took a simplified track and drank water plus Exceed, one of the first fuel-replacement drinks tailored to endurance athletes. In the 1980 Kona Ironman, athletes were required to have an endurance support vehicle, which upon a simple hand gesture, provided whatever fuel or fluid you desired. I loaded up my team and station wagon with a few baked potatoes, several bunches of bananas and lots of water. Bars, gels, sodium intake, and protein—we didn’t know a thing about those topics, nor were they available. (Scott)

A cross-cultural example of sports nutrition for endurance athletes:
Tarahumara Indians of northwestern Mexico are known for their corn-based diet, longevity and running culture. Tarahumara Indians are known to be the best ultra distance (over marathon length) runners in the world. It is not uncommon for an Indian to cover 100, 200 or even 300 miles over the course of 48 hours. They are known to hunt game like deer by running the animals to exhaustion. (Lutz) Their dietary staples are foods and beverages made from corn, a native grain that is a high carbohydrate starchy food. Because their lives revolve around running they eat mostly small easily digestible snacks of 80% carbohydrates from corn. (McDougal) They have learned that the most efficient way to fuel their bodies without deprecating their running performance is through snacking throughout the day on small portions of a high-carbohydrate food. The Tarahumara Indians moderate their calorie intake so as to not impact their running. Essentially they graze all day. Their traditional diet is similar to the high carbohydrate Pritikin Diet. (Lutz 31-32). Also, the composition of their mostly vegetarian and starch based diet is similar to modern-day elite and world-class ultra runners such as Scott Jurak eats a similar diet of 80% carbohydrates and is a vegan.

Appendix A (a recipe to make your own energy gel)

Homemade Power Goop
By Derek Nolek, Dirt Rag Magazine

7 and 1/3 tablespoons of honey
3/4 teaspoons of blackstrap molasses
1/10 teaspoons (just shy of 1/8 tsp) of table salt

Be sure to mix everything together well. It should make enough to fill a five-serving GU Energy flask. [A travel size container for shampoo or hand lotion thoroughly cleaned out would work, too. Multisport Mama]
This recipe works nicely. You may see some bubbles on the surface, but that is just a natural occurrence of the molasses. Neither honey nor molasses needs to be refrigerated, so you can keep it in your pocket all day and even use it the following week. I probably wouldn’t go much past a week, but it should still be good.
The nutritional content approximates: 25g carbs, 45mg sodium, 35mg potassium–with plenty of vitamins and minerals that you wouldn’t get with the store-bought stuff. Another nice thing about the honey recipe is that it is all natural. Honey comes from bees that get nectar from flowers. Molasses is refined from sugar cane. (Nolek)


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