February 28, 2013

(+++) FOOD AS FUEL


The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition: A Cutting-Edge Plan to Fuel Your Body beyond “The Wall.” By Matt Fitzgerald. Da Capo. $17.99.

      On the face of it, this is a book for a very, very limited audience: intense runners who participate in marathons and half-marathons and have experienced a mid-race muscle shutdown (“The Wall”) that makes it difficult or impossible to finish the course. Actually, there are more athletes running these extended races than most people realize – more than one-and-a-half-million, in fact. And if sports nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald is correct in asserting that three-quarters of them will hit “The Wall” when racing, then The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition has a large, if still limited, potential audience.

      But what is more interesting is to determine whether the book may be useful for the much larger group that does not indulge in intense exercise but would like to become healthier through better fitness and improved nutrition. That combination, after all, is a recipe for significantly improved overall wellness, including much-reduced risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other chronic, potentially debilitating conditions.  It turns out that while some of what Fitzgerald recommends is really appropriate only for marathoners and other intensely committed athletes, other elements of his book are worthwhile for anyone seeking to develop a more-healthful lifestyle.

      Fitzgerald says there are three reasons runners hit “The Wall”: lack of fitness, poor pacing and nutritional issues. The third of these is the one with the greatest applicability to people in general, and it is the one to which Fitzgerald devotes most of his book.  The first part of The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition, “The Two-Rule Diet,” deals with such general-interest issues as calorie density and diet quality. For diet-quality purposes, Fitzgerald categorizes all foods into 10 groups, in decreasing quality order: vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, fish and lean meats, whole grains, dairy products, refined grains, fatty meats, sweets, and fried foods. These are good categories for everyone to know – with the first six being high-quality foods that belong in your diet and the last four being ones to consume sparingly, if at all.  And Fitzgerald’s comments to runners are applicable to everyone: “I’m not saying you have to be a world-class chef (I’m not) or prepare a complicated dinner every night (I don’t) to eat healthily. I’m just trying to make the point that eating well comes down to eating good food.”

      When you eat matters, too. Again, what Fitzgerald tells runners applies in a modified way to everyone: “What you eat for breakfast and even when you eat it should be dependent on when you normally run. If you run soon after waking up in the morning you cannot eat a full breakfast before heading out the door. …On the other hand, running on a completely empty stomach after an overnight fast would compromise your run in a different way.”  This is also true if you do any exercise in the morning, or even if you simply get up and head out to work – some sort of breakfast is crucial for energy gain and weight stabilization or loss, and it makes sense to plan for breakfast as part of every day.

      The second and third parts of Fitzgerald’s book are more specifically directed at runners than the first part. Part Two is called “Performance Nutrition from Day 1 to Race Day,” and Part Three is “Nutrition-Training Synergy,” which includes detailed plans for half marathons and marathons.  The level of specificity that Fitzgerald provides is excellent for runners: “The average amount of sports drink in the paper or plastic cups handed out at aid stations is 4 ounces. A runner who drinks one such cup at every station – that is, 4 ounces every 1.3 miles – will consume anywhere from 10 to 18 ounces per hour, depending on his or her pace.”  This is not, however, helpful for people who are not committed to running for exercise or sport.  Nor is a comment such as this: “The best approach to training for marathons and half marathons is the one that generates the greatest combined gains in aerobic capacity, leanness, running economy, glycogen stores, and fat-burning capacity.”  However, an understanding of the basics of training for intense exercise may help people who are trying to make some exercise part of their everyday routine do so more thoughtfully.  The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition is, by design, a targeted book of limited general value, but its usefulness for its intended audience is high, and it does contain a number of elements and recommendations  that can help people who may never run a marathon but who are trying to decide, on an ongoing basis, whether to skip the elevator at work and run up the stairs instead.

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