Really, Gina Kolata?

I normally enjoy Gina Kolata‘s writing, and I like her Personal Best column in the New York Times quite a bit. But this just strikes me as ridiculous:

That means it is a disadvantage to eat most of the day’s calories at one time — at night, for example. But athletes should make dietary changes gradually so their bodies can adapt to more frequent fueling, he said. Those who try sudden changes sometimes pay a price.

Dr. Benardot tells the story of a distance runner who was doing well and felt great the morning of a big marathon. Before the race began, she saw her chief competitor put packs of a sugary gel into her running bra to eat during the race.

The distance runner did the same, even though she had never before eaten during races or long runs. It was a disaster: She had diarrhea during the event.

The gels “were anything but a competitive advantage,” Dr. Benardot said.

Vanilla bean flavored GU energy gel.

Image via Wikipedia

This is excerpted from a post Kolata recently wrote for the Times’s Well blog on how much people eat while running or participating in any kind of endurance training. The way she describes things, you’d think a marathon (or even a long run) was just a trip down one long buffet table: an endless (and long) graze! I run with a lot of people, and I see a lot of people while I’m running. I have never once seen (or heard about) people eating this much during a training run or a race. Maybe I’m just surrounded by the wrong people?

To focus just on this excerpt, though, I feel compelled to channel Amy Poehler and counter with a “really? Really?!” I just don’t believe that this story is true. Sure, a lot of runners make the mistake of trying something new on race day with disastrous results. But a successful distance runner who is confident about her performance and has a “chief competitor”? I’m sorry, but a runner in that position is going to know better than to do something like that on the morning of a race just because the competition is doing it too. That has got to be as apocryphal as the story about the guy who gouged his eyes out with bottle caps while going through a bad acid trip (as much as I’ve always wanted that story to be true. You know, just because).

I mean, look. You think people are eating too much while running. You have some weird hang-up about it or whatever. Fine. Just don’t start printing made-up stories to validate your opinion. You’re better than that, Gina.

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  1. You know what bugged me the most about this article? How judgmental it sounded. Especially at the beginning talking about “all that food” they have endurance events. Like its just such a terrible thing. Underlying the entire article was the assumption that all people work out to lose weight. But that is not the case and she lumped everyone into that category. Some people work out to build muscle. Some people work out because it makes them feel good even though they have a hard time keeping weight on, some people work out because they want to perform better in their next race. There are SO many different reasons people work out and just because you work out doesn’t mean that you are trying to arrive at a calorie deficit at the end of the day. What if, God forbid, you were trying to GAIN weight? Or even maintain with a fast metabolism? There are LOTS of people in this category. And I’ll take it one step further, what if you are trying to lose weight but you simply feel better if you consume a gel in the middle of your half marathon? Maybe its not necessary, maybe it is. Its a grey area and why does it have to come with judgement from this journalist? I firmly believe that different fueling strategies work for different people. We all have different goals. Why judge? Eating is not a sin or a crime or a moral decision of any kind.

    Sorry for the rant. I’m pretty sensitive to this topic having survived an eating disorder. Thanks for bringing this article to my attention Emile!

    1. Alissa, I completely agree! You really articulated another aspect of the article that bothered me. She sort of concedes that people have different fueling needs, but she really weights the whole post toward “you shouldn’t be eating” rather than “figure out what works best for you.” I also felt like there was a judgmental underdone, and an aspect of it that was very food-phobic, as though she doesn’t feel comfortable with the idea of fueling during a run and wants everyone else to feel just as uncomfortable about it.

      Feel free to rant about these things anytime! I can definitely understand the sensitivity. Don’t feel bad about expressing yourself!

      1. Alissa basically said what I felt when I read that, that the article seemed to condemn food. I’m tired of food being villainized everywhere. Mainly because I lived for years doing that myself and I still fall victim to that when I see it printed, “Oh yeah, maybe I should avoid that… WAIT!”

        And even though I’m more sensitive to these messages, it seems to me that the media is spreading these messages more and more, making disordered thoughts about food more prevalent and commonplace in our society. Every single morsel has a value judgment applied to it and I’m sick of it! It makes it so hard to truly recover when those messages are assaulting you all the time.

        End Rant!

  2. I read that same article today before you even blogged on it, and I thought that was really weird. If someone knows enough to train for a marathon, clearly they know not to eat a new food on the MORNING OF a race. Heck, we tell our Couch to 5K people not to anything anything new within two days of a race, even they know that and that’s a 5K.

    The article was really biased toward weight loss… and yeah, the constant message was that you’re eating too much. Nevermind that your body needs calories to function and perform at your best. I don’t fuel during races (then again, the longest I’ve raced was a half), and I eat oatmeal for breakfast before… but I have a friend who eats part of a power bar, that works for her- good for her!

    Really wish they’d put a better spin on this like listening to your body’s needs. That’s something we all need to do not just runners.

  3. I think the article is poorly written (it’s not her first time writing poorly:, but I actually agree wholeheartedly with what she says. This is actually a huge pet peeve of mine – the industry that has sprung up around Gu/Clif Shots, etc. Ordinary runners are told that they need Gu every 40 minutes, or whatever. (I’ve read people saying that you should take it at the START of your run, so that it can kick in by 20 minutes in.) We runners want the best performance so we don’t always take the time to test exactly what works for us or doesn’t – we just buy into whatever conventional wisdom (driven by consumerism) tells us we NEED (just like no one ever runs by feel anymore, which I think would be advantageous for, oh, like EVERYONE). Most runners could get away with less fuel than they take in, and they might even do better that way.

    Sorry for the rant.

    1. I lean towards agreeing with the critique of the article but I agree with what you’re saying Tracy. There is this push to get people to consume (i think over-consume) calories based on simply performing physical activity. (I see this in Runners World alot.)

      There’s a fun run of 7km where i live – it got 11,000 people last year – and this year they are putting on a PASTA PARTY the night before. Seriously. For 7km. There was a ‘demand’ apparently for carb loading. You have enough fuel in your body to run 7km on an empty stomach (whether you would want to or if that’s for the best for you is something else). Slightly off the topic but i couldn’t help adding it in.

      1. A local gym is hosting a 5K next month and having a pasta party the night before. Sorry, but I’m not eating anything new the night before, and especially not pasta.

        You’d think a GYM that’s hosted this race for years would know better, but they’ve also given out the same shirts (no dates/years on them) for 3 years straight, so yeah.

        I also wonder about some of these products, that perhaps the magazines and internet sites that promote them so much are getting paid to do it. I don’t use Gu (I have two sent to me as a part of a Christmas card swap for runners, though), supplements, etc. My times have consistently improved over the past two years. It’s cool if others want to use it and it works for them, but running well is more about the work you put in over time, not a specific food.

      2. I use gu, but I 1) find the taste difficult to like at times (although the chocolate outrage isn’t bad, IMO) and 2) don’t do it for “performance-enhancing” reasons. The only way these things could have significant performance enhancing effects is if you’re really suffering because you keep hitting a wall during longer runs. There’s nothing special about them, they’re just a quick shot of glucose, which your muscles need in order to create ATP at a relatively fast rate. They’re definitely hyped up. You should use what works for you on a run, even if that means nothing at all. There’s definitely a marketing aspect to the way these products are presented that’s more than a little silly!

      3. I want to add…it’s also about what you’re doing. I mean i just ate alot of GU products over the weekend doing an ultra. And there’s an ultra i’m thinking of doing in 3 weeks which calls their aid stations ‘smorgasboards’ due to how much food they put on.

        I rarely eat actual food at aid stations as i’m too scared too mess up my stomach, but if i didn’t use something there’s of course no way i’d have a shot of finishing. By the way i didn’t hit the wall at this ultra until after the marathon mark – i should have had more gels really. But i’m talking about ultras of course. I wouldn’t use this products unless it was my best chance of finishing.

  4. I am happy you pointed this article out because I missed it!

    While I do see the push on gels and bloks and all that, I am a heavy person and get hungry when I run over 12 miles. So I will take 2 GUs. And I am actually still trying to figure out what is right for me, while doing long runs. I don’t think it’s ridiculous to have all of that food at endurance events. People are burning a ton of calories! If you can workout forever and not need food, good for you, but I have found out that I can’t..

    1. It’s great that you’re working on figuring out what’s right for you! That’s the most important thing. Tracy’s got a really good point about the entire “take one at this time and then another one every X minutes…” Everyone’s body works differently, and your needs are not going to be the same as your running partner’s, even if you’re running the same distance at the same pace!

      I’m the same way you are. I have to have something, otherwise I’m just not going to make it through a long run. I can probably go ten miles without a gu, but that’s on a good run. If I tried anything beyond that, I think I’d hit a wall pretty hard before long.

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