In 2013 I had already been a runner for more than a decade and since I had been improving in everything from the 1500 meter to the half-marathon, I figured I should be able to run a sub-three-hour marathon. After all, my coach said that my other race times indicated it was a reasonable goal. The thing is that my first try in Boston in 2011 was a failure, as was my 2012 attempt in Ottawa, so I was frustrated and desperate to find a way to make it happen. Up until then I hadn't looked at diet at all so after my coach had brought in a personal trainer with some nutrition training to speak to us, I decided to take an appointment. For the rest of the story I'll call him Mr. Nutrition just for the sake of not affecting his reputation. Although Mr. Nutrition wasn't a registered dietitian (meaning he didn't have a university degree in nutrition and was not part of a governing body overseeing his practice), I was convinced he could help me get my sub-3 hour marathon goal after hearing him speak.
Just to give a little context, my nutrition wasn't that bad. I know everyone says that, but I didn't spend money on take-out food or buy anything in the frozen prepared food section of the grocery store. I did bake loaves of banana bread with my leftover bananas, but I also ate fresh fruits and vegetables every day. When I brought my food log to Mr. Nutrition, he said it needed a complete overhaul. He told me I need to remove dairy, lactose, gluten, corn and soy from my diet... basically everything I was eating was no longer good. I also had to limit carbs for a month before going to see him again and he didn't say anything about reducing my training volume which was around 100 kilometers per week at the time. I was really motivated so I followed everything he said exactly. When I went back to subsequent visits, Mr. Nutrition allowed me to put carbohydrate containing foods back into my diet but they had to be potatoes and not pasta since gluten was still not allowed.
I expected that I would start to feel fit and run faster because I was now "taking care of my nutrition", but instead the opposite started to happen. Workouts started to feel harder, I was more tired and my race times got slower. When I told Mr. Nutrition about it, he said that my body needed to "adapt" to my new diet and that it would get better with time. Since I was motivated by my marathon goal, I continued to see him for over 6 months but that adaptation never happened, my race times started to get slower and I got my first real running injury. I didn't know at the time, but I have since learned that these were symptoms of energy deficiency and there are now plenty of articles you can read about RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport) if you're interested in the topic. I stopped seeing Mr. Nutrition mostly because I got discouraged with my running and figured there was no point in spending the money on monthly nutrition consults since I now needed to spend it on physiotherapy. Besides, the list of foods that he wanted me to avoid never changed so I could just continue on my own. It took another few months before I let go of the no gluten, no soy, no corn, no milk diet because I realized it was not working. The thing is that it took years to undo the damage that those six months had done. I didn't really remember what I used to eat anyway so it was hard to just go back to my old diet... the one that allowed to to run as much as I wanted without injury.
Looking back, I don't think there was anything wrong with taking a look at my nutrition, but I should have gone to see a registered dietitian specialized in sports nutrition and who has experience working with endurance athletes. I did finally see a registered dietician during my build up to the Toronto Marathon in October 2022 and her advice helped me have the best marathon training build I have had in the last 10 years. I still didn't run under three hours in the marathon, but I was able to complete the whole training cycle without injury and hit my training paces more often than usual, so it was a win. If I could give one piece of advice to anyone looking to improve their diet in order to improve their running, I would say don't follow the latest fad diet you read about online and be careful who you take nutrition advice from. I would also suggest finding a registered dietician who specializes in sports nutrition, because optimal athletic performance is a different goal than weigh-loss. Optimal athletic performance requires an adequate calorie intake to fuel workouts and be able to recover from them, and weight loss requires a calorie deficit. Don't make the same mistake I did and then spend years trying to get back to where you used to be.
Have you ever changed your diet in an attempt to run faster? Did it work for you? If it did, what did you do?
Photo: When we lived in downtown Montreal, my husband Andre and I would go to the Atwater Market after doing the grocery shopping at the Super C across the street. We would get two almond croissants at the Premier Moisson bakery and bring them home as a post-errand reward!