My Nutrition Journey

“As long as the furnace is hot enough… it’ll burn anything!”

~Men's College XC Team's Motto (for nutrition)

My nutrition journey is perhaps just as long and crazy as my running and racing journey. I am not a nutritionist, but I have come a long way, and have had the chance to work with from some fantastic nutrition experts. I share what I’ve learned in hopes that it might help your journey.

Phase 1 – What is all this talk of organic, non-packaged stuff?

I often wondered why I didn’t look quite like the women I was racing with—they were so strong and lean!  They were also able to train at higher volumes; I was often injured and felt run down when I increased my mileage.  I wondered if it had to do with diet, but often dismissed the idea since I knew I was eating the right number of calories per day.  That’s all that matters, right?  If the furnace is hot enough, it’ll burn anything?  Plus, if you’re targeting 2,000 calories per day, what difference could it make if those were coming from light yogurt, chicken nuggets and fries, and frozen pizza versus oatmeal, greek yogurt, and vegetable stir fry?

A log from my early marathon days (2:55 marathoner):

       Breakfast: 5 Oreos, coffee/hot chocolate mix, light yogurt

       Lunch: Frozen meal, applesauce, cookie

       Snack: Pretzels, Coffee/hot chocolate mix

       Dinner: 2 slices pizza, Pop Tart (because I counted up my calories for the day and realized I had some “extra” to spend :))

That’s about 2,000 calories, which was typical and should have been just right for my base metabolism (BMR) plus my weekly mileage.  As long as I was eating the right #, it shouldn’t matter where it comes from, right? As long as the furnace is hot enough? 

Could a diet change, switching to primarily fresh and organic foods, help my performance? 

I read a lot about elite athletes and how they ate.  They snacked on Greek yogurt and granola and ate salmon on brown rice with steamed vegetables for dinner. Really? I’d much rather have my microwaveable burritos, frozen pizza, or pre-packaged lasagna.  All are so much easier than cooking! Plus, I was raised on packaged things, so that’s what I craved and knew how to “cook”. Not to mention, packaged items are usually on sale and you can double a coupon to purchase them for next to nothing – great for my budget-conscious and coupon-game wired brain :).

I embarked on an experiment to see if switching to a whole foods/organic based diet would help.  It was a very difficult transition for me to make. I didn’t know what over half of the vegetables were when I first entered the local food co-op!  And even if I did know their names, how do you cook or what do you make with them?

The first four weeks of transition were tough.  I craved sugar more than anything imaginable.  I stared into our pantry cupboard, channeling my inner powers to make packaged snacks to appear.  It didn’t work. I specifically didn’t buy processed or packaged foods, as I knew if I had them in the house that I would find them and devour them.  
8 Grain Pancakes from scratch. Better than anything you'll find in a box! Recipe here.

My stomach had a hard time processing the organic and more plant-based diet at first.  I needed to plan my runs around where I knew bathroom stops were located.  My stomach often gurgled.  The one positive thing I noted during this time was how much more I was able to eat.  I was able to add AM and PM snacks into my day and meals were much larger (in relation to the pizza and pop-tart dinner!). 

I stuck with it through these first four weeks because I really wanted to see if it made a difference. It would have been so easy just to give up. If this sounds like you, expect the transition to be difficult. Have a plan on how you’ll stick with it! 

So – was it worth it? Absolutely. Hands down. I recover from workouts much quicker, which allowed me to train more each week.  My previous mileage before the nutrition switch was a high of 90 miles/week, which left me feeling tired and spent.  I was now able to train at 100 miles/week in back-to-back weeks without the same feeling.  Amazing!  Doubles also became easier. My body composition has also changed—it hasn’t been a drastic overnight change, but slow and steady without really trying. I rarely get sick now. I used to bruise easily and carry it for two weeks. Now I heal normally – perhaps even more quickly than normal? It is awesome what real food can do for you.

Some of my first “healthy” meals didn’t turn out too well. Good thing Nate was there to help!

My first homemade soup. Take a second look. Yes, I actually did follow a recipe and yes, I actually was TRYING.
Nate whisked it away and actually made something edible with it. :)
I learned what beets look like, how to roast them in the oven and grill them to top salads. (Yum! Recipe here) I learned that salads and fresh meat in the evenings could be delightful, as well as quinoa, steamed vegetables, and marinated tofu. I have never eaten this way in my entire life, and I never thought I would.  But knowing what I do know, I would not go back to my packaged ways! As much as I craved and missed the salt, fat, and sugar in those packaged foods, I can happily say that I have completely changed my taste buds to crave whole grains, home-made dishes, and simple, organic foods. There is nothing like an organic nectarine.  Don’t believe me? Try it!

I still am a huge fan of chocolate chip cookies, though! Everything in moderation :)
Phase II - The 10 Minute Rule

I’ve also worked on nutrient timing. The first and foremost rule I adhere to is eating within 10 minutes of a workout. Some research says you have a 30 minute window. Whatever the true "window" is, the earlier you can get it in, the better. 

The ratio I follow: 0.5 grams carbs/pound of body weight with protein at a ratio of 3:1 to 5:1 carbs/protein. This should be consumed as close to every workout as possible.

Some of my favorites: bagel with PB & Jam, Oatmeal w/ side of Greek yogurt, Protein shake and a slice of home-made bread, cereal with milk, egg white tortilla w/ spinach, Nutella on an English muffin w/ 2 scrambled eggs, the list goes on!

I’ve experimented with this routine ½ of the time vs. after every one of my workouts (including my short doubles) vs. very sporadic timing. I will say that the only way I’ve seen the full benefits is when I’ve consumed this amount after every workout. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 4-5 mile PM shake-out jog, this is something I adhere to religiously. Adding this into my workout routine helped me to increase mileage even further. There is a big difference in recovery time when this is done!

Phase III – Ratios! 

Next, I was challenged to think of my food in terms of 3 groups: proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. I was given target ratios (varying by my mileage) and learned how important it was to try to hit these. I try (emphasis on try!) to have each of my meals and snacks hit these targets.

For me, this has meant thinking about – and adding – protein to many of my meals. For breakfast before I’d typically have a bagel with jam. Now I have that same bagel and add a side of 6-8 ounces of plain Greek yogurt. If my goal is to have 80-100g of protein each day, there’s no way I’ll get there if I don’t have at least ~15g/meal or snack.
Salads are such an awesome meal option! They're easy and the options are endless. What do you have in your fridge that needs to be used up? Grill or steam it and throw it on!
Track your intake for a couple of days. Are you low in any one group?

Phase IV – Fat burning and Generation UCAN

So – now on to phase IV! Despite all of the above, I still found myself stubbornly hanging on to an extra 4-6 pounds. I had to work really, really hard to lose anything. Seems odd, right? I’m training 100 miles/week, being diligent about my intake, and still not able to lose a pound? 

Then it clicked. I feel like this was the last piece of the nutrition puzzle for me.

A VO2 max study done at the U of MN late in 2012 showed that I was predominately a carb burner. Typically someone burns fat at slower paces and switches to a higher percentage of carbohydrate metabolism as their pace increases.  I found that I was burning almost entirely carbohydrates ALL of the time, even on long, slow endurance runs.

My carb-burning tendency is a result of genetics (diabetes history in the family, also a lot of very heavy relatives - and not just 50 lbs overweight, more like 200 lbs overweight) and also having eaten a large amount carbs for so long (including fueling all workouts with carbohydrates, before and during). I love breads, cereals, granola, oatmeal, pasta, and all carbs in general! 

I talked with my coach about this and we immediately implemented fasted runs. I’d go out for my morning easy-mileage run without anything in me, which would force my body to convert to burning fat. Some of these runs were painful. I could tell my body had no idea how to use anything but readily-available carbohydrates. I could also tell it took longer to recover from these runs vs. those where I was fueled. Not ideal.

Is this even important, you’re asking yourself? Who cares if you’re burning fat or carbohydrates?

YES, it does matter.  It helps the "leaning out" process in training. Think about it. If you are always burning the carbs you just ate or stored glycogen, then you’re never going to tap into your fat stores! Not burning fat = not losing weight.

Pre-UCAN, July 2013
Plus, during an event as long as the marathon, you’ll want to be able to burn both types of fuel. There is only so much glycogen you can store and only so much carbohydrate you can take in during a race.

After a lot of research and recommendations from other top-level runners, I landed on UCAN. It’s made of a different starch (Super Starch) that burns slowly enough that it doesn’t trigger the release of insulin. Insulin is the hormone that tells the body to burn carbohydrates first, essentially "shutting off" the fat-burning process until blood sugar has been lowered. Insulin also triggers the storage of glucose, including storage in your fat cells.

Post-UCAN (6 weeks). Need I say more? Seriously, I have never, ever been able to get to race weight early in a training cycle.
Because insulin isn’t triggered, you’re able to burn both the carbohydrate in the product and also able to burn your body’s fat stores. BINGO! Plus, it’s just a steady release of energy so you don’t have to take in nearly as many calories during training or competition. I’ve also found it has helped take away my dizziness and lightheadedness during hard workouts and marathon races. Amazing, really.

How does this apply to you? First, are you a heavy carb-burner? Some simple clues: very difficult to lose weight despite high training volumes, dizziness or lightheadedness at the end of a workout or marathon, and legs come “undone” at the end of a fasted run.  If yes, you may want to experiment with either the “natural” ways to turn yourself into a fat burner (fasted runs, carb cycling) or give UCAN a try. Let me know if you have questions on the product, I’m happy to help.
UCAN Chocolate. Huge fan.
In Summary:

Here are some of the tips I’ve learned along my nutrition journey:

       If you have trouble craving packaged foods (cookies, dinners, microwavable meals), just DON’T buy them. If they aren’t in your house, you can’t eat them. Simple. 

       Break your daily caloric intake into 3 meals and 2-3 snacks. Snacks should be about ½ the caloric intake as meals, so you can do the math in regards to your targets per meal/snack.

       Each of your meals and snack should have the same nutrient ratio. For example, when my mileage is high, I need to target a larger % of protein.  Therefore, for every meal or snack I try to take in at least 15-20 grams of protein. Unless you’re thinking about this, it’s hard to reach (unless you naturally eat a lot of protein!)

       Healthy fats are essential. You should target ~20% of your caloric intake in the form of fat.  The more fat you can swap with healthy fat options, the better – think avocados, nuts, and olive oils. See if you can cut out some of the saturated fat you may be consuming.

       Can you limit eating out? This is a really easy way to both save money and also better track what you’re eating.  Many meals eaten out of the home contain an enormous amount of sodium, fat and calories. Cooking in, although more time-consuming, can be just as fun for you (and a family),  and much more nutritious! Think about making it a Friday night tradition!

       All carbohydrates are not the same. (my preferred tracking tool) will track carbohydrates from a donut, an apple, and whole wheat pasta the same. They are not the same. Simple sugars vs. fructose vs. complex carbohydrates are all metabolized differently.  The greater concentration of whole grain carbohydrates you can incorporate into your diet, the better. 

       Being able to burn fat is essential to losing weight and competing in events over 2 hours. UCAN has helped me tremendously with this.

Also, as you’ll see here on the blog, I’m still experimenting with foods, learning what and how to cook, learning about healthy snack ideas, and more.  I will post healthy recipes here periodically – if I take the time to post them, give them a try! It likely means they’re not only easy to make, but also great for you and great tasting. Bear with me if you can, I am not the greatest chef around :).  It will be an adventure, no doubt!

Until next time, Run Happy!


  1. Love the new nutrition page! Definitely very informative and helpful :) Can't believe how much your body composition changed in just 6 weeks... awesome.

  2. Looking forward to experimenting with some of these tidbits. I find that when I'm training for a race, I crave nutritious foods. Never really paid attention to the ratios though. I'm with ya on the carb lovin'. Crackers, bread, oatmeal, pizza, yummmmm! (This is Amy, BTW!)

  3. This was a great post, Nichole! I love reading about what other speedy gals do regarding fueling. How did you calculate a "racing weight"? Do you have a specific formula you use? I've also had trouble leaning out despite 60+ miles/week - what is UCAN exactly? A protein powder? How do you use it? I am pretty diligent about getting my recovery protein shake in after a run but I know I could be better about protein intake. Breakfast and snacks are especially challenging (I'm not a huge egg fan) but I may try to get in some more Greek yogurt.

  4. I'm so happy for you, and to have found your blog via my favorite running podcast. I'm not a successful runner but I'm a dedicated one -- through the same life-altering post-partum diagnosis, the ins and outs of learning to thrive on medication and unblinking honesty, and now through a torn ACL -- and I'm in that moment of needing positive examples. So, thank you. So much. Rock on!