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Athletes, coaches share advice on smart eating

There aren't many good, realistic guidelines when it comes to figuring out what the casual runner should eat before a typical 5-kilometer race.

The various running magazines and books have all sorts of suggestions, but some of them are exotic combinations along the lines of wheat germ sprinkled on asparagus.

"I don't know if that will make you run faster, but it might help you poop," said Vicki Mitchell, track and cross country coach at the University at Buffalo.

In reality, it's more likely that a runner will figure out what works for him or her. One local runner found that a package of Pop Tarts was perfect to get him ready to run in a given morning.

"I think for any runner, there has to be trial and error," Mitchell said. "Every runner will adapt differently to food -- it doesn't matter what level they are. Trial and error needs to come during practice prior to race day. It might be a day before a longer run, or a workout. Try it out and get used to what you can eat before a race."

Many members of the Lancaster Striders running club e-mailed their pre-race menu. It's an interesting way to find out what real runners use for fuel:

* Bob Demmig: "I have stayed with a breakfast menu that includes a nice bowl of oatmeal with buttered toast, a banana and either water or G2. It's filling, but light. I tend to eat about two hours before race time -- not based on any science, but to allow time to drive to the race, warm up, and get to the starting line."

* Ann More: "I like to drink a chocolate protein shake and eat a banana before a race."

* Dar Gaines: "I have a bite of banana, a spoon of honey, some tea, and then out the door for the short ones. For the long ones, I try to get up early and eat some kind of carb, oatmeal, half-bagel. No sweetener, no milk -- just plain. Seems to work."

* Mike Bajak: "For me, it's oatmeal and a banana. Ever since my potassium dropped after a warm, muggy race that just had postrace water [no Gatorade or bananas] and I ended up in the emergency room, I always eat a banana before."

Mitchell believes that these runners are on the right track when it comes to the morning meal.

"Usually, the most plain, basic foods a couple of hours before are the best," she said. "If it's a 9 a.m. race, you'll want to be up at 6:30 -- get moving around, and get some food in you. For some people, it might be a bagel and peanut butter. For some people, it might be a Powerbar. Some are going to want a cup of coffee and a muffin or a piece of toast. It is going to vary a lot. Basic plain carbs are the best bet. They digest quickly, and [make good] fuel for exercise."

By the way, Mitchell herself goes the Powerbar and coffee route the morning of a run. One advantage to that is that it is compact and portable.

The trial-and-error approach is a little different when it comes to long races like a marathon. It's difficult to simulate a 26.2-mile run that starts at 7 in the morning.

"Your best bet with a 7:30 start, and most marathons start early, is to make some of your long runs early morning starts,"" Mitchell said. "Get up at 5 a.m. for a 7:30 start, and get the food that you might do for a marathon. It could be a couple of packets of oatmeal -- it's a good amount of fuel, settles easily, and digests well. Then get out the door and go. Your body needs to be used to that.

"That's one of the things I emphasize with my athletes at UB. We're going to prepare for how we're going to race. For example, the Subaru race is at 7 o'clock [at night]. You have to think all day long about what you need to do to be prepared for a night race. The strategy is going to be different, so you should do some runs at that time of day."

After a race, the nutritional options aren't vast -- pizza and hot dogs are the usual staples. Mitchell advises runners not to reach for those items right away.

"You want to refuel your body to recover," she said. "I want my runners to think about putting in something to their bodies that will help them recover from this race. The fruit is always great at races. They often have bagels, sandwiches, things like that. The things to avoid are fatty foods and alcohol at least for a while so that you can get some nutrition in first."

And here's one last bit of nutritional good news from Mitchell: you can throw caution to the wind after that.

"A slice of pizza will not kill you -- absolutely not," she said with a smile.

> Race calendar

Bemus Point 10K, Long Point State Park Bath House, 9 a.m. today, 488-0788.

Buffalo Broadcasters Celebrity 5K Run, 10 Marine Drive, 7 p.m. Wednesday, 998-3325.

Tommy's Run 5K, Yates Park in Orchard Park, 10 a.m. Saturday, 662-6659.

e-mail: bbailey@buffnews.com

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