cycling · running · sports nutrition

Maple syrup for cyclists: A one word review. Yum!

And cross country skiers, distance runners etc.

I tried it on the chilly, wet, windy Gran Fondo I did the other day. And I liked it. Sweet, but not sickening, no chemical flavour, and a better texture than the usual toothpaste like goos and gels. I’ll buy more. (And no, I didn’t get free samples! They were a birthday gift.) You can buy yours here.

Here’s the blurb about them:

Endurance Tap is an easy to digest, super tasty, high-performance energy gel made with a few simple natural ingredients: Canadian maple syrup, sea salt, and ginger.  With everything you need and nothing you don’t, Endurance Tap fits with your goals of both maximum athletic performance and having a healthy diet.

Endurance Tap was founded in early 2014 by Matt and Pat, old friends who are passionate about endurance sports and nutrition.  After becoming frustrated with many of the “natural” products on the market, and the hard to pronounce mystery ingredients, Matt and Pat decided that they could do better.  As good Canadian boys, Matt and Pat turned to the country’s number one export, and the sticky engine behind the Canadian economy – maple syrup.



See Maple Syrup as Fuel for Athletes.

chi running · fitness · racing · sports nutrition · training

Mississauga Marathon Part 1: Taper Time!

Exciting times! On Sunday I’ll be running my first marathon ever! Sam, who has a gift for generating blog ideas not just for herself but also for me, made a special request for a three-part series: 1. Taper week; 2. Race report; 3. Recovery week.

I’m not sure if anyone else is as interested as she is, but I’m going to oblige anyway.  Having set aside my terror, I’m feeling kind of stoked about the upcoming marathon. Here’s what I know. It may not be pretty, but I will make it across the finish line.  In my experience with anything I’ve not done before, feeling confident that I can finish one way or another is one key ingredient to making it to the end.

I’ve never gone into an event worried about a DNF, so why start now? I had my moment when I thought I might demote my registration to a half marathon, but I’m over it. A marathon it will be!

So what does taper week look like for me? I don’t have a very sophisticated understanding of what’s required. I didn’t do a lot of reading. I just consulted my coach. She suggested three short-ish runs this week: 40 minutes on Tuesday, 30 minutes on Thursday, and 20 minutes on Saturday. Nothing particularly exerting save for a few super-short sprint bursts on the longer run.

When I say I didn’t do a lot of reading, that’s because the reading I did start to do overwhelmed me. Much of what I saw on the internet suggested that my tapering should have started before this week. It kind of did, in that last week was a bit of a wash. But not in a structured or intentional way.

Then there’s the nutrition. Sam sent me this post about nutrition the week before the marathon. I started to read it but when it started talking about grams of carbs per 500 grams of body weight, it felt too complicated. For one thing, I’m just not all that good at counting grams of carbs.  And for another, I’m just not all that good at seeing to it that I get a certain number of grams of anything.

So far my week-leading-up-to-the-race nutrition doesn’t look much different from any other week.  Maybe I’ll regret that. The one thing I do plan to implement is low fiber, high carbs, and low fat for the 2-3 days before race day. I don’t need to count to be able to do that and it seems like a sensible plan.

I’m also going to follow the suggestion of 30-60g of easily digestible carbs for each hour that I’m out there. I can count race food–gels, shot blocks, dates–and figure out how much to bring and how best to spread it out over the duration, which I estimate will be at least five hours.

The psychological impact of taper week is that you have a lot more time to let your head mess with you.  I first heard about that in this video that Caitlin of Fit and Feminist talked about when she wrote about her taper leading up to her BQ a few weeks ago. Here’s the video:

Call it heightened sensitivity or whatever. But yes, I can relate. I’m hyper-aware of every physical thing going on. I attended a Chi Running workshop on the weekend (blog post coming) and something we did that day (maybe the part where we ran without shoes–which I did against my better judgment) really activated my plantar fasciitis all over again. My mind went into a spiral: How am I going to run 42.2 km with this feeling in my right foot?

It’s fine now.

They also talk about getting lots of rest. I’m trying, but there is a ton going on in my life right now besides the marathon. So as much as I want to make race day the focal point, it’s really just one thing among several this week and that’s not what I had in mind when I signed up way back in the fall.

So I wouldn’t say this taper time is going especially well or that I’m doing it “properly.”  But right now I can’t be too preoccupied with that. I’m getting in my runs as precribed, putting a halt on resistance training for the week, and doing one swim session on Friday.

I only have two real goals for race day (which I’m happy to report is expected to be partly sunny and warm but not hot hot): 1. Make it to the finish line and 2. have at least a little bit of fun.

sports nutrition

Fasted cardio, fat adaptation, why?

Talk of fasted cardio and fat adaptation is all the rage these days in fitness communities as diverse as CrossFit and the ultra endurance athletes set. Those are usually strange bed fellows (one says “too much cardio is pointless” and the other says “run all the miles”) so when something has caught both their attention it might be worth listening.

What’s fasted cardio? Basically exercising–running, biking, rowing, etc–first thing in the morning before eating.

Why do such a thing?

See Gretchen Reynolds, The Benefits of Exercising Before Breakfast

Exercising in a fasted state (usually possible only before breakfast), coaxes the body to burn a greater percentage of fat for fuel during vigorous exercise, instead of relying primarily on carbohydrates. When you burn fat, you obviously don’t store it in your muscles. In “our study, only the fasted group demonstrated beneficial metabolic adaptations, which eventually may enhance oxidative fatty acid turnover,” said Peter Hespel, Ph.D., a professor in the Research Center for Exercise and Health at Catholic University Leuven in Belgium and senior author of the study.

One warning: Some say that fasted cardio is as likely to use muscle for fuel as fat so while you’ll lose weight you won’t get any leaner. See Fasted Cardio Eats Muscle. There’s also the claim that you’re better off not fasting and doing a high intensity workout instead. See Is Fasted Cardio the Best for Burning Fat? There’s lots of skepticism out there. See AM Cardio Myth Exposed.

But for now let’s just set the worries to one side and continue.

The goal isn’t just to lose fat. It’s to change how your body works. You want to train your body to rely on fat stores for fuel rather than carbohydrates.

You want your body to become, as they say, fat adapted.  What does it mean to be fat adapted? Read this from Mark’s Daily Apple. You get the idea pretty quickly from the language. Sugar burners have it all wrong. Those who are fat adapted have got it right.

Okay, so my story. My past experience with fasted cardio isn’t great. Food is a real challenge for  me and morning exercise. In the past it’s been enough to stop me running in the morning even though that’s when it best fits my schedule. I wake up hungry and have to eat before exercise. But I can’t run on a full stomach so I have to set my alarm for early, early and then wait. I used to cycle with a young woman with the same issue. She used to set her alarm for 4 am, get up, eat breakfast and then go back to bed and nap til our 6 am ride.

I’ve tried to change my ways, really I have. I blogged about intermittent fasting and wrote, “A few years ago on the advice of a personal trainer I experimented with morning workouts on an empty stomach but that was a bit of a disaster. ….Halfway through my morning run I was prepared to go knock on doors in search of breakfast.”

I’m hungry a lot. It’s part of why intuitive eating hasn’t appealed to me as much as it has to Tracy. I’m hungry when I wake up and often I go to bed hungry. I don’t feel like there’s lots of non hungry eating to get rid of in my life. Weight loss for me has always involved hunger. I can manage it, make peace with it. Hunger isn’t an emergency. But I can’t exercise when I’m hungry.

I’m jealous of people who can get up and go. Many years ago when Tracy was two hours a day in the gym, in the morning, I once asked her what she had to eat first. She said she had a glass of orange juice.

That made me laugh. I was eating the full fruit and oatmeal breakfast and still needing 2nd breakfast after morning workouts. Morning swim workouts were worse yet for managing hunger.

But on the bike things are different for me. I can go a long while without eating if we’re not going fast. I have smaller friends–Hi Eaton! Hi Tracy!–who need to eat more often but I can do some pretty long rides without food. If I slept in and you showed up on my doorstep with your bike, ready to go, I’d be happy to leave the house with a banana and a Cliff bar in my pocket and eat on the bike. I can’t eat while running.

Cyclists vary about this. Me and another larger woman cyclist once sat watching in shock as we were eating poached eggs and english muffins as the some of the young men we’d been riding with were chowing down waffles, pancakes and french toast. How could they eat that much?

There’s two sides to this, good  and bad.  On the good side, they were eating like that because they can. On the bad side, they were eating like that because they had to. Our upside is that we can ride on very little food.

It’s hard for me to lose weight but on the bike I can ride without constantly refueling.

I’d never go without adequate carbs in a race. No, not ever. You’re slower, for sure. There’s lots of debate about high fat/low carb diets in the cycling community but all the evidence shows that when racing you’re faster if you’re consuming adequate carbohydrates. Your body can use other sources of fuel–i.e., fat and muscle–but it’s less efficient doing so. You slow down.

But training, why not?

Well, first. Why? Weight loss.

Second, the ability to go long distances with minimal fuel.

Women are better at this than men apparently. It’s part of the story, along with higher body fat stores, about what makes women better ultra endurance runners. The longer the distance the closer the gap between men and women and at the very long distances, women win.

But here’s my reason, which is neither of those, convenience.

I want to be able to run in the morning without setting a 5 am alarm. I want to run at 6 am so I can be home by 7 am to wake teenagers. (Yes, waking teenagers is a big thing in my life.)

So my experiment is to start by taking it easy. Go out there on an empty stomach and walk/run. This morning I even did walk one block, run one block. I didn’t get dizzy or woozy and I ate a normal breakfast after.

The plan is to increase gradually and see if I get used to it.

I’ll report back and let you know how it goes. Maybe one day I’ll be able to run run after a glass of OJ!

cycling · sports nutrition

How much biking does that breakfast get you? Thinking about food as fuel


The menu above appeared in my Facebook newsfeed this week–lots of cyclist friends, what can I say?–and it made me smile. I recognized myself and my riding in the choices. On Saturdays when I do a short, slow beginners’ ride with friends I don’t worry too much about breakfast. I can grab a banana and go. Latte and scone after. But for events like the MEC Century or the Halton Epic Tour, it;s very different. Why? Speed and distance. For long, hard rides I carefully make sure I eat a lot and I pack food for the road as well. See Why riding fast and long requires lots of food.

But I confess that while “food as fuel” speaks to me, I’ve been leery about associating food choices with exercise, outside of that context.

It seemed too close, to me, of thinking of exercise as punishment for eating. See Thinking beyond exercise as punishment and food as fuel.

I wrote, “I remember when I started to think about food as fuel instead. Cycling certainly requires that perspective. You can’t go for long, fast bike rides without planning what you’ll eat and when. My friend David sets an alarm to remind himself to eat on the bike.

Let’s rewrite the text on the image below. How about instead you think, “French fries fuel a lot of burpees! ” While I don’t generally eat french fries, I do find myself thinking that I need to eat before I work out. That’s totally different than thinking I need to work out because I ate. It’s what happens when you start thinking in terms of sports nutrition. “What would best fuel my workout?” is a different question than “What do I have to do to burn off those french fries?”

But a lively discussion on our Facebook page past week got me rethinking the whole thing.

A friend and a diabetes researcher pointed out that labeling with food with exercise, rather than calories, was much more effective. Unlike the calorie labeling, exercise actually affected peoples’ choices. The average person found much more it to know that a can of Coke equals a 50 min jog, than to know how many calories it contained.

If I can view the menu above in neutral terms–that’s what kind of ride this breakfast fuels–maybe non-riders can do the same.

What do you think of this style of food labeling?

Further reading:

Tread Lightly: Labels That Translate Calories into Walking Distance Could Induce People to Eat Less

Public awareness posters used by the campaign showed the number of miles a person would have to walk to burn off the calories in a 20-ounce soda, and new research suggests that physical activity–based conversions such as these can actually persuade people to make healthier choices.

Choosing what to eat or drink based on calorie numbers alone is challenging for some restaurant-goers, according to Anthony Viera at the University of North Carolina (U.N.C.) at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. “It requires a computation that many people might not find easy to make at the point of decision,” he says. So Viera and his colleagues conducted an online survey of 802 individuals randomly presented with one of four hypothetical menus. One of the menus provided only calorie counts, another supplemented this with information about the number of minutes one would need to walk to burn those calories whereas the third menu showed calorie numbers plus the distance necessary to walk them off. The fourth menu had no nutritional data whatsoever. All of the physical activity labeling for walking was based on the energy expenditure of a 160-pound adult walking at a rate of 30 minutes per mile—so a “regular burger” was, for example, listed as containing 250 calories, the equivalent amount burned in 2.6 miles, or 78 minutes of walking.

A Doughnut Will Cost You Two Miles

Unless you’re a dedicated dieter, you probably pay little mind to your calorie consumption. But what if instead of calories your favorite foods were labeled in terms of physical activity? Would this have more of an influence on your eating habits?

That’s the question behind a $2.3 million study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

 The Exercise Cost of Soda and Juice

What if nutrition labels told people exactly what calories meant, in practical terms? A bottle of Coke could dole out specific exercise requirements. The calories herein, it might say, are the equivalent of a 50-minute jog. The decision to drink the Coke then becomes, would you rather spend the evening on a treadmill, or just not drink the soda?

Some would say that’s a joyless, infantilizing idea. The implication that people can’t understand calorie counts is unduly cynical. Have a Coke and a smile, not a Coke and a guilt-wail. Others would protest on grounds that it’s impossible to make this kind of exercise requirement universal to people of all ages, body sizes, and levels of fitness. Everyone burns calories at different rates. But Sara Bleich, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is not among these people. She describes these labels as her dream.

For the past four years, translating nutrition information into exercise equivalents has been the focus of Bleich’s increasingly popular research endeavor. Her latest findings on the effectiveness of the concept are published today in the American Journal of Public Health. In the study, researchers posted signs next to the soda and juice in Baltimore corner stores that read: “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 50 minutes of running?” or “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about five miles of walking?” (And, long as those distances and times may seem, they may even underestimate the magnitude of the metabolic insult of liquid sugar.)

The signs were a proxy for an actual food label, but they made the point. They effectively led to fewer juice and soda purchases, and to purchases of smaller sizes (12-ounce cans instead of 20-ounce bottles). Bleich also saw learned behavior; even after the signs came down, the local patrons continued to buy less soda and juice.

“The problem with calories is that they’re not very meaningful to people,” Bleich told me. “The average American doesn’t know much about calories, and they’re not good at numeracy.”

That concern is the impetus for a growing movement to make nutrition information as simple and practical as possible. Some have proposed a three-tiered stoplight system, where healthy foods are labeled with a green light (Go!), and junk bears a damning red. Yellow is … everything else. Others have proposed an even simpler thumbs-up, thumbs-down dichotomy.


racing · running · sports nutrition · training

Training for my first marathon (Guest post)

A long run with marathon training buddies.
A long run with marathon training buddies

I’m about four days from completing my very first marathon – the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. I’m terrified and I’m excited and, to be perfectly honest, I’m finding it very difficult to put this whole experience into words. I’ve tried several times to write a blog post talking about why I decided to run a marathon, and every time I’ve gotten a few paragraphs in and scrapped the whole thing. The truth is, I’m not entirely sure why I’m running it – yet here I am, with less than a week to go!

My training has been rather free-form. I’ve aimed to do at least a couple of 5-10 km runs throughout each week and I’ve added on a couple of kilometres to my long runs on each weekend. I have also added strength training back in to my routine, and I am just loving that!

So how has it all gone?

Well. I’ve chafed in places I didn’t realize it was possible to chafe. I’ve also learned that there can be such thing as too much BodyGlide. I’ve gotten blisters on top of blisters, and sought out the measures I can take to avoid blisters (hello, my new friend moleskin!). I’ve become a connoisseur of energy gels (for the record: Gu Peanut Butter flavour is my favourite, followed by Salted Caramel. Espresso Love and Chocolate Outrage are tolerable but not preferable). I’ve discussed the finer points of electrolyte replacement beverages (Nuun is my go-to now). I’ve required more food than I ever thought possible. I swear, it feels like there’s a black hole inside me instead of a stomach! (“Some people,” my good friend warned me, “may ask if you lose weight during marathon training. You don’t. Because you’re eating so much. All the time.” This is truth.)

Legs after a trail run
Legs after a trail run

I’ve burst into tears while running on more than one occasion. My longest run, 32 km, was a disaster. Nothing felt “right”. My legs, stomach, and head were all conspiring against me. I ran it on a Monday afternoon instead of on the weekend, and as the day turned into night, my sweat turned cold. My stomach growled. When I finally made it to my neighbourhood, I knew I wanted a nice comforting burrito bowl. Guac and cheese? Yes, please! But I stepped to the door of the burrito place at 9:02, only to find they closed at 9:00. I cried on the short walk back to my apartment, hoping no one would see me and ask what was wrong, because I knew even in my run-addled state of mind that “The burrito place was closed!” was going to sound absurd to pretty much everyone. (Happy ending to that story: the Chinese place next door was still open!)

Most recently, I started a run this weekend only to be greeted with a foreign, burning pain in my knee. Panic set in immediately. What was this? What did it mean? Was I injured? What if I couldn’t run the marathon? I let out a full-on sob and alarmed a woman walking nearby, who seemed rather skeptical when I insisted I was okay. The pain worked itself out a few minutes later, thankfully!

Still, it definitely hasn’t all been painful. There have been some wonderful and joyful moments. I’ve been very lucky to I have two friends who are also running marathons this year to share much of the training with. Many of my long runs have been spent in their company, and I can’t express enough how much their support has eased the process. With them, I’ve run through trails and through the city, laughed, commiserated, listened to stories and told my own, and tucked into several incredibly delicious post-run brunches. Both of them are running STWM: one (my triathlon buddy) will be doing the half-marathon as preparation for her full marathon in November, and the other I’m fortunate enough to be running the whole 42.2 km with on Sunday!

Finally, because this is my first marathon, I wanted to mark the occasion by fundraising for a worthy cause. I have been raising funds for Oolagen Youth Mental Health, a centre that runs a city-wide walk-in counselling service for youth aged 13-18 years and their families. If you would like to support me, you can do so here:

I have no idea what it’s going to be like to run 42.2 kilometres.The build-up is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. I have random moments where I let out an audible “eek!” to myself just thinking about it. But those who have already done it have told me that the feeling of crossing the finish line is like nothing else. I can’t wait to find out.

Trail running in Algonquin Provincial Park.
Trail running in Algonquin Provincial Park

Stephanie is a PhD candidate in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. She is also a triathlete, photographer, drinker of craft beer, and marathoner-in-training.

cycling · eating · sports nutrition

Why riding fast and long requires lots of food


When you’re suffering on a long ride, slowing down and struggling to stay with the bunch, one of the first things people ask is whether you’ve had enough to eat.

The people riding with you start rifling through their jersey pocket and handing you snacks. Why?

Why is eating while riding so important? And why does not eating enough affect performance so dramatically?

This article on fueling for a sportive has some of the answers:


“Your body will use a combination of fat and carbohydrate to fuel your ride. The harder you work, the more carbohydrate you will use. The body’s carbohydrate stores are limited and can be rapidly depleted so it is very important to keep your carbohydrate stores topped up for the duration of the event. Without available carbohydrate your body will depend more on fat as a fuel. You may think that burning fat sounds great but to do this your body needs a lot more oxygen and in response to this your pace will slow. That’s not ideal if you want to achieve a fast time or a new PB.”

(You might be wondering what a “sportive” is. The Gran Fondo is one example. It’s a long, mass participation, endurance cycling event.)

Riding my bike is one time I struggle with intuitive eating. I don’t feel hungry but I know I need to eat. Sometimes food can even make me feel sick. I go for easy to eat, calorie dense food in those cases.

I blogged about my experiences in the post Hunger and Nutrition. I wrote,

I struggle a bit with this because I’m often not hungry when I know I need to eat–during long, intense bike rides is the most common example–and at other times I’m famished even when I know there’s no need for extra calories (after long bike rides when I’m often hungry for the rest of the day and into the next one even after I’ve refueled.)

I know from experience that if I don’t eat while riding my performance suffers. It’s not just that I struggle while riding, I’m also hungry for days afterwards. By the time I get off the bike I’m eating anything and everything in sight. Often I’m still hungry the next day.

But if I eat regularly, before I’m hungry, and keep eating throughout the ride, I’m fine.

If I get the balance right not only can I ride faster, for longer, there’s no big swing in hunger associated with a long hard ride. I can have dinner that night as usual.

So I do it because I know it works even if it means setting aside my usual “eat when hungry” mantra.

If I find it tough, I think, again based on experience, my smaller cycling friends have it tougher. Food management can hugely affect cycling performance. It’s worth experimenting to find what works.

Oh, and here’s some geeky cycling humour related to our theme.

Top 10 Things Not To Eat While Cycling:

family · sports nutrition

On counting almonds, searching for Devil’s Claw, and remembering Avis

My mother-in-law died recently (see Rough times, tough choices for the background) and I’m spending lots of time thinking about her. We were pretty close, counter almost all the stereotypes of mother and daughter-in-law relationships.

Maybe it helps that I was friends first with her daughter–we were grade nine home economics partners–and so she’s been in my life for a very long while. (And yes, I married the annoying older brother. That’s a longer story for another time.)

Almost every time through the years when she would visit us she’d be on some oddball, stringent diet prescribed by this or that natural healer or written up in this or that life changing book, so it’s natural too that I think of her in the context of this blog. She was a feminist, concerned about health and wellness, spirituality and the good life, a searcher and a seeker, and we always had lots to talk about. I think she liked having a philosopher in the family.

Now my tolerance for alternative spirituality and medicine isn’t what it could be. I’m a philosopher who is all about logic, arguments, and reasons. Skepticism and science rule my world. In the Storm poem, see below, I’m with Tim Minchin all the way.

As you might imagine we usually disagreed about the underlying reasons for this diet or that restriction, but since mostly all of her diets involved eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables we got along just fine at mealtime. She easily fit into our vegetarian family. We did gluten free when she visited but she died before trying the Paleo diet, at least at our house.

I would complain to friends about having to hear the theory behind these various diets and how each one made her feel “better than she’d ever felt in her whole life.” But as long as we stayed away from the reasons, we did okay. (Kind of like me and Waldorf School. When my kids went there I loved what they did and I learned just not to ask why they did it. Wonderful educational practise, bad metaphysics.)

“Must have Devil’s Claw.” I say that in Avis’s voice whenever I hear mention of Devil’s Claw because of a recent visit in which the purchasing of this dried herb was the first stop on her visit.


Many of her diets involved a precision that alarmed me. Last time I stayed with her it was 6 almonds for breakfast. Just six? Not eight?

“Life is too short to count almonds, ” I declared. I don’t mind tracking and eyeballing portion sizes but counting almonds has always seemed over the top to me.

But this infographic made me smile, Snake Oil Supplements?

It pictures the scientific evidence for popular health supplements. It’s very much worth having a look. See, dark chocolate. Told you.

Using bubbles that reflect the amount of evidence available for a particular supplement, ones that rise above the line show tangible human health benefits when taken orally by an adult with a healthy diet.

And look! There’s Devil’s Claw. Avis might have been right after all. Miss you so much, wacky diets and all.