Chinese Medicine and nutrition: Your marathon prep guide

Amanda Silver, M.S, L.Ac
Unfortunately, I will not be joining the 47,000 runners this year in the New York City Marathon, but all the marathon excitement has made me think about what Chinese medicine has to offer all the lucky runners who are “in” this year.

There are certain key organs and substances that when strengthened, can benefit a runner’s endurance and overall energy. Here are some Chinese Medicine theories to get you started:
  • The blood nourishes muscles.
  • The liver holds the blood and controls the tendons and sinews, and its associated flavor is sour.
  • The spleen controls muscles and its associated flavor is sweet.

In Chinese medicine, the blood is a substance that nourishes the body and the muscles. All runners, but especially female runners, must make a special effort to conserve and nourish the blood. Due to a woman’s monthly cycle and child birth, women can tend to be blood deficient and have to take care when they perform actives that can damage the blood. As wonderful as running can be, the blood can be depleted by excess sweating and extreme exercise. It is critical to eat in a way that nourishes blood as well as getting enough sleep. Quality sleep allows the blood to regenerate.

Meat is the most obvious blood nourisher but you don’t need Texas-sized potions to absorb the benefit. A deck of cards sized potion of good quality organic meat 3-4 times a week should be sufficient for most. If you are like me and do not eat meat I recommend eating green leafy vegetables like kale, collard greens and spinach to tonify the blood. When eating greens instead of meat for the purpose of blood tonification, I do suggest large portions and eating them often, since their blood supportive properties are much weaker than meat.

Red fruits and vegetables are also considered blood tonifying and should be eaten often. Beets are known in Chinese Medicine to nourish blood and thereby aid in muscle recovery. Beets have been shown to increase endurance in one study involving cyclists. When completing In both 4-km and 16-km time trials, the cyclists rode much faster after ingesting the beet juice than without.

The liver holds the blood and controls the tendons and sinews. Eating sour foods can help to keep the sinews supple. Pickle juice is an extreme example of this, and has been found to reduce cramps and aid in hydration, becoming very popular with high endurance athletes. The liver in Chinese medicine is responsible for moving energy (qi) around the body smoothly. When the qi becomes stagnated due to stress, pain or tightness can result. Dynamic stretching is great for the tendons and sinews thereby benefits the liver.

The spleen associated with the muscles and flesh and its flavor is sweet. This sweetness does not mean a candy bar, but natural whole foods that have a sweet quality. Food such as sweet potatoes, rice and oats are good examples of sweet spleen nourishing foods. The best way to maintain endurance is to fill the glycogen stores in the muscle by carb loading. Carb loading is a proven way to provide the muscles with energy but today’s athletes are moving away from wheat (gluten) and choosing other carb sources. In Chinese medicine, wheat (gluten) is cold in nature and can create excess dampness. Dampness will negatively effect the quality of your run by literally weighing you down. Rice, quinoa, and millet are a better carb loading choice for many athletes. Make an effort to eat these spleen-friendly carbs for three days before the race to maintain adequate glycogen stores and avoid the common blunder of over eating too much food the night before the race. Doing so could send you into G.I. distress on your big day. These simple nutritional items can help you face the pavement with power and clarity.

I wish good luck to everyone running this year and I’ll see you in 2014!
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