You can pry our penne marinara from our cold, dead hands.
Like the breadsticks at Olive Garden, the opinions on pasta never end.
Spend enough time digging and you’ll come across all manner of pasta takedowns: Pasta can destroy your race; pasta will kill your metabolism; white pasta is stripped of nutrients; pasta should really just be a vehicle for better performance foods.
All the conflicting assertions are enough to make your head spin faster than spaghetti around a fork, but according to nutritionists, the truth is simple: Pasta’s bad reputation is a bigger smear job than marinara on a tablecloth.
“Pasta in moderation isn’t bad for anyone,” says Kelly Hogan, a registered dietician and nutritionist in New York City and Boston qualifier. “Runners, specifically, don’t need to shy away from foods with carbohydrates. They really do fuel our training and racing.”
Running has celebrated the benefits of carbs through one proud tradition: the prerace pasta dinner. It’s an institution. Today, the Boston Marathon hosts a sponsored dinner of “prerace favorites” like penne marinara and mac and cheese; New York City marathoners enjoy a meal from Tavern on the Green the night before the race; and if you run the Mount Desert Island marathon in Maine, you’ll have the chance to carbo-load with pasta and lobster.
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But carbohydrates are rarely “allowed” in today’s fad diets. Some shaky studies have empowered fit-fluencers and health gurus to preach against carbs as making you sluggish, assaulting you with unwanted cravings, and stunting your body’s fat-burning process. Now, running’s favorite meal faces a tougher uphill battle than Heartbreak Hill. For the prerace pasta dinner to overcome the backlash, it won’t just take a reexamination of the science, but a reaffirmation that few things foster a running community like a warm bowl of bucatini.
Alex Goldberg’s pasta passport has a lot of stamps. Every marathon eve, Goldberg, who ran varsity at Washington University in St. Louis and finished Boston this year in 2:36, seeks out a local bowl of pasta in the marathon’s host city and fuels up. At Wash U, Goldberg and his distance-running teammates ate at pasta chains like Noodles and Company before meets across the Midwest, and he has particularly fond memories of the high-school Friday nights when he and his cross-country friends convened at Olive Garden to shovel down carbs (and suck up to the upperclassmen) in advance of race day.
“At the start of your freshman year, those dinners gave you the chance to hang out with people a lot older than you and learn from them,” Goldberg says. “By the time you’re a junior or senior, you’re the one organizing things, setting up rides for freshmen.”
Many runners have vivid memories of prerace pasta dinners, but those meals fuel more than inside jokes among friends and camaraderie among teammates. They help prepare athletes to perform at a PR pace.
But Hogan cautions it’s not adequate to gorge on spaghetti the night before a race. In fact, she says, last-second carbo-loading could lead to discomfort and gastrointestinal distress at the starting line. Instead of a hurried Michael Scott-style Alfredo binge, runners should consume about 4 grams of carbs per pound of body weight over the two to three days before a long run. The right prerace pasta dinner probably features plain pasta with a tomato-based sauce, plus lean meat or legumes. Cream sauces and dishes packed with raw vegetables, on the other hand, typically aren’t ideal for a prerace dinner, because their fat and fiber content could lead to stomach issues and feelings of heaviness during the race.
Done right, the pasta dinners boosts beginner runners and elites alike. Colleen Quigley and her teammates on the Bowerman Track Club have dinner together during training season, and in addition to DIY pizza nights and fish tacos from teammate Shalane Flanagan’s cookbooks, the Bowerman Babes make yogurt fettuccine, a dish Quigley’s dad made for her family when she was growing up in St. Louis. They’ll pair the pasta with an episode of The Bachelor.
“It’s a healthy version of Alfredo sauce,” Quigley says. “It doesn’t have any cream in it, but it’s one of those hearty, whole food type things where you’re like, ‘This is amazing, and it’s feeding my whole body and soul and heart.’”