06 April, 2014

Green Beans with Dates and Walnuts

Spring is in the air, and I find myself making salads and light vegetable dishes instead of heavy hot soups and stews or meat-laden dinners. 
One can never eat enough vegetables, I find. I eat mountains of it. And I try and make everyone else in the family eat mountains of it too. Which has the disadvantage that the fridge is always empty after preparing one or two meals for a family of four.
At the moment we have visitors from overseas. Six hungry mouths to feed. If I don't stock up on a daily basis, the fridge is basically empty by evening.

Don't get me wrong, I love my steaks, my seafood, my eggs, my protein of sorts. But I cannot deny that a tasty vegan dish with layers of flavors, textures and colors does it for me too.

As you know, I exercise a lot and I can feel the extra nutritional needs on the days or the day after of strenuous training sessions. As long as it is clean and real food, give in to your cravings. Your body just gets what it needs. 

Like with this dish of green beans. The beans are steamed, just enough to keep the crunch, then topped with sweet chopped dates, crunchy walnuts for some more texture and to add some filling good fats and a pinch of cayenne pepper to give it a bit of steam. Don't you forget the cayenne pepper!

This green bean salad has everything you need and it is filling. If you eat the whole batch, like I did several times before I managed to take a picture. In fact, any dish can be a main dish if you just add enough nuts. It's not just the crunch, it's the good fats that fill you up for a long time and that will not end up on your hips like a carb-laden meal will. I hope you enjoy!

(Print Recipe)

300g/12oz green beans, washed and trimmed
1 large bowl of ice water

1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1 red onion, thinly sliced

1.4 cup chopped dates
1/4 cup chopped walnuts

pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Serves 4 as a side, 1-2 as main dish
Steam trimmed green beans until tender, about 3-4 minutes. Transfer to bowl with ice water to stop cooking process and maintain bright green color of the beans.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add sliced onions and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Add walnuts, dates and cayenne and cook until the nuts are slightly toasted, about 1 more minute.

Drain the beans, then add to the skillet. Add salt and cook for a few minutes or until heated through. Season to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.
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25 March, 2014

Apple Rosemary Cake with Lemon Drizzle

March is pretty much the last month of the Dubai running season. The races are getting shorter, as the weather gets warmer. Over are the days when the temperatures drop down to 15 degrees or less. I had signed up for two 10k races in March, while giving another half marathon at the beginning of the month a miss as it was only three weeks after my February half marathon.

One of these 10k races was ten days ago, the other one will be this Friday. My racing motivation was low after the RAK half marathon in February. I wrote about it in detail here. I realized the mistakes I made in both the RAK half marathon and the Dubai marathon: I made myself a slave of my Garmin, let it dictate how to run my race. While I achieved PBs in both races, I didn't enjoy running them. I used to be the queen of negative splits. During those two races, I overdid the first half and then struggled through the second. That obviously is not enjoyable.

My legs were tired from all the hard running and endless training miles. I started cutting down on weekly mileage, and add some quality speed work to prepare for the upcoming 10k races. I never enjoyed lung-busting sprinting or running hills (even speed bumps are hills to me). Nevertheless I incorporated them into my weekly training. And... surprise, surprise... I am enjoying them. It's perhaps because they short. After a long running and training season - remember, I started training for the Berlin marathon in July last year and hardly had a rest since - my body appreciates less pounding. Yet, they are quality workouts. I am not sure if they have made me faster yet. But I feel stronger in my legs and lighter on my feet. I bet, somewhere and somehow they will contribute to me becoming a better runner.

Start Line of the Saucony Autodrome 10k
The 10k race last week was a bit too early to have my newly incorporated training sessions show their results. Yet, it turned out to be an important race to me as I got my racing motivation back. This 10k race was a hilly one. So fast times were out of the picture already. The weather decided not to be in favor either: hot and windy.
In previous years I would dread this race. This year, I found all the circumstances - hilly, hot, windy - very deliberating. I decided to run totally by feel, and not become a slave to my Garmin again. I meant to look up what time I did on that course in the previous year, but then I forgot. As a result, I had an awesome race. I didn't collapse halfway. I had more or less even splits. From 7-8k onwards are started "collecting" runners in front of me. My finish time was atrocious, I realized that when I checked my Garmin at 5k and multiplied that time by two. But compared to last year's result on this course, I improved by almost a minute. That's acceptable. I finished 4th lady overall and 3rd in my age group. That's OK too.

Lesson learned: Running is supposed to be fun. That's why we do it. I run best if I trust the signals of my body. I love my Garmin, don't get me wrong and I never leave the house without it, but it cannot beat running by feel. I have only owned a Garmin for two years. For the 7-8 years prior I ran with a simple stopwatch that would not tell me pace or distance covered. I think I learned reading the signals of my body in those years. I should continue doing so in every single race.

So on the occasion of having had a good AND enjoyable race, we'll have some cake today. Who doesn't love a piece of homemade apple cake?! This one is brimming with flavors, as the fresh apples are accentuated with rosemary and vanilla. The lemon drizzle is the cherry on top. I hope you enjoy!

1 1/2 cups almond meal
1/4 cup coconut flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped

2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup honey
3 tablespoons coconut oil
1 apple, cored and finely chopped

Lemon Drizzle
¾ cup powdered raw sugar
1-2 tablespoons lemon juice

Yields one loaf
Preheat oven to 175C/350F. Line or grease a medium sized loaf tin (22x10cm/9x3inches).

In a large bowl, combine almond meal, coconut flour, baking soda, seas salt and rosemary. Stir until well combined. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Stir in honey, coconut oil and vanilla.
Blend wet and dry ingredients until just combined. Stir in finely chopped apple pieces.

Transfer batter to prepared loaf tin and bake in preheated oven for about 40 minutes or until cake tester comes out clean. Turn out the cake and let cool on a wire rack.

Lemon Drizzle

Combine powdered sugar with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice. Stir until sugar dissolves in the juice. Add more lemon juice by the teaspoon, until mixture has desired consistency. Mixture should be a thick and smooth liquid, not too runny.

Drizzle icing over cake and leave for 15-20 minutes to harden.
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13 March, 2014

Honey Tahini Almond Cookies

I read an interesting article yesterday, on one of my favorite running and nutrition websites Competitor Running. The article was called "Do The Math: Percentages In Diets Are ‘Meaningless’". 
It says that the various recommended ratio of carbs, protein and fat for endurance athletes given in percent are inaccurate. I mentioned in one of my previous posts that endurance athletes are suggested to take in a 60/20/20 ratio. Other sources step away from the high carb intake and rather suggest a 40/30/30 ratio.

Nutrition is a very complex subject, and its science still very young and far from being conclusive. And I am no expert either. However, the findings of a Dutch scientist specializing in endurance performance and nutrition make so much more sense to me. He is a triathlete himself, I thought this is worth mentioning. Asker Jeukendrup says that it is not so much the percentage, but the total quantity of carbs in grams or calories that counts. 

For endurance athletes, carbohydrate needs will vary from 5-10 grams per kilogram of body weight per day with training ranging from one hour per day to five hours or more. 
My weekly training load does not exceed one hour per day on average. Which means I'll be good with 5g carbs per kg body weight. 

Not surprisingly, on days when I exercise I crave more carbs than on rest days. Looking at the statistics of my food journal, I do meet my total carb requirements according Jeukendrop on most days, although the percentage of carbs on that day is still way below the recommended 50 or even 60%, rather in the high 30s% or low 40s% region. I was trying to up my carb intake, but really struggled to get it beyond the 50% mark with normal sized food portions. I even re-introduced some grains into my diet to see if it would make a difference.

Because carbohydrates are used for fuel only and don't serve structural purposes like fat and protein do, you need proportionally less carbs, the less active you are. This is probably the reason why the paleo diet is popular with so many people these days. With a rather sedentary lifestyle in the office and at home, physical activity is reduced to a minimum unless you make an effort to exercise regularly. 
The protein requirements are slightly increased for athletes as they serve to rebuild damaged muscle tissue after a workout. The recommendations lie are around 1.5g of protein for each kg body weight for endurance athletes. They would be higher if you did bodybuilding. Now that carbs and protein needs can be calculated rather exactly and with a bit of testing you will know how to meet your personal requirements, the rest should be filled up with healthy fats. It's as easy as that.

These cookies are the perfect for the low carb/healthy fat section: made of ground almonds and ground sesame seeds and sweetened with honey. A great snack that is not too sweet. I hope you enjoy.

(Print Recipe)

1 1/2 cups almond meal
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup tahini (sesame paste)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup sesame seeds

Yields 25-30
Preheat oven to 175C/350F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a small bowl, combine almond meal, salt and baking soda.
In a large bowl, stir together honey, tahini and vanilla extract until well combined.

Add the almond meal mixture to the honey tahini mixture and stir until well incorporated. The dough should be solid enough to form balls. If it's too wet, add some more almond meal.

Form balls of the size of a cherry. Roll in sesame seeds, then flatten it to 1/4 inch thickness and place on the prepared baking sheet. Leave 1-2 inches space between cookies. Repeat until all dough is used up.

Bake for about 10 minutes or until bottoms are golden. For extra crispy cookies, flip them upside down and leave in the warm oven for a few more minutes.
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03 March, 2014

Quinoa Tabbouleh

The update of the half marathon that I ran more than two weeks ago on Valentine's day?.....ahem, yes...... I still owe you that one. Well, let's be totally honest: I was sulking.

I don't really have much reason for it. I felt good at the start line, the weather was perfectly cold, the course flat as a pancake. PB material. I finished in 1:30:40, a PB by more than 2 minutes. Yet, I wasn't happy with that race. It didn't come easy, I continuously got slower through the race. My 5k splits were atrocious. And again, like at the Dubai marathon three weeks earlier, I had thoughts of giving up. I didn't enjoy it.

To put you into the whole picture, I was going for a sub 1:30 time. I thought I could do it. Perhaps it was one number to big for me yet. At the same time, I saw several of my running friends with similar race times to mine, beat the 1:30 barrier for the first time. You can imagine, that didn't go down well. As much as I am happy for all those friends as they deserve it after hard and consistent training, I am very competitive at the same time. I am lagging behind by some 40 seconds. That bugs me. Badly.

Killing myself on the RAK half marathon
Now two weeks later, I am slowly finding my feet again. I didn't run much. A cold that came on a couple of days after the half marathon, was a blessing in disguise to help me stay off my feet. I needed rest. My racing tank was empty. My body depleted. Not so much the leg muscles, rather all my bones. I usually find it difficult not to run despite little injuries and niggles. This time, I could literally feel how the rest was doing me good for every hour that I put up my feet.

I needed some time to decide what to do with myself after the last half marathon. Another one is about to happen in a week's time. My chance to redeem myself before the end of the season? The thought of racing another 21.1k was not appealing. And still isn't. I am quite happy with the prospect of not having to run further than say 15-17k on my weekly long runs.
Two 10k races are coming up in March. They are two weeks apart. The first one is a hilly one. The second one is flat and the one where I run all my 10k PBs.

I decided to use the next 4 weeks to do a bit of speed work. The hilly 10k race will be a training run. But I will try and do well in the last 10k race of the season.  End of March can be quite warm in Dubai already. I am not sure if another PB will be possible.
I have started the training. I am adding strides at the end of my easy runs. I went for hill sprints the other day. To my surprise, I am enjoying the speed work. Perhaps the change to the shorter and faster workouts is all I need after training for two full marathons where it's all about "long and slow" pounding of the pavements.

In the next few weeks I will also experiment with a higher carbohydrate percentage in my diet. As I mentioned in previous posts, I have been writing a food journal over the past 4 or 6 weeks. It turns out that my refined sugar and mostly grain free diet reduces my carb intake to 35-40% of the total. That is rather little, especially for endurance athletes. I will try and increase it to at least 50% every day, and see if it makes a difference in my training, recovery and races.

In order to do that, I am ready to add more grains into my diet again. I have brown rice here and there, and always like quinoa. Today's recipe is a traditional Middle Eastern salad. I love Tabbouleh, it's so refreshing and very easy to prepare. It is typically prepared with bulgur, which is split wheat. I replaced it with quinoa to make it gluten free and more wholesome. I hope you enjoy.

(Print Recipe)

1/2 cup quinoa
2/3 cup water
pinch of salt

1 1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped and tightly packed
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, finely chopped and tightly packed
1/2 cup cucumber, deseeded and finely chopped
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, finely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1/4 teaspoon sea salt (or to taste)
freshly ground pepper

Serves 4
In a medium pan, bring quinoa and salted water to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat, cover pan, and simmer until quinoa is tender, about 10 minutes. Let quinoa stand in covered pot for another 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork.
Meanwhile, whisk lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Set aside.

Combine finely chopped parsely and mint leaves in a salad bowl. Stir in the cooked quinoa until well combined. Add cucumbers, tomatoes and the dressing. Toss to coat. Season to taste with salt and pepper or more lemon juice.

Serve cold or at room temperature. Salad keeps well in the fridge for 24 hours.

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13 February, 2014

Orange Almond Cookies

It has become a habit of posting here on my blog the day before a big race. Although I didn't mention it in last week's post, I went for another race last Friday.

It's the Wadi Bih Run, a 72k trail run with 1000m ascent/descent through the Omani mountains. It's a classic on the Dubai running schedule. I had never done before. Everyone who did, said it was a great day out. The distance can be covered by teams of five, with legs between 1.5k and 4k long. One person would be running, the other four would be transporting themselves to the next changeover point in their support car. Around 200 teams participated in this year's run, and more than a 100 solo runners did the distance on their own.

I was especially looking forward to the trail running. I figured I would like it, running over loose gravel. And I did.
What I didn't look forward to was the hills. I have been running for 10 years and have always avoided hills like the pest. Fortunately, Dubai is flat as a pancake. All races in the UAE are as flat as can be. I kept on saying that I will only start running hills when I am 40. That would give me another 14 months from now.

The hills were tough. There is no other word for it. Paces slow down to ridiculous numbers, something that was hard to swallow on the first hill. For me as a road racer it has always been a cardinal sin to walk. No matter what, you keep on running. Now I found myself on a hilly 72k ultra marathon course. While I was running it in a team and my bits only added up to 17k, I realized that walking steep uphill bits is totally legitimate. In fact, I overtook a guy from another team on an uphill leg when I was walking and he was running.

I apologize to all ultra marathoners for my ignorance. I had to experience it myself that walking during an ultra marathon preserves more energy for the flat and downhill bits and keeps you faster over the whole distance. Many ultra marathoners say that time is not so much of an issue. It's the finishing that counts. Coming from a race background where time is everything, it's probably something that I will only understand once I have run an ultra marathon myself.

So here is my new goal: next year in February I will run Wadi Bih solo: 72k on my own. 30k further than the furthest distance I have run so far. Plus the hills. A new challenge.
I will be running the Berlin marathon again in September. And instead of training for the Dubai marathon straight afterwards I'll be going long and slow and prepare for an ultra marathon. I am all excited. I wish I could start training for it now. But I am aware that my body needs rest. Since September last year I have run two full marathons, one half marathon, two 10k races, two 5k races and Wadi Bih.

Tomorrow morning, another half marathon is to follow. I think I have recovered enough from the Dubai marathon three weeks ago, and the hills of Wadi Bih last week were good training. Tomorrow's half marathon is flat as a pancake again. Weather looks good too. I will try and break 90 minutes. That would be 3 minutes off my current PB. I'll keep you posted!

(Print Recipe)

1 1/3 cups almond meal
2 tablespoons coconut flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 egg
100g/4oz jaggery or coconut sugar
1/4 cup coconut oil
2 tablespoons orange zest

ICING (optional)
2 teaspoons orange juice
1/4 cup powdered raw sugar

Yields ca. 25
In a bowl, combine almond meal, coconut flour and baking soda. Set aside.

In another bowl, beat egg and sugar until creamy. Stir in coconut oil and orange zest. Mix wet and dry ingredients until well combined. Wrap dough tightly in cling wrap and keep refrigerated for at least one hour.

Preheat oven to 165C/350F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper.

Form balls of the size of a walnut and place them two inches apart on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 8-10 minutes or until bottoms are golden brown. Let cool completely on wire rack.

Mix icing sugar and lemon juice together until it becomes a creamy paste. Drizzle over the cooled cookies. Let the frosting become solid before serving.
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