Peanut butter is the super-food for runners

Have you ever had that weird experience when something that was not in your conscious orbit one day is ubiquitous the next? For example, you're thinking of buying a certain model of running shoe and then everyone seems to be wearing it?

Or – lately –the way everyone you hear or read about is on a "journey"? As in, "it's been an amazing journey" when actually it's just been them getting a new job or moving house.

It drives me nuts. Which is a neat segue to the fact that I have recently experienced this very phenomenon with peanut butter. Specifically, peanut butter and running. Over the years, as I've interviewed runners – from the elites to the rest of us – the words "peanut butter" have often been uttered, but this really only came to my full attention recently.

And ever since, I keep hearing about runners and peanut butter.

Al Desko dining

Last week I was watching Annabel Crabb's interview with federal Labor frontbencher and economist Andrew Leigh, for her Canberra Al Desko series on ABC TV iview.

The series hinges on the pretext that 44 per cent of people eat lunch at their desks and therefore it would be interesting to see what a certain class of people – ergo federal politicians – eat when dining "al desko".

It's fun, bite-sized television, so to speak. And it turns out Leigh eats peanut butter rolls for lunch everyday. One staffer confesses that in the past year, that is all she's seen him eat.

"I run a lot so I can sort of eat what I want," Leigh tells Crabb. "I took up serious running in the last year or so and it's been nice because it takes me back to being able to eat like a teenager."

Pinnacle of running

This year, Leigh has run four marathons in preparation for the Point to Pinnacle race up Mount Wellington in Hobart, dubbed the world's toughest half marathon. It's 21.4km long and 1270 metres in elevation and was held on Sunday. Leigh ran in honour of his grandfather, a methodist minister who died doing the run in 1970 when raising money for overseas aid. Leigh and his team did it this year to raise money for World Vision.


Crabb asks him why peanut butter? The answer is simple and yet complicated. Leigh, the author of books including The Economics of Just About Everything and most recently The Luck of Politics, is in the habit of applying a cost benefit analysis to most of his life choices. His CBA rationale for marathon running, for example, is that "it must bring me a great deal of pleasure if it takes up that much time".

His CBA on peanut butter for lunch is: "It tastes good, it doesn't take long to prepare and it's not all that bad for me. I need a bit of protein and some carbohydrates." And he prefers smooth peanut butter because "I can eat it more quickly".

On the road

Only days after seeing this I was chatting with a photographer colleague who in April rode his bicycle from Sydney to Melbourne via the Princes Highway. His lunch of choice on the road was peanut butter - specifically Pic's (made in New Zealand using nuts from Kingaroy, Queensland).

Pic's is owned by a Kiwi who sailed around the world then taught sailing before macular degeneration forced him to give it up. A lifetime devotee of peanut butter, he decided to make it and sell it from his small toaster-shaped caravan, complete with toast popping out of the roof. The business has grown and he now ships his product around the world.

I looked back on notes from ultra-distance runners I've interviewed, here and in the US. Same story: peanut butter sandwiches are ideal not just before a run, but during an event. It takes practice to eat and run, said one, but it's a nice diversion from gels and other sports nutrition products, especially if you're going to be out for some time.

Nuts about butter

A book I own called Feed Zone Portables - a cookbook of on-the-go food for athletes, says "managing the intake of food and drink using recipes, real food, and products that taste good and that instinctively feel right works a lot better than trying to manage it with engineered nutrition pretending to be smarter than nature."

And, you guessed it, it contains plenty of portables recipes using peanut butter.

I asked running friends about peanut butter and it seems they've been in on the secret, like some clandestine cult, for ages. One, who runs six days a week without fail, is almost religious in her devotion to Chunky Dave's peanut butter, which is made in Sydney. Another swears by her Tasmanian source: The Olde Spikey Bridge peanut butter, which is more crunchy than chunky.

In a bid to catch up, I'm working my way through all three brands at the moment, but it's not a tough assignment. This stuff is dangerously delicious.

High energy hit

Peanut butter is great before an early morning run, spread on a slice of white toast for a hit of energy after not eating overnight. I like a honey and peanut butter combo and sometimes only half a slice of toast is enough. It's pretty dense stuff.

At lunchtime - especially if you've got an afternoon training session ahead - the Andrew Leigh approach is ideal. You're getting protein, carbohydrates, fibre, mostly unsaturated "good" fats and an easily digested lunch. Peanuts have a low glycemic index, which means once consumed they release carbohydrate at a slow and steady rate into the bloodstream. This results in feeling full for longer.

However, because of its high energy density, peanut butter should be eaten in moderation. Note that Leigh spreads it over two rolls, but not too thickly. Probably a tablespoon all up. Depending on the brand used, this amounts to between 292 and 418 kilojoules and includes between six and eight grams of total fat. So peanut butter's advantage - high density energy delivery in small portions and therefore good for runners - can also be its disadvantage. That is, it's very easy to eat too much of the stuff and overdo your daily fat intake in the process. 

There are some weird recipes around for using peanut butter, but one of the weirdest uses for it – and one that I happen to endorse because it works – is to put a spoonful into a pan when frying salmon. It eliminates strong fishy smells from the kitchen.

And by the way, according to the Peanut Company of Australia, peanuts are not really a true nut, they belong to the legume family. They don't grow on trees but on a small bush with the kernels forming under the ground.

Are you nuts about peanut butter? Let us know in the comment section. 

Pip Coates is a running tragic who knows the euphoria of training for and completing a major race, but also the heartbreak of injury and every bend in the long road back. In between runs she is also the deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review Magazine.