Food

I can say with much certainty that, save for a few notably painful exceptions, I have eaten every day of my life, which by my math adds up to nearly 8,100 days. That’s a lot of food. And when I reflect that what I eat literally transforms into the substance and working of my body, the amount of junk food I have eaten is appalling. I have a sweet tooth, and as any walk through the grocery store will indicate, so does the rest of America. Fortunately for us ultrarunners, we exercise enough that the immediate effects of eating poorly are not felt, but I worry that the toxins from junk food can slowly build up in sinister ways that later manifest as injuries and ill health. With that in mind I set out to figure out the best way to eat.

I began by looking at the way other top runners eat, thinking that if these people are fast, they must have figured out how to eat well. What I found was actually pretty hilarious. Geoff Roes, former course-record holder at the Western States 100, once gave me bacon and a donut on a run. He also claimed to have eaten 2,000 calories by 9:00 am that day. Antonio Krupicka seems to subsist on Nutella and tortillas 95% of the time and stewed vegetables the rest. Anna Frost only ate grapes for an entire week, and afterwards subsisted on crackers, tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. Brendan Trimboli took an even more extreme position on eating several years ago and just stopped doing it entirely. And that’s just the start.

I’ve heard that some Mexican runners take a pinch of corn every day or two to keep them running through the Copper Canyon, and I’ve seen our old friend Kilian go for an eight-hour run and only eat a few berries he found along the way. Word has it that the guy who won Javelina last year only eats fruit, whereas some people like Matt Hart only eat meat and vegetables. Aaron Marks, of course, subsists on a strict diet of PBR and candy, and Scott Jurek wrote a whole book about how to eat without really eating at all. As for me, I just eat Clif Bars. And Shot Bloks. I don’t even drink water anymore – I just dilute Clif Shots with, you guessed it, more Clif Shots, and I’m good to go.

But “good to go” is a relative term. Or perhaps an unfinished term. “Good to go to the bathroom?” “Good to go to the dentist?” I am not sure. What I do know is that, despite Aaron’s and my best attempts to make Clif Bar products our only source of food, human beings need to eat more than sugar, nuts and granola to survive. And as the above descriptions of the professionals’ habits indicate, most ultrarunners have clinical eating disorders. Thus, having found nothing of value in the experience of my friends, I decided to look elsewhere.

I amassed a tall stack of books on eating. The Paleo Diet for Athletes by Loren Cordain and Joe Friel, Food For Fitness: Eat Right to Train Right by Chris Carmichael, Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and several more. What I found, first of all, is that these books take a long time to read. I mean, I didn’t drop out of college just to read more textbooks, right? There must be a better way. The second thing I found is that food choice amounts nearly to religious choice in the public eye. (“I’m a born-again Paleo.”) People are very opinionated on the matter of food. Every single person who saw those books in my house had something to say on the matter, and I quickly learned to either hide the books or learn the person’s food preference ahead of time in order to agree with them based on my “findings.” However, the truth was that I had no “findings” whatsoever, because these books take a long time to read. I am working through them, though.

The thing about these books, I found, is that they use something called “science” to make their claims. Being myself “more of an artist than a mathematician,” as Joe Grant says, I don’t have much of a background in this so-called “science.” Nevertheless, I found their claims compelling. The authors spoke of studying the basic building blocks of human anatomy – things called “cells,” which can apparently come in several types and sizes – and first understanding how those things work before working backward and extrapolating from that information the knowledge on how best to fuel ourselves. I learned about how amino acids create proteins, how carbohydrates and sugar are the same thing, and how, despite all the media advertising, fat can actually be a good thing. The work was empirical in a way that laid out the fundamental processes of the human body such that we could then look at what amounted, more or less, to a map of how we should eat. I was energized by the progress I was making.

However, I found that the more detail I encountered, the less like a map the information looked. Things that made perfect sense from one angle looked like a jumble of nonsense when zoomed in upon. For example, the citric acid cycle is a description of the way the human body turns food into energy, and at a high-school level it works as a very harmonious repetition. Look a little closer, however, and you’ll find that the broad strokes of the “cycle” are in fact a rough patchwork of countless reactions, exchanges and conductions involving such convoluted terms as “mitochondria,” “oxidation” and “phosphorylation.” I soon realized that to truly understand this I would need to learn a substantial amount of chemistry and biology, which honestly just seemed to be taking me farther from my goal of learning how to eat better.

Though this may seem odd, I actually don’t have an extensive background in the natural sciences. That being said, I do have an extensive background in believing what people tell me. So I decided to just do my best with the knowledge I had. In the end, Michael Pollan had the best advice I could find: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” From what I can tell, vegetables have great nutrients, meat (or the myriad vegetarian-based sources of protein) build strong bodies, and sugars and fat give us energy. The process is a whole lot more complicated than that, but I have found one way to neutralize the soul-crushing confusion of the food problem: take a look at what you should not eat. In other words, rather than fretting about which foods are absolutely the best for you, start by looking at which foods you should not eat. For example, I love Nutella more than I love my parents, but I am damn sure that a paste made of sugar, chocolate, palm oil and a few nuts is not going to help me feel good, look good or recover well. Thus, even if my dinner is not the best thing I could be eating, at least it isn’t Nutella (most of the time).

Furthermore, relax a little. Being uptight is not going to help you feel healthy. Every meal is not going to be perfect, but you can make the goal to be a little better each time. Maybe all you have is the cheapest meat in the grocery store and wish you had free-range, grass-fed beef. Well, focus on eating the right amount, then get the right stuff next time. Eating better is a process, based on your own values, that will continue to evolve for your entire life. Identify your personal values for how best to eat, for yourself, others and the world, and then work toward that ideal each day.

I got plantar fasciitis last October, and only recently have I felt like I was making any progress. If the comments to my article on the subject are any indication, nobody has found a definitive solution to the problem. It’s a sticky injury, brought on by multiple factors that are almost impossible to isolate, and the best treatment turned out to be patience. Now that I’m feeling better, though, I want to know how to prevent the same thing from happening again. My PF was caused by overuse; I was doing a ton of mountain running last fall and apparently my foot couldn’t handle it. This thought process led me back to diet. Maybe if I had eaten better I would have been able to recover better; and maybe if I had recovered better I could have trained hard without getting injured. This is not conclusive, but at the very least eating better will make me feel better, which is a start.

I’m going to continue eating just about every day, and you should too. But I’m also going to make an effort to eat healthy because that seems like the best way to ensure longevity in this sport that batters a body like no other. I want to be running for a long time to come.

There are 93 comments

  1. Marcus

    "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

    I love that – thanks for the great article – i have been thinking about food alot also and now i feel more relaxed!

    All the best for your foo(d)t!

  2. Anonymous

    I suggest you change the Nutella (30% fat)by pure rosmery honey,sometimes you can

    alternate with extra olive oil and salt,try more salads with tuna,salmon,pasta or lentils,more fresh fruits(bananas better than Nutella or any bars!),2times per week red low in fat meat,with salad,no french fried potatoes etc

    You elite runners must look after your diet strictly

  3. pdc

    I don't know much about eating right or running fast but what I do know is that Dakota is a very funny and entertaining writer. Thanks for making me laugh Dakota!

  4. Anonymous

    "Though this may seem odd, I actually don’t have an extensive background in the natural sciences. That being said, I do have an extensive background in believing what people tell me."

    I laughed while at work. Thanks Dakota. :)

  5. Brandon

    As a PE/Health teacher, I couldn't agree more with the statement "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." And Dakota's view of trying to eat less of the wrong foods is what I've been trying to drill into my students minds. There isn't a need for someone to go strictly paleo or vegetarian. You need a balanced diet, period. Make sure you get a substantial amount of whole grains, vegetables and fruits and a little bit of proteins and dairy and you will be fine. By doing this you will get almost all the nutrients your body needs without any supplements. Balance is the key. Just like you have to find a balance in your training, mixing workouts with easier runs, you have to balance out the types of foods you are eating.

  6. solarweasel

    I too dove into this subject matter a couple years ago and essentially came to the same conclusion: "eat food; not too much; mostly plants".

    Thanks, Michael Pollan, for the pithy rule of thumb that's much easier remembered (and adhered to) than the specifics to some restrictive diet or complicated eating plan.

    Other lessons about eating that I've learned through trial and error include:

    – I (as well as many other ultramarathon runners) are much more at risk of simply not eating enough than not eating the right things. I don't try to count calories, I now just eat until full, then a bit more.

    – I will eat whatever is within reach. If I stock the fridge with fruits and veggies and purchase foods that meet Pollan's criteria (less than 5 ingredients — all recognizable) at the market, that is what I will eat (most of the time).

    – "Most of the time" is another key. Sure, Nutella can be a slippery slope so I don't buy it. But if I'm visiting a friend and they want to cook me up a Nutella chimichanga, I'm all in.

    I echo Brandon's sentiment that balance is of utmost importance. Too much of any one thing is typically not ideal. This applies to eating, training, working, etc etc…

    Great post, Oak Dot Jeans!

  7. Johnny

    Love the simplicity of the "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." But should note that the "eat food" part is really saying eat real food, i.e. not processed food. One of Michael Pollan's rules of eating is to not eat anything with ingredients your great grandmother wouldn't recognize.

    1. Jill Homer (@AlaskaJ

      My great-grandmother died at age 98 in 2004 with all kinds of scary food in her cupboards, such as boxes of Twinkies and Weetabix that expired in the 1980s. I'm not sure I want to eat the way my great-grandmother ate, but she did achieve admirable longevity.

      1. Brent Broome

        Seems like if she died with 20-years-expired junk food in her cupboards, then she probably never ate the stuff. I can buy a bag of beans and not cook it up for two years (because I rarely eat homemade beans), but a box of Twinkies wouldn't last two days in my house. Okay, that's a lie– the twinkies wouldn't last through the night.

  8. dogrunner

    Great post. I'm going to make my students read it :)

    I am a biologist, teach Introductory Biology to biology majors and others who are stuck taking it for their major, and your post provides great insight into the workings of the mind for the majority of students. At least the ones who bother to think about what they eat in the first place.

  9. Charlie M.

    Sure is nice to have the "what should I eat problem"…for most of history it was "will I be able to eat?"…and now we're just bogged down in choices and guilt and dogmatism.

    Everything in moderation, even moderation.

    The best meals and snacks happen when we least expect it…and it can't be repeated the same way twice…it's an elusive thing, just like when we have a great run that we didn't expect when we started…

    There is no way to be perfect or to control anything…just change things up–that's the only rule…if you start one day with Potato Chips, start the next day with a banana…and then change it up again the following day. Over 35,000 days of eating in a lifetime you will have good days and bad…

    1. Charlie M.

      Actually there is one overarching rule: You MUST start each day with Coffee, and you MUST end each day with Wine. No exceptions :)

    2. ChrisG

      Your first paragraph reminds me of this quote –

      “The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question 'How can we eat?' the second by the question 'Why do we eat?' and the third by the question 'Where shall we have lunch?”

      – Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

  10. Shelby

    Ahhh Prez…here’s a topic I think about a lot (unlike ice climbing), eating being one of my favorite things to do. I’ve found after eating terribly for decades that just making sure I’m putting a healthy variety of foods in my body allows me to enjoy some of the not-so-good for me foods that taste oh-so-good and make me happy (like Tim Tams, my personal vice). I hate these books that tell us to steer clear of certain natural foods, when really we just should not overdose on them (like carbs or fats). I love me some carbs and thankfully they are needed for running long. I also love me some fat and thankfully, they (like nuts) can come in packages that give me other important things like Omega 3s. I love me some animal too, which I need to rebuild my damaged muscles and give me a dose of much needed B vitamins. Everything in nature has a purpose and I like learning about the important roles these foods have in making my body run optimally.

    My personal fav book on the subject is Eat, Drink and Be Healthy by Walter Willett, from Harvard School of Public Health. Unlike most books on the subject, this one was engaging, well-balanced and based on years of academic research. I found it helpful to have a basic knowledge of how certain foods that I’m NOT prone to eat will benefit me (like fish – yuk) and armed with that knowledge, I’m motivated to add eat them in small quantities at least.

    A tip I’ll share with you and anyone else who happens to read this is my fav way to eat veggies — roasting them. It’s simple, healthy and oh-so-tasty (and I don’t like veggies, so that’s saying a lot):

    1. Cut up a variety of veggies, (including sweet potatoes)

    2. Put them in a roasting pan (like one for a turkey)

    3. Drizzle some olive oil and add a little salt/pepper

    4. Bake at 450 for ~45 min

    Voilà! The sweet potatoes make the rest of the veggies even sweeter. Ask Bryon & Meghan how they like ‘em.

    Good luck at the Red Hot next week, I hope it’s PF pain-free for ya.

  11. Emil

    "And as the above descriptions of the professionals’ habits indicate, most ultrarunners have clinical eating disorders. Thus, having found nothing of value in the experience of my friends, I decided to look elsewhere."

    This had me laughing the entire morning. Thanks!

  12. Snerb

    This is a good read Dakota. The topic of food and diet among athletes is always interesting to me, the range of opinions on what to eat and when is never ending. I agree with your conclusion, don't start by focusing on what you should be eating. Instead, focus on what you could or should be removing from your diet, that's the easiest place to start. I feel like I'm eating the way I should be now, but it took a while to get there and baby steps are the key. The only blanket statement that I always make around diet and eating is that all fat is not bad, know the difference between healthy and unhealthy fats, especially if you're an athlete.

    Cheers!!!

  13. Jamie

    Reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma" on the bus to and from work lately has made me rather terrified of food. That said, Michael Pollan's "Food Rules" is a great, simple, guide to how to eat (even just a little) better.

    Thanks for the laugh, and I hope to see you on the trails again soon.

  14. Scott

    As a current nutrition student I find it constantly shocking how wrong the information people spout is. Especially when they are talking of these "restrictive- eat this don't eat that" diets. Take for instance Fruitarians. There is essentially no possible way a human can subsists on fruit alone. Fruitarians are either heavily supplementing or they are misstating what they are actually eating. But people read articles about them and believe it all. Same thing with anti-meat diets. Unprocessed meat is not the villain the current docu-crowd wants it to be.

    1. Nick J

      Agreed. I think the 80 banana a day guy is full of shit. Likewise anyone that tells you meat "rots" in your stomach.

      I have far less flatulence when I eat meat, If I go anywhere near a bean or say a chick pea you may as well put a 10 mile exclusion zone around me.

      Listen to your body, not the diet gurus. (most of whom are pretty fat off the profits of their books).

        1. Nick J

          Bryon, sorry about that I should have reflected a bit more before pressing submit. Apologies if my post caused offense, sometimes subtlety is not my strong point.

          I'll tone it down in the future.

          Nick

  15. Pete

    I like the way people are getting preachy about using Nutella and its fat content. If AK chooses to get his meager fat calories from Nutella, what's wrong with that? When you live out of a truck in the summer, your food options are limited, folks. It's always annoying to hear the wannabe nutritional experts spout off to elite athletes about how their diets should be changed.

  16. Libby

    Too funny. Love the sense of humor in this. "Born-again paleo". Ha. And so right about the diets of some of our favorite lovable ultrarunners. Completely runs the gamut.

  17. Jeremy

    A few good habits I've picked up the past few years:

    1. Eggs for breakfast 1-3. Banana + almond butter. Anything less than this and I will never make it through AM workout without eating gels.

    2. Big salad with sardines for lunch. Put any and all veggies, fruit, seeds, nuts you have in the house in there.

    3. Pre-cook soup with chicken stock (homemade). Make a few gallons and eat it over the week.

    4. Wild game for dinner and more veggies.

    5. Pre-cook a bulk portion of a healthy starch like quinoa, yams, etc. Mix these into meals when depleted or when carbing up for a long/hard run. Limit starches as a rule. Make the body burn its fat around the clock.

  18. Capn_Q

    "For example, I love Nutella more than I love my parents"

    Thanks for that Dakota! I almost spit my lunch (coffee and a Picky Bar) out of my nose. Keep up the good work, and yes, try to eat most every day ;)

  19. korey

    I drink a lot of booze.
    Eat a lot of whatever I want.
    And don't read nutrition books. Actually I try not to read in general.
    Keeps me fast, strong and stupid.
    Entertaining as usual, Mr. Jones

  20. Martin

    Nice one:)

    My attitude towards healthy eating is that one should mainly try eating a large variety of food. Let the body take out what it needs and wash out the rest.

  21. shaun

    been on the 80/10/10 aka fruitarian diet for 5 months now (from straight up vegetarian). its been amazing for my ultra running- more energy, super recovery, and clean digestion. Its not for everyone (and no, dont let Kutcher let you believe its ONLY fruit). Getting away from processed food as a first step is key- which this author has clearly discovered.

  22. Aaron K.

    Weird, Dakota. In a roundabout way, the topic of your diet came up the other night while having a beer with my girlfriend. (Creepy, huh?) I casually mentioned that I'd like to participate in your Telluride extravaganza this summer and she proceeded to claim to have sold you your first cookbook at the bookstore in Moab. I figured at this point in your career, you must be way too rich and famous to actually prepare your own meals.. . .don't all elite ultrarunners have butlers and servants for that sort of thing? Coincidentally, the next morning we ate spoonfuls of Nutella with a small side of crepes.

  23. Cara

    Not to be too repetetive here but…. Eat REAL food, not too much and mostly plants is spot on.

    I am a RD/Nutritionist and its what I teach every day and seriously thats the best advice out there.

    1. Focus on real food with limited or single ingredients

    2. Find what works for YOU, there is NO one size fits all believe me. I operate great on a mostly veg diet but my husband would not.

    3. Pinpoint food intolerances and sensitivities **

    4. Just know that whether Plaleo-ish or vegan they all have good points, but take the good points and make it work for you and what you like and your body likes

    5. Most important EAT REAL FOOD (with the exception of the energy foods we need in ultras and try to find better options for that stuff like Organic Honey Stinger or Pocket Fuel). If you eat real food you cut out the overload of added sugars and you cut out the additive chemicals

    6. You run a lot so you have leaway to have that extra beer or pizza just dont do it everyday

    Enjoy food don't stress about it!

  24. Dom

    Everyone's body adapts to new diets, the question is whether the change is worthwhile and sustainable. I aire the gluten-free-vegans of the world, provided they really get a performance boost out of it. However, if there's not a noticeable advantage for oneself, don't sweat it! Your body always adapts and changes efficiencies and wastefulness!

  25. Lori Enlow

    As a family nurse practitioner in a busy internal medicine practice…..Thanks for so wittingly putting into words what I try to relate to my patients every day! You are right on the money!! No further research or reading necessary my friend….you've got it! Best wishes on all your adventures!

  26. panos from greece

    I was in the same confusion during the past few months that i was trying to figure out what it is best to eat.

    What i have decided to do, after having read 4-5 books on nutrition (athelete's or not), is to follow what makes sense, and what is sustainable from every book.

    So my "food mantra", goes like this:

    -Try to eat real food. Raw if possible, mostly vegetables, fruits and less nuts and meats.

    -Eliminate processed food from my died (biscuits, snacks, ice cream, etc)

    -25% of my daily calories should be from protein (better from fish and meat)

    -Try to eat simple meals and combine starch and vegetables or meat and vegetables but never starch and meat.

    That's all

  27. KenZ

    Best healthy desert "substitute" for ice cream, ever:

    1. Peel ripe bananas and freeze.

    2. Put frozen bananas in Vitamix blender

    3. Add Tbsp of vanilla extract.

    4. Serve to friends, and have most of them totally amazed that it's bananas (it'll have a mild banana taste, but you'll be frickin' shocked how good it is. Ice cream it ain't, but it's 88% of the way there).

    Variations:

    A. 80% frozen bananas + 20% frozen mixed berries = great sorbet

    B. Frozen bananas + 100% (unsweetened) cocoa powder + Tbsp almond butter and a few walnuts at the end (peppermint extract optional) = great chocolate nut ice cream

    C. Bananas + Tbsp almond butter + vanilla extract + handful of dried, pitted dates = really awesome something.

    We have "ice cream" almost every night.

  28. RILEY

    GREAT! read Dakota,

    Having read much Nutrition related literature and studied the topic throughout my undergraduate years. I am under the firm belief of the…

    "(insert your name here) diet"

    Everyone is different and has different foods that work for them. It takes a certain amount of experimentation and trial-and-error to figure out what works for a certain individual, example(s) Scott Jurek can win Western States 7 years in a row on a Vegan Diet, and Timothy Olson can win the same race and set a "beastly" course record on a low-carb "Paleo" diet. Those dietary patterns are clearly working for those two guys. But does not necessarily mean they will be perfect for you, me or the other person.

    Thats my view, Best wishes to a speedy recovery

  29. AV1611-Ben

    Since taking up ultra-running 2 years ago, I have become increasingly *STUNNED* by how silly we can be. We get obsessive about the gas we put in our cars, so they perform well, and pay no attention to the fuel we put in our bodies, and still expect to perform well.

    GIGO. Garbage in, garbage out.

    Or as the Bible says, "…whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap".

    I really enjoy meat still, but deliberately eat it much less frequently. I now "snack" on apples, carrots, broccoli, beans, snow peas, cauliflower, berries, pineapple etc. Can't begin to tell you how much better I feel for it. And, I'm dropping a lot of that stubborn excess body fat that running didn't seem to be stripping.

    Bon appetit!

  30. Brett

    Roes consumed 2,000 calories by 9am? How does he run so fast despite having to carry a family size 16 pack of toilet paper with him?

  31. Max

    Both Anton and K-machine eat nutella by the jar. I'm gonna do the same and hopefully get some of their speed and climbing prowess.

    1. Natasha

      Exactly! If you watch the A Fine Line movie, Kilian can be spotted eating Nutella on more than one occasion before starting out on an epic adventure! :-)

      1. Charlie M.

        "A 2009 study by scientists at Malaysian Science University concluded palm oil, compared to other vegetable oils, is a healthy source of edible oil and at the same time, available in quantities that can satisfy global demand for biodiesel." (Wikipedia, "Palm Oil")

        So there you go…eat some of your Nutella for the palm oil, and then use the rest for fuel for your vehicle.

  32. MikeC AK

    I've tried a lot of diet adjustments to enhance endurance endeavors. Landed on the following

    Unprocessed meat, fruit, nuts(unsalted), eggs are ok.

    Sugar, Gluten(allergic), and Dairy(allergic) I try to avoid.

    I also struggle with anemia, homemade chicken wings help with this.

    Thai style curry is my top recovery food.

  33. Ann

    Everybody has opinion about food but as a mom of three kids who react differently to almost every food I have come to realize that food and diet is an individual thing. I have to eat what works for me and that might work for you but it might not. I try not to push my plan on others for that very reason. That being said, it is hard to go wrong when you stick with things that are as close to natural as possible. BTW, I have a long history of listening to other people too. I went vegetarian for 6 weeks thinking it would make me feel wonderful. I hardly crawled over of bed during that time. I need meat. Who knew?

  34. baller_baller

    DK writes the best articles on here. Fun read and yeah, eat a wide range of natural/organic/local foods and eat when you're hungry. Eat vegetarian if you can. My guilty pleasure is caffeineated gels on long runs and peanut butter post run. Just spoon after spoon of salty, crunchy natural peanut butter. And sometimes I put salt on it or eat it with cheese.

  35. hcee

    "I love Nutella more than I love my parents" this made me smile and you know what I love it too!

    What a great, funny and interesting article.

    I actually don't usually fuel on many of my runs apart from water and I manage. I do however enjoy my food and make sure I eat relatively well before and after. Little and often for me.

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