February 6, 2013 by Dakota Jones · 93 Comments
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.