Nutrition

One of the questions I am asked most often about my running is if I have a specific diet that I adhere to or that I believe is the best for running performance? Like virtually all of the most commonly asked questions about my views on running, this one has a lot more layers to it than a simple one- or two-sentence answer can address. However, because I’m not typically asked this question in a setting where I can really go very far in depth, I usually give a short answer that goes something like this: “I try to eat mostly natural, organic, minimally processed foods, but that I don’t limit any specific things from my diet. Instead I just try to eat a lot of the things which I think have high nutritional value and which I feel help my body feel good when I eat them.” This does a decent job of scratching the surface of my views on this topic, but certainly there is a lot more that can be said to make these thoughts more clear.

The first point I would make when looking deeper at this topic is that there is clearly no ‘best’ diet for every runner, so as I explain my views on nutrition, I’m certainly not implying that I think all runners should adhere to what I do. After all, some of the most accomplished runners in our sport are vegan while others who have accomplished just as much are paleo. Even more telling perhaps are the dozens of very highly accomplished runners over the years who have paid almost no attention to what they eat, and somehow seem to be very healthy, happy, and strong.

Certainly I believe there are foods which are typically better for us than other foods, and as high-performance athletes, it seems logical that it might be even more important for us to pay very close attention to which foods we put into our bodies. But I also think nutrition is a lot less black and white than it is often made out to be. By this I mean that I don’t think it’s really helpful or accurate to simply label foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ In many cases the inherent value of a food is based on the timing of when we are eating it, and what we are looking to get out of it, or more specifically what we are needing or wanting from a food source at that time. A very obvious example of this that many runners will understand are gels and other products designed specifically for endurance athletics. In the setting of a 100-mile race, a gel seems to be for most people a very ‘good’ food, whereas in most other instances, not so much. You could certainly make the argument that a gel is bad for you, even if you are running a 100-mile race. They’re almost entirely made up of simple carbohydrates and have little to no nutritional value, but in the midst of running 100 miles what we most need are easily digestible calories which give us the energy to keep pushing ourselves at a high level. Gel is really good at doing this.

I understand that the gel example is a very extreme example, but my point is that this is how I see food in general. To some degree, I think there is a time and a place for all foods in our diets. Sure, I can agree that kale has more nutritional value than a donut, but sometimes there is more to what makes a food ‘good’ and what makes a food ‘bad’ than simply nutritional value. Going back to the gel example, the reason why I think that a gel is a ‘good’ food during a 100-mile race is that the emotional, psychological, (and thus physical) health benefits you will get from running a successful 100-mile race typically far outweigh the negative effects of consuming that many simple carbohydrate calories in one day.

This isn’t to say that I think all people should eat an all-inclusive diet, but simply that I think the labeling of foods as automatically ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is inaccurate, and in many cases becomes unhealthy in its own right.

Essentially what I’m driving at here is that I think there is a lot more to our overall health and well being than what foods we eat or don’t eat. Our lifestyle, our non-dietary habits, and so many other factors contribute so much to our overall health, and in many cases these things can have a more significant impact on our health than the foods we consume in those moments. Sometimes the ‘healthiest’ foods are simply the foods which allow us to most effectively do these other things in our lives, which then contribute to our overall health in their own, unique way. Again, the obvious example is the gel-during-a-race example, but I think this is also the case (in a more subtle way) in just about every situation that we find ourselves in.

Another reason why I think it can often be ‘unhealthy’ to label any food as inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is that we then often end up allowing food to have much more of a negative impact on our overall health than it really ever should. This is another one that’s hard to explain, but if we have all these black and white ideas about which foods are ‘good’ and which foods are ‘bad,’ we are almost continually eating things which we have decided aren’t necessarily as good for us as something else we might have chosen to eat at that moment. Yes, many people who do choose to definitely exclude certain ‘bad’ foods from their diets are able to always stick to their own code and ethic, but in my observation it seems like most people at least occasionally ‘cheat.’ In many of these cases I think the cheating occurs because, in that moment and in that setting, the ‘bad’ food they are cheating with might actually not be that bad for them. It might be the most effective thing they could be eating right then to help with their overall health and well being. I’m not saying I’m naïve enough to believe that this is always the case, and that anything we choose to eat is automatically good for us because we choose it. But rather that when we look at food in this way, we then have a tendency judge ourselves in a negative way when we eat something we deem as inherently ‘bad.’ In many cases, this negative self-judgment can be more unhealthy than the ‘bad’ food we ate.

Again, I’m not saying that I think all people should eat all foods, and certainly there are many foods which I hardly ever eat, but I do think that any diet which completely and definitively excludes certain foods based on the notion that they are ‘bad’ for us has a very high potential to be unhealthy in its own way. For me it makes a lot more sense to focus my diet on eating as much as possible of the things that I know have high nutritional value and that my body seems to process smoothly and effectively, than it does to focus on definitely eliminating a list of foods that I’ve deemed as ‘bad’ for me. As I’ve pointed out above, I just don’t feel that foods that we perceive to have higher nutritional value are always more healthy for us than foods we perceive to have lower nutritional value.

Obviously the food we ingest has a huge impact on our overall health, but is most certainly not the only piece to the puzzle. The reality is that we find ourselves in countless situations in our lives where other things which affect our overall health momentarily trump nutrition. In those moments, the ‘healthiest’ food might not be the one with the most nutritional value, but instead the one that most effectively allows us to achieve health and well being in these other areas. To me, the healthiest diet has nothing to do with never eating specific ‘bad’ foods, but instead with eating the foods that provide us with the most overall health in the given situation. Conveniently, almost all of the time these are going to be foods which have high nutritional value, and that nearly everyone would label as ‘good’ and ‘healthy.’ Every now and then, though, we are going to be in one of those unique situations in life when the donut is actually going to be better for our overall health than the kale. In these moments, we have three choices: Eat the kale because we have decided that donuts are bad for us no matter the situation; eat the donut and resent ourselves for doing so; or eat the donut and appreciate the benefit we get from it in that moment.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

We know nutrition is a sensitive and, at times, controversial subject among humans in general and athletes specifically. We all bring different beliefs about nutrition to this conversation, so please comment to this article with respect for our varying approaches. Thank you!

  • Does your approach to nutrition align with Geoff’s? That is, do you try to eat nutritionally dense, organic, natural foods as much as you can but allow yourself to have donuts, gels, and other foods when it is occasionally appropriate?
  • Do you ever find yourself in the negative head space to which Geoff refers about food? As in, do you mentally punish yourself when you eat a food you’ve previously deemed as ‘bad?’

There are 18 comments

  1. stevewgregg

    Interesting read, Geoff, thank you. I think many runners find it interesting to see what elite runners do with regards to nutrition, and probably spend a lot of time fretting and worrying over the fine details of what (or what not) to have during training or a race. One of the things that could be overlooked in this is the fitness levels of elite runners and what their requirement of macronutrients might be in comparison to the chubby try-hard struggling in the mid-to-rear of the pack (that's me!) Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference and experience; I think Bryon referred to this in his book as 'the experiment of one'. Personally, I think knowing what the elite runners use can help inform experimentation with nutrition, but hard work and probably throwing up a few times is necessary to establish what works best for you in particular races, environments or temperatures.

    1. @SageCanaday

      I was teammates with 2008 US Olympian (2:10 marathoner) Brian Sell and he'd eat McDonalds all the time (mostly cheeseburgers and fries and ice cream and such). I've also seen a lot of really great college runners eat and drink fairly poorly for semesters on end but then perform very well. I think youth and running 120 to 160 miles a week probably helps one "get away" with these sorts of things and perhaps back then their bodies were better trained/prepared for processing that kind of rock n' roll diet. Back in those days we had eating contests at IHOP and raced a Krispy Kreme 5km on the track (a dozen doughnuts over 12.5 laps).

      One of the main reasons I try to eat healthy now is because I want to be healthy in the future as well. Sustainability is important and I'd imagine diet and other lifestyle choices are going to play a huge role in turning on and off genes that may or may not trigger positive adaptations within our bodies. It's going to be a long-term process!

      1. @diceyshin

        I've seen your IHOP and Krispy Kreme videos and I enjoyed them greatly, Sage. However, since you brought up Sell, it begs the question: How much faster would Sell (or any other North American runner) have been with a proper diet?

        Comparisons to Kenyans and Ethiopians get tired, I realize, but their diet has been analysed and it truly does hit all the marks…nearly vegetarian with high carbs, very low fat, moderate protein….small amounts of meat as a side dish, not the main course….low alcohol intake (until they get rich like Wanjiru).

        American runners frequently have issues with iron deficiency, an affliction that is seldom if ever encountered among East Africans. I could go on, but you get the point.

        To address Geoff's point about gels….he is right. Some foods are just "right" because of the context. Kenyans do use gels as well…they add them to their water bottles and mix them so that they do not have to fumble with two things at once.

        1. @SageCanaday

          Hey, glad you liked the videos.
          My diet has been vegetarian and pretty high carb (add in some extra doughnuts, pancakes, and beer sometimes) for 28 years so I'm all for the Kenyan and Ethiopian diet.

          I'm not sure Sell would've run much faster on a different diet though. Maybe he would've stayed in the sport longer, but there are some many other lifestyle choices that influence our running of course (ie sleep, sitting in office chairs, family time, climate, financial pressure etc.). With the Kenyans and Ethiopians you see a shift in attitude as well with running being a true full-time job and a way out of poverty. They have a unique hunger and desperation to succeed in the sport. I'm also pretty sure a lot of those guys (running just over 2hrs in the marathon) are getting away with no gels for 26.2 from what I've seen.

          Then again I hardly ever drink soda/pop, but during a couple 50-milers and 100kms last year I probably had a good 60 to 80oz of the stuff…I know Timothy Olson will chug sierra-mist as well!

      2. bikernate

        Very well said Sage. I never cared or limited my diet in any way, but when I hit 40 and saw the little potbelly starting I decided that I needed to eat better. Now at 45 I'm in the best shape of my life and much of it is due to diet, not just running. I learned the hard way that eating 4 candy bars a night and tons of sugar wasn't going to get me in the best shape, even running 80mpw. Changing my diet transformed my body and improved my resuts. When you feel good about your body/strength/appearance etc. you also gain a mental advantage because you look and feel strong.

  2. Vaportrails

    Thank you Geoff! I am firmly in agreement with this approach. It's actually something my wife and I disagree on because she is always telling me that even during a race that I should stay away from gels and soda. Naturally outside of a race I'm not going to be downing gels as a snack and I really try to stay away from sugary drinks like soda in my daily diet. But during a race, especially later in the race, those types of 'bad' foods are almost essential (for me anyways). Chugging a soda at mile 35 in a 50 mile race has worked so many wonders for me in races that I now see soda as an ESSENTIAL part of my race diet.
    Great article!

  3. bazzzzzzzzzzzzz

    Tim Olson has a pretty interesting post on the specifics of what he eats here: http://www.timothyallenolson.com/2013/04/10/nutri… – I've taken quite a bit from this and tried to incorporate it into my own diet.

    Probably one of the biggest challenges is an aspiring "athlete" is trying to find a balance between foods which are optimal for athletic endeavour and those which are best for overall health and well-being. A high-carbohydrate diet might enable you to get the fastest possible splits in a workout, but is it worth it if it's going to pre-dispose you to Type II diabetes in a decade or two?

    I've been thinking quite a lot about this over the past year, and I'm gradually coming to some kind of idea about what I think I should be eating.

    – Protein. Lots of it. Not only is it essential to repair those muscles we thrash every day, but it's incredibly satiating, too. If I eat two or three high protein meals per day I experience virtually no hunger and feel no need to snack. Meat, eggs, fish, cheese, (Greek) yogurt.

    – Minimizing grains and moderating other starchy foods. No-one likes crazy blood sugar swings, but if I am going to eat them, I try and schedule them to be post-workout when hopefully they'll get taken up by insulin-sensitive muscle cells rather than being dumped as fat. Same goes for beer!

    – Don't fear fat. As endurance runners, this is going to be our main source of fuel. I just try to stick to the healthy stuff.

    – Occasional short fasts – maybe 16-18 hours. Our bodies are perfectly capable of doing without food for extended periods of time, and periodically reminding them of this probably helps us to rely on what we've got stored instead of demanding a constant influx of calories.

    – Break the "rules". Food is one of life's great pleasures, and it's too short to miss out on the good stuff. The weekend is when I tend to relax a lot more, but I try and maximize this by eating the most delicious examples of bad things. Vancouverites will know what I mean if I talk about going for Lucky's or Honey's doughnuts instead of Tim Horton's.

    1. jacobgolden

      Well said bazzzz and great thread. I was frustrated for a long time because even with running and working out most every day I was 'stuck' in the 190's even with eating healthy ie..no fast food, soda and mostly no processed foods. I then tried an experiment and eliminated a lot of carbs from my day to day diet and 'counter intuitively' increased my fats ie..coconut oil, avocado, nuts, cheese, sour cream etc…almost immediately I begin losing wait, and this was not calorie counting (so no going hungry). The first few weeks were really hard energy wise, slowing some of my runs down to include a lot of walking. Then I started adding carbs (I use carbopro) a little before and during each run and man do I feel energized for the workout. It's like because my system in general is low carb when I take the fuel it just hit's me and works better then fuel ever worked for me before. This is allowing me to get down to a a more 'performant' weight. (currently 175) as well as having well fueled workouts. so far so good. and with all the veg I'm getting I feel my heath is improving too. props to zack bitter for a lot of great inspiration on his site in this regard.

  4. Robert Kunz

    Geoff offers a great point, which is that healthy eating though important is not necessarily to your best interest DURING a race. During a race your goal is to finish and finish well and at these points nutrition that is specifically designed to be absorbed quickly and deliver energy may be a better option than kale chips and walnuts.

  5. @Contrerasgj

    I focused on my way of eating in the last few years, and not just the running. I wasn't making improvement eating even what you would call a healthy diet. So I decided after lots of research to become plant based diet. Only clean, real food. No processed foods. Refined sugar, and limited breads. I'm 48, run about 40-60 mi a week on trails( in sandals) and recover much better then I ever have! I chose running was more important then bad food. On runs it's date, salt stick, and water. After 3 hrs I'll take dates filled with raw almond butter(I make) . Try it!

  6. sereth

    Great article and great comments so far. I am in Geoffs camp. I try to eat well and find that avoiding grains helps me personally. Am I militant about it? Nope and most importantly I don't feel bad about it when I don't stick to my plan. I have a friend that I run with and she has turned her nutrition around the past year and has been feeling great. A few weeks ago she was having a horrible day at work and I could tell she was unhappy. She was hungry and frustrated with having only fast food to choose from. (the guilt that Geoff talks about) I told her to just grab a cheese burger and fries and just enjoy it. She did, loved it..and moved on. It happens and we just have to accept that you can't be perfect. I think just being aware of nutrition is enough and you will eat to make yourself feel good and perform best.

  7. ripvanracer

    I'm in the camp of just eating "regular" food and not worrying about diet too much. (other than eating too much) I think the human body is far more efficient than people give it credit and it will make the most out of whatever you are able to put into it. "healthier" food is usually lower in calories so you get to eat more of it so that is the trade off to eating "unhealthy" food.

  8. ooartist1234

    In my opinion, one of the best articles written, regarding the tireless use of 'good' and 'bad' food. Thanks for your perspective.

  9. Aaron

    From time to time I enjoy making things like caramel popcorn and drinking home-made ginger beer which I bottle somewhat sweet. However, I have a hard time indulging in stuff like that when I haven’t been fairly active. As an occasional adjunct to a healthy diet and active lifestyle I think they’re mostly harmless. For the most part I don’t seem to get anything out of eating high glycemic foods when I run or during recovery, so my training diet is fairly impeccable–lots of whole foods, vegetables, fruit, fermented dairy and oats, and eggs. And I prefer things like villi, nuts, and nut butters when running long.

  10. Ben_Nephew

    Great article, Geoff, and very timely. It's incredible how many runners these days are on highly specific diets. It reminds me of the popularity of very minimalist shoes a few years ago. I have a few thoughts on this that may be of interest to some.

    In general, the research literature on many nutritional topics is quite mixed. Just the other day, the dean of our nutrition school gave a seminar in our department and she couldn't make strong conclusions about most of the topics she presented. To further complicate matters, many of the popular trends in nutrition are popular due to promotion and not scientific merit. Someone who writes books on a particular diet probably wants to sell those books. If you want to make an educated decision on a nutritional topic, the best idea would be to read peer reviewed studies on it, and note any conflicts of interest. For example, if you are reading an article that concludes that an Atkins type diet is best and the author is funded by the Atkins family, you might want to find some supporting studies that are less likely to be biased.

    The extremes of a spectrum are rarely a good idea, whether it is running barefoot all the time or eating nothing but apples. I've seen far more people struggle with nutrition in races that have highly specific diets than those with average diets. A related observation has been that many runners who change there diet and make massive progress also increase their mileage at the same time. My thinking is that the mileage is the key, and the association between increased mileage and improved performance does not require a special diet.

    You also have to be careful about taking conclusions from extreme examples and applying them broadly. One recent nutritional finding that has been consistently supported is that food can change our gut bacteria. I was just hearing about a study that looked at gut bacteria in two groups, one that ate some sort of pro-biotic diet, and another than ate nothing but meat. Given that very few people eat nothing but meat this study is irrelevant to most people, but some would take the data on changes in bacteria to support the idea that meat is bad for you.

    This brings up another point about drastically changing your diet on race day. While many seem to be able to tolerate this, if you do have GI issues during races, a mismatch between your race food and gut bacteria could be part of your problem.

    As for soda during races, Coke is Nectar of the Gods during ultras, capable of raising the dead.

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