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. 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).


    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.

  2. 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

  3. 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!

    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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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?

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. Leerunner

    That is almost exactly where I've landed, Jeremy. It works for me too. However, I can't do the sardines–I substitute tuna steak or salmon there. And red wine in the evening a couple nights a week. Cheers!

  9. Mike Place

    So often attempts at mixing humor and nutrition just fall flat but this was genuinely funny and informative.

    Nicely done, Dakota!

  10. Kelly

    I've been through all the same books and concepts. What I came away with, finally, was that every person is different (yeah, big revelation there) and that different stuff/food works for different people. It's very simple and yet we still get caught up in the hype. I think the key to a good diet is eating lots of veggies; eat food with little ingredients (read the labels); eat meat in reasonable portions; eat complex carbs mostly and not the bleached white crap; stay away from most sugary foods. I don't subscribe to anybody else's philosophy and going to the extreme in one direction or other is never "balanced". Of course, people can get away with a lot of bad eating habits but that doesn't mean they won't catch up with you one day.

    1. greg monette

      My post was half joking half serious but no you wont taste the avocado and there are plenty of vegan recipe posts for chocolate pudding or mousse using avocado and cocoa powder and they're awesome and im no vegan

  11. Lstomsl

    Why should that be surprising? The chemical reaction for combustion of gasolinefor energy is nearly identical to that our bodies use to combust glucose for energy.

  12. Crazy Cloud

    Dakota Jones…cool name. You are a good writer, Dakota, better than you think you are. This piece is very well written (could have used a bit more editing…Bryon?) and, besides being hilarious, is very insightful. Keep writing, Dakota! And don't forget to drink lots of water.

  13. Scott

    Oddly familiar sentiment from UK runner Holly Rush and Dakota Jones, [Broken link to Runners Life article entitled “Food” removed]. I'm not sure what is going on here, but something odd.

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