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Hacking the Perfect Runner’s Diet: Food Lessons from a Lifetime of Obsession

I have a confession. I’m obsessed with optimizing my life. Whether it’s finances (yes, I have a Roth IRA!), marathon workouts, decluttering and living more like a minimalist, or getting the best night’s sleep, I’m fascinated by learning how to be the best.

Loco Moco
Loco Moco – a Hawaiian Cowboy Tradition

The same is true with eating. For years, I’ve been reading the latest articles and books trying to learn how to create the perfect human diet. It’s been said that the next great performance improvements will come from advances in how athletes eat. I don’t doubt it – and I’m obsessed with finding out what that diet is all about.

I don’t write too often about diet here on Strength Running. I’m not an expert, but if I didn’t have a running website I’d probably have a food blog. You could call me a “foodie” but I think that sounds a little too fancy. Instead, I like trying new things and have learned a lot about what’s good for you and why.

Just Because You Run Doesn’t Mean You Have a Dietary Hall Pass

Most runners have terrible diets. You know it’s true. A common excuse to eating whatever junk food you want is, “If the furnace is hot enough it will burn anything!” That’s partially true, but it doesn’t mean you’re being healthy. You can get away with eating processed food, second and third helpings, and too much dessert when you’re young and working out a lot.

Sooner or later, your crappy diet is going to catch up with you. You’ll stop recovering from hard workouts like a 17 year old. The 130 grams of sugar you just ate in that pint of Ben & Jerry’s is going to keep you up on a sugar high way past your bed time. You’ll probably pack on a few pounds.

Everyone needs to get a grip on what they eat at some point. My turning point came during my senior year in college. Since becoming fascinated with food, nutrition, and diet I’ve read:

My reading list includes Gary Taubes, Robb Wolf, and more “evolutionary health” experts. My quest to understand what optimizes health is insatiable.

There’s a common theme that runs through these books. Judging from most of the titles above, you probably think that they all promote a paleolithic diet and that I eat mostly paleo.

A quick definition: a paleo diet tries to emulate what humans evolved to eat, focusing on vegetables, meat, seeds and nuts, seafood, and some fruit. It avoids grains, sugar, salt, processed oils, and all processed food. That’s right, no Fruity Pebbles.

But I’m not a paleo eater. Sometimes my diet looks close, but for runners it’s impossible to eat so few carbs and still be able to crush workouts and do our long runs – intelligent carb-loading is important. That’s why I like the Paleo Diet for Athletes book I mentioned above.

Eat Real Food

The common theme throughout all of these books (including Michael Pollan’s books, which do not promote paleo) is simplicity. The perfect human diet is focused on real food, not food products that were made in a lab.

Michael Pollan said it best: Eat food, mostly plants, not too much. But what does this quote mean in practice?

“Eat food”

Don’t we all do this every single day? No, some of us don’t. Many people eat things that shouldn’t be considered real food, things like:

  • Muffins
  • Donuts (my personal kryptonite – I love them!)
  • Lunchables
  • Boca burgers
  • Almost everything at Burger King, McDonald’s or any other fast food restaurant
  • Pizza
  • Soda

These things are created in a food lab. Have you ever looked at the ingredients list for pizza? You’re going to read things like guanylate, carrageenan, xanthan gum, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, and autolyzed yeast extract. No thanks, these aren’t for me.

One of my favorite adages about food is, “If your great great grandmother wouldn’t recognize it as food, then it’s not food.” Would she look at a bowl of Count Chocula and consider that food? No, that bowl of sugar is why two-thirds of Americans are overweight.

“Mostly plants”

Pollan knows his stuff about nutrition. If you want a diet packed with nutrients, then you need to eat a lot of plants. Vegetables, fruit, nuts, and seeds pack a very high nutrient density. You know you’re giving your body what it needs when a large part of your food intake is plants.

I don’t count calories or supplement with any vitamins, but I cover my bases by eating a lot of vegetables, 2-3 servings of fruit and a big handful of nuts every day. It’s also virtually impossible to gain weight when most of your food is fruit and vegetables. They’re low calorie, but high nutrient.

“Not too much”

Even if you’re eating all the right foods you can still gain weight if you’re overeating. It sounds difficult to “just eat less” but there are a lot of subtle tricks you can use to change your behavior:

  • Serve dinner on smaller plates
  • Don’t keep bowls of food on the table – keep them on the counter. You’ll eat less.
  • Eat slower – chew longer and take short breaks in between every few bites
  • You don’t need dessert
  • Drink a big glass of water before dinner

To simplify things, I don’t count calories or limit how much food I eat. Instead, I try to eat the right foods (no hot pockets) and if I’m still hungry, I’ll eat more. Variety is important so I try to eat as many different foods as possible.

There’s been a lot of talk recently in the health blogosphere (especially in the paleo circles) about intermittent fasting. This practice has you abstain from eating for 12+ hours. Health benefits are purported to be increased fat burning, better neurological health, longevity, and a healthier blood lipid profile. Mark Sisson (author of The Primal Blueprint above) has a great article on it here: The Health Benefits of Intermittent Fasting.

I don’t recommend this for runners, simply because our energy needs are higher. Since many of us run 5+ days per week, we need that energy to constantly be refueling and adapting. However, you may want to run 1-2 runs per week in the morning without breakfast. These runs in a fasted state have been shown to increase your body’s reliance on fat as a fuel (perfect for marathoners). Just don’t do them right before your race – you want to be fueled and sharp!

Debating Minutiae – What Do You Need to Know?

When it comes to dieting, food, and nutrition everyone wants to know the latest super food. Diet forums make me want to shove bamboo under my finger nails. You’ll read questions like, “Should I buy pomegranate juice if I’m running a marathon?” or “Are yellow peppers healthier than asparagus?”

I’m sorry, the correct answer is “Who gives a shit?

People love to debate minutiae. It’s like with personal finance – you do not need to create an elaborate budget, read the stock page of the New York Times, or work on Wall Street to steadily increase your net worth or eliminate debt.

You just need a set of guiding principles. A simple set of food guidelines can help you stay on track with your diet and you can get on with your life. Instead of wondering if peaches or apples are better for you, you’ll be able to make the best food decisions for your situation.

Based on everything I’ve learned from the books above, my constant reading of the subject, and my personal experience I think there are just a few real guidelines to follow.

  1. Eat unprocessed, real food. This means vegetables, meat, fruit, and nuts. No pop-tarts or “food product.”
  2. Eat vegetables with at least two of your daily meals if you have trouble meeting your daily amount at dinner.
  3. Don’t freak out about dairy – if you tolerate it, enjoy it, and it’s a normal part of your diet then you can keep consuming it.
  4. If a food comes in a package and has a health claim on it, be skeptical. Look at the ingredients list and try to buy the product with the least ingredients.
  5. Vegetarian or meat-eater? I’m convinced the ideal human diet includes meat. We evolved eating it and numerous studies strongly show that we thrive eating meat. If possible, choose grass-finished, humanely raised animals. I could write volumes on the subject, but pick up a copy of the Paleo Diet for Athletes for more reading.
  6. Almost all runners can cut back on their carbs.  Too many carbohydrates can make you gain weight, get cavities, and even have high triglycerides and cholesterol. Focus on healthy sources like fruit, yams, quinoa, wild rice, and beans (in moderation; they can irritate some people). Most runners should avoid sugar 99% of the time!
  7. On beverages: coffee and tea are good for you (skip the added sugar/whipped cream). So is red wine, but limit your alcohol consumption to about two drinks. Drinking more ruins your sleep and recovery, dehydrates you, and lowers testosterone levels (very bad for women too!)
  8. Dietary cholesterol has no impact on blood cholesterol (i.e., eat whole eggs).
  9. Don’t overindulge to excess, even on healthy foods. Moderation is wise with almost everything.
  10. Yes, it’s okay to cheat once in awhile. Especially if you just rocked a long run.

Many of the guidelines can be combined. If you want to drink coffee because it’s healthy, you know that a Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino violates Principle #1 of eating REAL food with minimally processed crap. Stick with brewed coffee and a dash of cream or little bit of milk.

If you remember even a few of these simple rules, you’re going to be far healthier than the majority of the population. You don’t need to know which type of meat has the most vitamin B12 or whether to combine melon with quinoa for digestive reasons. Cutting sugar and processed food from your diet are the most important things to remember.

The perfect runner’s diet includes whole foods, healthy carbs when you need it, enough protein through high-quality meat sources to rebuild muscle after hard workouts, and no processed food. Nobody’s perfect, so I actually recommend cheating at least once a week.

Red Wine
Enjoying some red wine at sunset.

Your Action Plan

Are these guidelines exhaustive? No, but that’s not the point. My goal here is to distill the intricacies of diet and nutrition into a simple set of principles that will get you to 80%. Remember the 80/20 rule?

Optimizing my diet has taken years to perfect. It’s still not ideal, but now I know so much more about nutrition and what it takes to lose and gain weight.

I get my dairy and meat delivered from a local farm that produces everything humanely and much more healthfully than a factory farm. In the summer and fall months, Meaghan and I also get a weekly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box of fruit and vegetables from local farms. Everything tastes better and it’s healthier.

The best part of ordering fruit, veggies, and high-quality dairy and meat from a local farm is that it forces us to eat healthy food! We spend far less time in the grocery store, being lured by glitzy packaging for 100-calorie snack packs or 1/3 less fat ice cream. Instead, our meals are based on fresh veggies, meat, and occasional grains like quinoa.

Now it’s your turn: I want you to become a better runner by eating a more healthy diet.

For the next month, choose 1-2 lessons I listed above and start implementing them in your diet. You can start skipping sugar in your morning coffee and replacing that bag of chips with an apple. Then the next week, you build on those small changes by making a few more. If you want to take it to the next level, pick up one of the books I recommend.

Keep your changes small and manageable. In less than two months, you’ll have gradually transformed your diet into a nutrient powerhouse. I guarantee you’ll feel better, recover faster, and eventually start racing faster. And isn’t that what we all want?

The Master Grocery List

To help you out, I’ve created a massive master shopping list that’s available in the Runner’s Gear Bag. It has almost 90 ideas for your next shopping trip – everything from veggies and fruit to seafood and grocery items like Sunbutter and guacamole.

Use it anytime you’re wondering, “What the hell should I eat tonight?” It’s bound to give you a few great ideas for dinner.

Simply sign up here or in the box below and you’ll be given the link to this secret page (where you can also download The Strength Running PR Guide, a circuit workout, and bonus content not available on the blog).

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