By Jeff Kozak
“I treat my body like a temple, you treat yours like a tent…” – Jimmy Buffett, ‘Fruitcakes’
The stack of cookies maxing out the span between my thumb and middle finger threatened to topple to the ground with every exhausted step as the final aid station of the 1997 San Juan Trail 50 Mile receded slowly into the background. My first shot at this distance had been going well until a major bonk, also a first, came to collect on earlier excesses around mile 40. Out of the convenience store-like spread of sweet and salty snacks, the Oreos had randomly called to me like a simple sugar savior. Now, stumbling down a dirt road toward the final climb, I played a game that conjured up a Double Stuff Jenga as I yanked individual cookies out of the cattywampus stack with my opposite hand. It worked. No Oreos bit the dust and the leaning tower of processed food fueled me to the finish.
In 1997 the only real diet axiom in the ultrarunning world was that you needed to eat, and drink; a lot. Twenty years later one could easily bonk before even getting to the start line from the analysis paralysis of trying to decide which of the latest, and oftentimes conflicting, nutrition trends is The Way, The Truth and The Light. Whom would have ever thought that eating too many carbs would be likened to running with the macronutrient devil, or that a leading South African scientist, and author of the biped bible The Lore Of Running, would lead the charge against the retrospective blasphemy of waterlogged-hydration recommendations?
My one and only experimentation with strict dietary habits came early as an overly-zealous high school freshman riding the high of discovering his athletic calling in the freshly cut grass scents and anaerobic burns of 5K cross country. I threw myself into training, and a decidedly unusual diet choice for a teenage budding endurance athlete: The Pritikin Diet, a low-fat regime focused on unrefined carbs from vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains and based on inventor, nutritionist and longevity researcher, Nathan Pritikin’s, personal experience with heart disease-prompted studies revealing that primitive cultures with primarily vegetarian diets had minimal incidences of cardiopathy. The Paleo Diet wasn’t the first, nor will it be the last, to plant its contemporary-fad roots in the dietary soils of the ancients.
I didn’t have heart disease and I have no recollection of how I came across The Pritikin Promise but the book’s popularity flourished at the peak of the cholesterol-craze in the 1980s. Oat bran was king. I ate enough bulgur wheat to bloat an elephant, drove my mom nuts with my suddenly ascetic eating stipulations, and had most everyone, including my coach and teammates, wondering when my stricturistic paroxysms would subside. The Ziploc bag of unshelled, roasted pinenuts I brought to the cafeteria and proceeded to meticulously eat like a chipmunk came to symbolize the apex of my ability to withstand good-natured ridicule from incredulous friends.
Athletically-speaking, I doubt the diet did much of anything but unnecessarily complicate my, and my mom’s, day-to-day, but after a recent reading of Matt Fitzgerald’s Diet Cults it is no longer a mystery to me why I, why we, so often go to extremes with our diets. Fundamentally, it is all about the need to belong, to identify. This need traces itself back to our tribal origins and our instinctual desire to distinguish ourselves from other clans. Most religions also have dietary rules considered sacred and, to be sure, even within secular activities, such as running, converts to various approaches to nutrition often exude a religious fervor with their preaching. I had found myself in running, and although ostensibly about improving performance, my temporary trip into dietary asceticism likely was more about further separating that identity from the masses.
The reality is that no one way of eating is necessarily superior to any other, just as no singular setlist of foods is ever going to be the magic sports nutrition bullet for every athlete. The human ability to eat anything and everything and to adapt to foreign foods is one of the traits that allowed our species to spread across the planet so diversely and successfully in the first place.
With that said, in the modern world, decisions on what to eat and drink and when, can be as confusing as they are convenient, and the demands of training and racing are unique in an often otherwise sedentary existence. After Pritikin, I promised myself I would remain open minded about diet choices and changes based on what came and went both scientifically and anecdotally, but that I would permanently fall off nutritional bandwagons, no matter how many, or how distinguished, the athletes were that gathered in the ruts of their wagon wheels.
What follows is simply a list of things, based on experience and education, worth taking into consideration as a runner, and then deciding for yourself through your own experiment of one what works and what doesn’t:
Timing Is Everything – Regardless of your diet’s overall macronutrient (fat/protein/carb) percentage breakdown, it doesn’t make sense to stuff yourself with pasta and French bread on a rest, recovery, or otherwise low intensity day, or to gorge on avocados and steak fajitas when the calendar calls for 90+% effort intervals. Use the easy days to focus on proteins and fats for repair and satiety without excessive caloric consumption and get your carb on during high intensity days when your body burns a greater percentage of simple sugars out of necessity. For a carb lover like myself this is easier said than done.
Burn, Triglycerides, Burn – Optimized fat metabolism (OFM) diets are en vogue right now amongst endurance athletes.The idea is to train your body to utilize a higher percentage of free fatty acids (FFAs) as fuel in general and to increase the intensity at which your body can still primarily burn fat as fuel (that is, raising your crossover point). Full monty OFM diets are the anti-christ of a carber, but if you regularly log short to moderate distance easy runs in the morning consider heading out the door on an empty, or coffee-only stomach. Skip the quick carbs that you don’t need anyway, and assuming the last time you ate was dinner, you’ve just logged a fasted run that will help train your body to burn fat as fuel with little, if any, dietary inconvenience or change. I started doing this and before long I was able to go upwards of three hours aerobically on Peet Coffee’s Major Dickason’s Blend and H20.
The Eternal Carbohydrate Flame – These days I might lose myself embarrassingly quickly in the Krebs Cycle, but my exercise physiology professor’s catchphrase that “fat burns in a carbohydrate flame” has proven its staying power. At my family’s cabin we have a World War II-era gas generator converted to propane. Even with the conversion it still needs to be primed by initially burning a small amount of more easily oxidized gasoline. This is somewhat analogous to our fueling mechanisms except that it’s not an either/or situation. No matter how fat adapted you are, you still need to trickle in carbs to keep the fire to the fat, but decreasing the size of the caloric trickle can be highly advantageous if you have a sensitive stomach or it’s so hot that your blood is doing everything but assisting in digestion.
Check Yourself Before You Purplesaurus Rex Yourself – In high school, my cross country teammates and I went through an intellectually-dubious phase of challenging each other to flavored-drink mix eating contests. I cringe at the thought of the insulin spike caused by ingesting countless scoopfuls of straight, processed sugar powder with a Gatorade chaser. Although a much healthier, and natural, form of sugar, drinking 100% fruit juice without any of the fruit’s fiber to slow the rate of sugar absorption has a similar effect and the body dumps an overkill amount of insulin into the system as it equates the sugar levels with a correspondingly tremendous meal size. Eating a lot of fruit is sound, but be wary of drinking the Koolaid of the juicer craze.
Don’t Intentionally Piss Like A Racehorse – The first 20 miles of singletrack on the Angeles Crest 100 course in 2003 looked like a continuous dirt urinal etch-a-sketch thanks to the concept of hyper-hydrating, or drinking much greater than normal amounts of fluids pre-race and in the earlier, cooler miles in an effort to “top off” the body’s liquid stores. We’re not camels. This doesn’t work, and can be dangerous if done with H20 only, thereby diluting electrolyte (primarily sodium) levels. This faulty tactic may have been the waterlogged-peak in the ultra world and the pendulum has now swung to drinking according to thirst, although if your body’s thirst mechanism is not functioning optimally this could lead to inadequate fluid intake. I used to go into races with hydration plans such as “consume two 20oz bottles, one of H20, one of carb/electrolyte drink per hour,” but have now adopted a “Thirst+” plan: drink to thirst and sometimes a little more (but not all at once), depending on the conditions.
Sippy Cup-Style – At the 2015 Western States 100 I came into the Rucky Chucky river crossing aid station sugar-crazed and lost-in-the-desert thirsty. I proceeded to down cup after cup of Coke until an obviously knowledgeable volunteer halted my chugfest. It was too late. On the climb to Green Gate I felt increasingly bloated and nauseous and didn’t regain the lost momentum for several frustrating miles. Regardless of the quantity of your fueling and hydrating needs, a slow and steady intake is preferable to the hourly or random binge session. The textbook perfection of this was Matt Carpenter’s 2005 Leadville 100 course record performance where, after much experimentation in training (This is key!), he had his hydration/fueling (all-in-one with his own blend of water/gel/drink mix) dialed down to how many sips he needed to take between aid stations. Obsessive? Yes. But his course record still stands.
Mikey Likes It! (So What) – Our species as a whole might have the ability to eat just about anything, but at the individual level we are often unbelievably fussy. And athletes can be more demanding than a child served the wrong flavor of Life cereal. Palate ability does not always equate with palatability. When discussing the sports nutrition wall of options where I work, the first thing I always address is that liking how something tastes trumps everything else. The product could represent a breakthrough in scientifically-engineered food, but if you can’t stomach it, even a catchy “Get in my belly!” mantra isn’t going to get it down the hatch. This goes for all foods. Experiment and develop your personal sweet-salty-savory layercake of real food and engineered food options. Jason Koop’s Bulls-Eye Nutrition Strategy in Training Essentials For Ultrarunning illustrates this well.
Light And Fast – This is not solely a fastpacking phrase. In 2014 I went into the Way Too Cool 50K with the goal of going sub-4. The night before, caught up in the fun of a rare father-son evening out with my dad, I washed down a grease-slickened pepperoni-and-cheese overloaded pizza with a few pints. Fifteen miles in I found myself repeatedly clinging to steep, poison oak-covered trailsides making desperation pitstops. I ran 4:03.40. Essentially, I had eaten myself into multiple time penalty boxes of my own creation. Irrespective of your general dietary habits, erring on the side of light, mild and bland in the 24-48 hours pre-race can set you up for GI success on raceday. At the very least it will do you no harm. Save the indulgences for post race.
The Cottage Cheese Strain – While talking with Scott Jurek during the 2004 Coyote 4 Play event I mentioned that one of things I respected the most about him as an athlete was his strict adherence to veganism. This respect had nothing to do with veganism in particular, rather the dedication to adhering to any restrictive diet in general. While stringent dietary rules can be merely frustrating within one’s normal routine, they can be freakout-worthy stress inducers when traveling. Legendary six-time Hawaii Ironman Triathlon champion Dave Scott is perhaps equally famous for straining his cottage cheese to reduce fat content. It gives me anxiety simply thinking about it, but if you can attain this level of obsession with any aspect of your diet, and you truly feel it is benefitting you, then by all means; however if a particular diet is predominately stressing you out and putting a strain on your training focus, it seems your mental energy would be more wisely spent on actual miles.
Betty Crocker Eyes – Several years ago my girlfriend and I hosted The Queen (Meghan Arbogast) when she passed through our hometown of Bishop, CA. I was in the midst of trying the recipes, just for kicks, in Jurek’s Eat & Run and decided to make Chocolate Adzuki Bars for dessert. Visually, they could have passed for an overcooked and dry version of Betty’s Supreme Triple Chunk but contained, among other unusual ingredients, adzuki beans. No one present was vegan and my girlfriend was highly skeptical but for some reason I thought The Queen would be pleased. However, the look in her eyes belied the truth. After some pretend enjoyment I coaxed out an honest reaction: “If you’re gonna make brownies, make $#@!ing brownies!” She said it nicely, and with a laugh. And she had a point. It’s okay to indulge a little.
Hurdling Basics – If, like me, you desire to clean up and optimize your nutrition, but tend to catch your motivational spikes on even low dietary gateboards, then keep it simple. Eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and protein from real foods (lean meats, nuts, bean/rice combos), and eat less processed food. The more often you substitute a craving for the latter with one of the former, the healthier a choice you’ve made. It really can be that elementary.
The Wasatch Front 100 awards ceremony is fairly normal, with one significant exception. When the handful of runners that break 24 hours each year are called up to receive their buckles, they are also anointed with a cardboard Burger King crown while kneeling to be tapped on the shoulder with a wooden staff by a man wearing a crimson cape. This ritual inducts them into The Royal Order of the Crimson Cheetah, the crimson cheetah of course being a fiery and mystical master of the wilds.
The final crown recipients of the 2008 Wasatch were already being determined as I stiffly stood up from the chair perched dangerously close to singe-zone of a blazing fire at the Pole Line Pass aid station. From beneath the scratchy wool blanket, as my cat nap dissolved into smoky consciousness, I had overheard a few folks playfully placing bets as to whether I would continue. The biting cold of pre-dawn snapped at my depleted body like a misery whip as the blanket fell to the ground. Before continuing though, I needed caloric comfort.
Scanning the feedzone table my eyes and gut simultaneously locked onto a bowl full of something that looked anything like sustenance. Those dehydrated Styrofoam packing noodle-looking things coated in what appears to be flaming red fire retardant…that’s the ticket. I made my way slowly down the trail careful not to drop any of this most disgusting and refined, yet in-the-moment precious, fueling cargo.
I rarely eat Cheetos, or Oreos, in regular life, nor would I ever recommend them, or their ilk, as a dietary staple, but desperate times call for desperate means, and a much more relaxed disposition on letting tent-like foods into the bodily temple than most diet cults can accept. As the sun rose on a new day a different kind of royal order awaited at a distant finishline I would eventually cross to shake the RD’s hand with the still sticky, orange-hued fingers of “natural and artificial flavors” salvation.
Jeff Kozak lives, runs, writes and works in the rainshadow of the Sierra Nevada in Bishop, CA. Twenty years after running his first ultra, the Baldy Peaks 50K, he’s still fully engaged in seeking a deeper understanding, spiritually & scientifically, and improved performances, competitively, within this lifestyle we call ‘ultrarunning.’ He can be reached at email@example.com.