Week 6: What should we eat?
Learning from Mark Bittman and Amby Burfoot
The first time I trained to run a marathon, I was part of a group put together by the Arthritis Foundation, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that (at the time) organized training groups for various races that doubled as fundraisers.
In return for raising $2,500 from family and friends, they supported us by organizing weekly long runs, on which running coaches joined us — support, it turned out, we really needed when our distance each week climbed into double digits like 14, 15, 16 miles and beyond
One part of the training that left the biggest impression on me wasn’t even on the roads, though. It took place in a windowless conference room at Turner Broadcasting’s Cartoon Network, where the foundation had arranged for a nutritionist to walk us through the specifics of what we should eat, to fuel our bodies the best way possible as we trained.
At the time, I was enjoying myself. I was twenty-five years old, and the number of miles I ran every week meant I could eat anything I wanted. So, of course, I gave into temptation — eating hamburgers, french fries, steak, milkshakes, ice cream, desserts of every kind, you name it. There didn’t seem to be any penalty for doing so — my 25 to 30 miles of running every week burned off everything I ate — so I figured, why not?
(Again: I was twenty-five years old. 😉)
Today, of course, I can’t eat like that. But I remember well the basics of a good runner’s diet the nutritionist shared with us — they won’t surprise you, if you’ve done any research on what a runner’s diet should look like: plenty of clean carbohydrates, healthy fats and lean protein.
The next question, of course, is what foods fall in those categories? Especially if you’re like me, and were raised on a typical American diet, you probably don’t give much thought to what you eat. (Beyond what you desire in the moment, anyway.)
In his 2018 book Run Forever, former Boston Marathon winner and longtime Runner’s World editor Amby Burfoot points out that carbs are essential for anyone who does high-intensity exercise — and even “slow” running counts as high-intensity exercise.
Americans, especially, are enamored with low-carb diets, but Burfoot says runners need to get over that hang-up: “Your body can burn fats in a pinch, and small amounts of protein, but it won’t feel good when it does. And you won’t perform your best.”
Kenyan runners, who are some of the most extensively studied in the world, famously get 70 percent or more of their energy from carbs, Burfoot adds, while most Americans get 50 percent or so of their calories from carbs. That’s something a runner needs to pay close attention to, he writes:
No one’s arguing for the health benefits of added sugars. Avoid them as much as possible. But don’t be duped by logical fallacies. Just because added sugars are bad, that does not mean that high-fat diets are good.
Quite the opposite. The vast majority of nutrition experts point out that carbohydrates continue to be the dietary mainstay of the world’s healthiest populations — not just the fast Kenyans, but also the long-lived Okinawans of Japan and the thriving elders of Italy, Greece, and other Mediterranean countries.
Fruit, veggies, legumes, and whole grains — that’s the ticket for runners. These foods are super-healthy for several key reasons. First, they are low in fat and calories. They help you maintain an optimal weight. Second, they are packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Third, many are accompanied by soluble and insoluble fibers that are lacking in manufactured foods. Fiber has several valuable properties. It allows the absorption of sugars from the stomach, and it adds fullness to the meal, meaning you will stay satisfied longer and be less tempted by between-meal snacks.
In an email last week, a reader pointed out that I’d written earlier this year about exploring food as a topic here, but ended up not following up on it. The topic is so big and broad that I think I ended up losing my nerve, because I didn’t feel confident enough to tackle it.
But lately, my interest exploring what we eat has been rekindled by a book I’ve been reading by the well-known food writer Mark Bittman, titled Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal. (That last word catches the eye, doesn’t it?)
He traces the story of food over the entire history of human civilization — in a succinct and lively way, of course — and it makes clear how unsustainable our approach to food is today, and how detrimental to our health so many of the things we put in our bodies really are:
A dictionary definition of “food” reads something like “a substance that provides nourishment.” And until a century ago, we had two types of food: plants and animals. But as agriculture and food processing became industries, they developed a third type of “food,” more akin to poison — “a substance that is capable of causing illness or death.” These engineered edible substances, barely recognizable as products of the earth, are commonly called “junk.”
Junk has hijacked our diets and created a public health crisis that diminishes the lives of perhaps half of all humans. And junk is more than a dietary issue: The industrialized agriculture that has spawned junk — an agriculture that, along with its related industries, concentrates on maximizing the yield of the most profitable crops — has done more damage to the earth than strip mining, urbanization, even fossil fuel extraction.
What strikes me is that so many “foods” for runners have come onto the market in the past twenty years or so that share this flaw: they’re highly processed, filled with sugar, and probably of little nutritional value.
Over the next several weeks, what I’d like to do is go into greater depth into the specifics of foods that help runners feel energetic, build muscle and promote overall health — in other words, actually nourish us.
Each week — maybe on Fridays? — I plan to make a dish that I can share the recipe with you, recipes made from the foods Burfoot highlights in his chapters on nutrition in Run Forever, as well as other cookbooks like The Blue Zones Kitchen and Shalane Flanagan’s Run Fast, Eat Slow. Then I’ll share with you the ones I love, my own variations on them, and how easy (or not!) they are to prepare.
I can’t do this alone, however. To bring more voices into the discussion here, I’d love to hear from you if you’re a nutritionist or dietitian, or have knowledge to share on the intersection of exercise, food and diet.
This is a bit of a departure for me, as I’m usually the lone writer here. Bittman’s book, however, is persuading me of the urgency of finding a better way to eat than the one I (and probably many of us) have been doing for too long.
If you can contribute, I’d love to hear from you — your voice can shape the discussion and have an impact on tens of thousands of readers here, so please don’t hesitate to reach out!
As always, keep in touch and let me know how your running/life is going.
📲 New Substack app for Android
The wait is finally over! Substack has released its mobile app for Android, and you can download and install it here:
I know this has been a sticking point for those of us who don’t have iPhones and couldn’t join our chats or read The Half Marathoner and your other Substack newsletters in the app. Thankfully, now you can.
The best part? After you download it, you’ll see an icon at the bottom of the screen that looks like a message bubble. (I’ve highlighted it below, with the red arrow pointing to it.)
Once the app is installed on your phone, all you need to do is tap that icon to join our chats, where we’ve been sharing photos of our runs, asking (and answering) questions, and getting to know each other over the past few weeks.
If you have any trouble finding our chats in the app, just tap this button and you’ll be directed right to them:
Our training miles for this week
So, how are you doing with your training? Last week saw us running between 19 and 22 miles, for the half marathon plans and 14 miles if you’re running a 10-miler by Thanksgiving. All impressive numbers. 🙌
If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out — here are our miles for the upcoming week:
For the 12-week plan:
Thursday, Oct. 6 — 4 miles/40-45 minutes
Saturday, Oct. 8 — 8 miles/80-85 minutes
Sunday, Oct. 9 — 4 miles/40-45 minutes
Tuesday, Oct. 11 — 4 miles/40-45 minutes
Wednesday, Oct. 12 — 6 miles/60-65 minutes
The 16-week plan:
Thursday, Oct. 6 — 5 miles/50-55 minutes
Saturday, Oct. 8 — 7 miles/70-75 minutes
Sunday, Oct. 9 — 2-3 miles/20-35 minutes
Tuesday, Oct. 11 — 6 miles/60-65 minutes
Wednesday, Oct. 12 — off
The 10-mile training plan:
Thursday, Oct. 6 — 4 miles/40-45 minutes
Saturday, Oct. 8 — 6 miles/60-65 minutes
Sunday, Oct. 9 — 3 miles/30-35 minutes
Tuesday, Oct. 11 — 5 miles/50-55 minutes
Wednesday, Oct. 12 — off
Let me know how it goes! — Terrell