“What do runners eat?”
Maybe I was just peckish. Or maybe I was subconsciously preparing for my conversion to a “real” runner. Whatever the case, this thought occurred to me shortly after I registered for my first running race in the fall of 2017. The race wasn’t your typical 5k charity fun run, either. It was the East Coast Trail Ultra Marathon, a 50 km race on the sinuous East Coast Trail which skirts the rugged coastline of Newfoundland’s most eastern shoreline. And so in the length of time it takes for a confirmation email to travel to an inbox, I started to question my decision of becoming an ultra-runner. Suddenly weighing heavy on my mind was the fact that I had done exactly no running training whatsoever at that point in my running career. To stand a chance in the race I would clearly have to start running (a lot) and I would have to adapt quickly to life as a runner. Among other things, I realized, that would mean eating the right food.
This is my story about running and about how I learned to adapt my cooking to meet the physical demands of training and racing for distance running. I am not a seasoned runner, and yet I was able to have an incredible running season in 2017, in part, I believe, to my flexibility as a cook to meet the unique demands that running puts on the body so that I could enjoy running to its fullest. I ran better than I thought I was capable of - not just in the East Coast Trail Ultra Marathon, but in several other local races, like the Tely 10-miler, the Cape to Cabot 20k, and several local 10k races. For my conversion to a runner I wanted to learn from the best, so I trained with the cross-country running team at Memorial University (or more accurately, trained behind them). Training and cooking every day, this is where I started to find true joy in running, despite not once crossing the finishing line in first place. Perhaps that's a worthy story in itself. But as a devoted cook there is another story to tell. A more lasting story, I think.
Better eat your Wheaties
“Our job is simple. It’s to unleash the power of food.” I was listening closely to the words of Kevin Currell, Head of Performance Nutrition at the English Institute of Sport, who at that time was working for Team Great Britain in the lead-up to the Rio Olympics in 2016. “Olympic athletes work in four year cycles. They’ll eat about 8,000 meals in those four years, and every single one of those will affect the biochemistry of their bodies. Our job is to make sure that it affects their biochemistry in the right way so we can influence performance.” If there was ever a question about whether a link existed between nutrition and running performance, that interview on the BBC Food Programme silenced any doubts I had. After all, why would an Olympic national sports programme spend lavishly on something as frivolous as a performance nutritionist if it didn’t help translate to medals?
But weren’t runners winning medals before talk of carbohydrates and muscle glycogen, proteins and Omega-3s? After a little more digging I found out that performance nutrition is a surprisingly new field of science. As early as the 1970s Olympic running was, as a rule, an amateur sport. Athletes from this era often had no structured coaching let alone having nutritionists telling them what to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Roger Bannister, British Olympic runner and doctor, laid to rest his views on the newfangled field of performance nutrition in his memoir The First Four Minutes, when he describes his meagre diet in the lead-up to breaking the four-minute mile barrier in 1954 - at a time when food was still rationed in the UK.
“I had no particular food and by today’s standards, not the right food, and probably not enough of it... The truth was that, for the last year of my running, I had cooked for myself in a basement flat; my favourite stew was nurtured through the week.”
Another Olympic British running legend, Brandon Foster, came from the same old school of athletics. In 1973 Foster had taken a vacation from his day job as a schoolteacher to break the world record for two miles at the Crystal Palace in London. Asked about what he ate before the race in this interview, he recalled that he had had a breakfast of “tea and toast” at his in-laws’ house. He offered, modestly, that “because I was running a race I might’ve put a little honey on my toast.”
Bannister and Foster set world records that are hard to beat by today’s standards on decidedly ordinary diets - while on leave from their day jobs. Looking back at legends like them it seem like a pretty big leap that eating your Wheaties will take seconds off your 10k. Yet we have to remember these athletes belonged to a completely different standard of athletics compared to today. Not to mention, these athletes’ records have been beaten, and beaten again - many times since. Today breaking four minutes in the mile is almost standard practise. These days Olympic running is the domain no longer of amateurs but of professionals, whose performance is tuned carefully at every level - including at the level of diet, biochemistry, and nutrition. And so if we look to the modern Olympic runner as the paragon of modern high performance running, then we must accept the role that food plays in reaching peak performance.
The core thing if you want to get your food right is to be able to cook.
Of course, you and I are probably not Olympic runners. So why should performance nutrition matter to the ordinary runner? Those tens of thousands of runners across the country who belong to local running clubs, who meet at the corner on a weekday after work, who run at cross country meets, who run the local 10-miler and meet at the pub afterwards - these are the majority of our modern running athletes. For the majority of runners, the lesson to be learned from Olympic athletes’ nutritionists can be summed up pretty simply. “The core thing if you really want to get your food right is to be able to cook” continued Currell, Head of Performance Nutrition at the English Institute of Sport. "I can write the best exercise nutrition plan in the world, but if the athlete can’t cook, it’s useless.” So there you have it. The common link between the common runner and the Olympic runner... is cooking.
Now we're cooking
I dedicate the rest of the post to my own explorations in cooking like a runner. Cooking like a runner might be interpreted as something close to thinking like a runner - that is, what the runner is thinking the moment he or she enters the kitchen. I’ll share some of my favourite recipes of meals that I prepared during my training and I’ll give you tips on race-day food that I learned from self-experimentation.
To think and cook like a runner, it merits to first tune into what is happening in your body during running. Shortly after you set out for a run your body reacts to your kinetic transgression. Your heart rate increases. Your breathing rate intensifies. Your muscles release heat. The fuel stored in your muscles, called muscle glycogen, completes a transformation from stored chemical energy to kinetic energy as you propel forward, one foot in front of the other. This fuel is dominated by carbohydrates during high-intensity running. In lower intensity running it is dominated by fats. For most runners, carbohydrates make up the most important fuel source. It follows that most training session, including powerful bursts of speed during interval training, rely on carbohydrate consumption. On the other hand, feats of endurance rely more on fat consumption. It not a huge leap to conclude, then, that the right combinations of food can mean increased power and endurance.
Ready, set, go! This image was captured shortly after the start of the Turkey Tea 10k in 2017. Head coach of the Seahawks cross country team Art Meaney calls it the fastest 10k race in Newfoundland. When Assistant Coach Colin Fewer (front of pack) took off at the start line like a bat out of hell I understood what he meant.
The secret ingredient
A lot runners look for magical foods. I’ve heard talk among my own running partners of chia seeds, hemp hearts, and blenders so powerful they need to be hooked up to a dryer outlet. I heard one runner swear by vegan protein powder and herculean consumption of spinach. There is no doubt that these fanciful notions may inevitably lead to a very real mental edge. But the reality, I think, is that relying on a handful of “superfoods” will get you as close to a personal best as praying for a tail wind on race day.
What does make a difference, I think, is a basic understanding of human dietary needs. I’ve made a list of my own dietary tenets here which I’ve arrived at from own experience as a runner and a cook.
Make Michael Pollen proud and 'eat real food, mostly veg, not too much.' This can be accomplished with a simple meal like ratatouille. The one pictured is made entirely from a tumultuous variety of fall (race season!) veg from the farmer's market: butternut squash, zucchini, garlic, onion, potato, green beans, tomato, red pepper, parsnip, carrot, and eggplant. The flavours of this dish are incredible and the only seasonings are salt and pepper.
And with a full appreciation of the basic tenets of diet (at least, as I see it), we add special food rules for those who eat to run.
The crazies - stories from books about renegade runners
Now let's throw caution to the wind and take a glance at some of my favourite fanatics when it comes to eating and running.
Scott Jurek in "Eat and Run"
American ultrarunning legend Scott Jurek is so convinced that eating well is at the heart of performance that he wrote a book about it. Eat and Run is part autobiography, part cookbook, chronicling everything from his preparations that led him to seven straight victories of the Western States 100-mile Endurance Race, to how to cook a seven-grain pancake. Scott has followed a vegan diet as long as he has been winning the world’s most difficult endurance races.
“I noticed over time that my body recovered quicker. I noticed that it would bounce back from hard workouts more quickly. I noticed more consistency with results. Some might say that might be attributed to training. Some could say it’s contributed to experienced. But for me, that’s how i feel I’ve been so successful throughout my career; my body had the nutritional base and support to take on the stress of training that I put on it.”
Scott’s never been sure why a vegan diet has worked so well for him, and he seems to eschew grandiose claims of health benefits and proselytizing. He simply lets the results speak for him. When he stopped carrying Snickers and PowerBars during races and instead packed rice burritos and pitas stuffed with hummus in his fanny pack, people thought he was weird. Instead of slamming back Ibuprofen like the best of them, Scott would reach for natural anti inflammatories like tumeric, garlic, and ginger. “Sure, I had my doubts,” Scott explains in McDougall’s Born to Run. “Everyone told me I’d get stress fractures and anemia. But I found that I actually feel better, because I’m eating foods with more high-quality nutrients. And after I won Western States, I never looked back.”
Kenyan marathoners in Adharanand Finn’s Running With The Kenyans
In 2011 the 25 fastest marathon times in the world were all run by Kenyans. Perhaps unsurprisingly they were also notoriously secretive about their training methods. This is what drove runner and writer Adharanand Finn to pack up and travel to Kenya to learn their secrets. He chronicled his experiences in the best-seller Running With the Kenyans.
“You get up at 4:30am, do a 40km run at incredible pace at high altitude mountain roads, then you get back and have tea. You do not eat anything until lunch. Lunch would be a huge plate of beans and rice, maybe some carrots and potatoes with the rice. In the evenings, it was alway the same: ugali, which is basically maise flour and water, served with stewed kale. Meat is such a precious commodity that it was served very rarely. Their food was fuel. And they know it was working.” Two meals a day, and two runs a day was too much for Finn to handle. He admitted that he would occasionally sneak out of camp and binge on peanut butter at the nearby grocer.
Myriad running legends as chronicled by Chris McDougall in Born to Run and Natural Born Heroes
Cretan resistance fighters. In the 1940s they were running 50 miles through the mountains to escape German soldiers. And they were not training athletes. So how did they do it? McDougall argues that the secret lies in the Cretan diet, which contain few refined carbs but lots of “slow-burn” foods like olive oil, lamb, and spinach.
Phil Maffetone. A chiropractor in upstate NY in the 1980s seems an unlikely candidate for someone who became a renowned coach and nutritional adviser who for some of America’s most successful endurance athletes. But he got a reputation as a miracle worker for early Ironman athletes by convincing them not just to remove all sugar from the diet but all refined carbs such as bread and rice. Controversial just begins to describe his advice, but if the results were to be taken as proof, he is certainly on to something.
Percy Cerutty. A legend of his time, he coached some of the greatest milers of all time in 1950s and 60s, including the previous world record holder Herb Elliot. A man before his time, his “Stotan” training philosophy would have got him props from today’s most hardcore vegans and raw-food fanatics. He put his athletes on a diet of raw oats, fruit, nuts, and cheese.
The Marathon Monks in Japan. They ran an ultramarathon every day for seven years, accumulating an astonishing mileage of 25,000 miles. Their diet? A modest selection of miso soup, tofu, and vegetables.
Tarahumara Indians. An elusive tribe of native Indians who live in the serpentine canyons of Mexico’s Copper Canyons seem like unusual candidates for the world’s most greatest long distance runners. Famous for wearing sandals and traditional billowing robes while winning the world’s most gruelling 100-mile races, the Tarahumara are truly unlikely standouts in the world’s most gruelling ultramarathons. That is, when they can be coaxed into venturing out of their isolated villages in Mexico . The Taharuma, it seems, are content running just for fun. They are also famous for the consumption of chia seeds and outlandish quantities of home-brewed corn beer. During a recent 100 km trail run with my friend Seamus Boyd-Porter, during which I helped pace him for the last 43 km, Seamus opted for a homemade hydration drink styled one of the Tarahumara’s secret concoctions: 2 cups water, 1 tbsp honey, juice from ½ lemon with pulp, and 2 tbsp chia seeds, left to soak for two hours.
Cook and run
Cooking and eating good food are some of the great pleasures in life. Having recently discovered my new favourite sport, I can now same the same about running. And so if I have any one message to runners who like to cook it's simply to enjoy cooking and to enjoy running. It’ll make you a better cook and it’ll make you a better runner.
//BC thanks for being here.
Written by Erik Veitch in 2017
Edited by Michael Lee. Thanks, Mike!
I'm Erik, the Burnt Chef. I'm a Finnish-born Newfoundlander living in Norway. I have a passion for cooking and a deep fascination for the culinary history of the North. Simplicity guides my cooking. Time, place, and history guide my storytelling. This is my personal blog about food.