Eat and Run

I liked reading Scott’s journey to becoming one of the most well-known people in ultra and endurance sports in general. On Goodreads, many criticize him for not being a good writer, which I find odd. The book is a memoir written by an athlete; a collection of stories and experiences with a dozen vegan recipes and tips on efficient running technique—what more could it be? While not a literary masterpiece I’d recommend this book to anyone who is into endurance sports and has trouble maintaining training schedule, grinding through longs workout sessions and generally struggles with the mental stress that comes with endurance training. According to Scott Jurek, it’s all in your head, and what you put into your body—the diet. As someone who has experience of losing almost 30kgs (65 pounds) and starting running from less than 1K, I’m inclined to agree.

Highlights & Margin Notes

Running efficiently demands good technique, and running efficiently for 100 miles demands great technique. But the wonderful paradox of running is that getting started requires no technique. None at all. If you want to become a runner, get onto a trail, into the woods, or on a sidewalk or street and run. Go 50 yards if that’s all you can handle. Tomorrow, you can go farther. The activity itself will reconnect you with the joy and instinctual pleasure of moving. It will feel like child’s play, which it should be.

Don’t worry about speed at first or even distance. In fact, go slow. That means 50 to 70 percent of your maximum effort. The best way to find that zone is to run with a friend and talk while you’re doing so. If you can’t talk, you’re running too fast and too hard. Do a combo of running and walking if needed. Don’t be afraid to walk the uphills. Over time, add distance. Your long, slow runs will strengthen your heart and lungs, improve your circulation, and increase the metabolic efficiency of your muscles.

For any reluctant vegan who worries that nothing will ever replace the taste or texture of a juicy beef patty, consider the lentil burger.

I learned about VO2 max, the maximum amount of oxygen we can use for aerobic respiration. I learned about different kinds of waxing and finishing kicks and plyometric strength training and lactate threshold, the point at which our muscles accumulate lactic acid faster than they can clear it.

I suspected that what I was eating had something to do with how I was feeling, but it wasn’t until years later, when I began to study the connection between diet and exercise, nutrition and health, that I learned the importance of diet for everyone—not just athletes.

Focus on the “runner’s five”: hamstrings, hip flexors, quadriceps, calves, and the iliotibial (IT) band, or connective tissue that runs from your hip down the outside of the leg. These are the muscle groups that tighten even when people aren’t running, from bad posture, sitting, repetitive activities, and just living. Though there are myriad exercises to choose from for each area (I suggest The Whartons’ Stretch Book for clear instructions and diagrams), what’s important is to do them correctly and regularly.

I learned that even though I was a hack, even though I didn’t know anything about riding—I hadn’t read a single book on it, hadn’t studied a single essay on spinning or gear ratios—I could gut out those long rides. I wondered what else I could gut out.

It had turned into a kind of meditation, a place where I could let my mind—usually occupied with school, thoughts of the future, or concerns about my mom—float free.

Coming from the flatlands, I had to learn to run uphill. Sharpening that skill, I improved all my running. You can, too, with or without hills. Next time you’re running, count the times your right foot strikes the ground in 20 seconds. Multiply by three and you’ll have your stride rate per minute. (One stride equals two steps, so your steps per minute will be twice your stride rate.) Now comes the good part: Speed up until you’re running at 85 to 90 strides per minute. The most common mistake runners make is overstriding: taking slow, big steps, reaching far forward with the lead foot and landing on the heel. This means more time on the ground, which means the vulnerable heel hits the ground with more force on landing, creating more impact on the joints. Training at a stride rate of 85 to 90 is the quickest way to correct this problem. Short, light, quick steps will minimize impact force and keep you running longer, safer. It also will make you a more efficient runner. Studies have shown that nearly all elite runners competing at distances between 3,000 meters and marathon distances are running at 85 to 90-plus stride rates.) I used to train runners with a metronome. Nowadays there are plenty of websites that list music by BPM (beats per minute)—try Either 90 or 180 BPM songs will do the trick. 

In an ideal world, all runners would land on their forefoot or midfoot when they run. In an ideal world, though, all runners would be lean, healthy, and have spent most of their lives clocking 5-minute miles. There’s no question that forefoot striking is more efficient than heel striking. It uses the elasticity of the Achilles tendon and the arch of the foot to translate the body’s downward force into forward motion. Less energy is lost to the ground. It’s also a given that landing on the forefoot, as barefoot runners do, prevents the heel striking that cushioned shoes enable, which can lead to so many joint and tendon injuries. But it’s also true that it’s not a perfect world. Beginners run. Out-of-shape people run. And for them forefoot striking might increase the risk of tendonitis or other soft tissue injury. That’s especially true for anyone who hasn’t grown up running barefoot through rural Kenya. Most researchers would say that a midfoot landing is the most efficient and shock-absorbing technique. But there are people who fall on both ends of the spectrum—heel strikers and those who run on the balls of their feet—and they do fine. What’s important isn’t what part of the foot you strike but where it strikes. It should land slightly in front of your center of mass or right underneath it. When you have a high stride rate and land with the body centered over the foot, you won’t be slamming down hard, even if you connect with the heel.

One of the biggest questions I had as an ultrarunner contemplating a vegan diet was how to get enough protein. Here are a few of my tricks: In my breakfast smoothie, I add some nuts and a hit of plant-based protein powder (brown rice, hemp, pea, or fermented soy protein). I’ll also have a grain source for breakfast, such as sprouted-whole-grain toast with nut butter or sprouted-grain cereal or porridge. Lunch is always a huge raw salad—I love my Lacinato kale—and I’ll up the protein content with a soy product (tempeh, tofu, or edamame), a big scoop of hummus, or maybe some leftover cooked grain or quinoa. Dinner might be beans and whole grains, maybe some whole-grain pasta. If I didn’t have soy at lunch, I might have it with dinner. Add in some Clif Bars and trail mix as snacks throughout the day and some soy- or nut-based vegan desserts and I get more than enough protein to maintain my muscle tone and help my body recover. I seek out traditional whole foods rather than highly refined meat substitutes. I look for products that have been sprouted, soaked, or fermented to help break down the indigestible cellulose in plant cell walls. Among soy sources, I favor tempeh, miso, and sprouted tofu, which are all more digestible and have less phytoestrogen (a naturally occurring substance that some—in spite of medical evidence to the contrary—suspect might mimic estrogen’s effects in humans) than isolated soy protein. I eat sprouted-grain breads and tortillas, and at home I often soak my whole grains and beans before cooking.

My new diet included fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and soy products like miso, tofu, and tempeh.

Your legs propel you, but it’s your back and abdominal muscles that enable a lot of the power. For the back, do pulldowns and rows at a gym, with your shoulder blades pinched together. If you practice yoga, concentrate on backbend moves like the locust, the bridge, and the boat. For the abs, work exercises into your routine that involve keeping your pelvis still while moving your legs. Planks are some of the simpler and most effective of these exercises. For the front plank, lie flat on a mat, face down, then raise your hips and pelvis, keeping your forearms and toes on the floor with your body straight from head to toe. The side plank is the same, except the points of contact between the body and floor are the side of one forearm and the side of the same foot. These starter exercises can be made more challenging with arm and leg movements or by adding a stability ball or disc. Any yoga position will be of tremendous value to the runner if you make sure to focus on and engage your core. Any Pilates routine—which by its nature emphasizes engaging the core—will make you a stronger and more efficient runner.

According to Cerutty, “You only ever grow as a human being if you’re outside your comfort zone.”

When an ABC reporter pulled up next to Jones on a particularly punishing ascent late in the Western States and said, “You’ve been smiling since we started filming you,” Jones, without breaking stride, replied, “Well, I like runnin’.”

Regular running is satisfying in itself. If you’re the competitive type, even greater satisfaction lies in running faster and longer, in challenging yourself. Progress can be a great motivator and a great incentive to keep exercising. If you want to improve as a runner, you can (and should) do supplemental training, which involves strengthening, flexibility, and technique work. But the simplest way to improve is to run faster. And the way to do that is to train yourself to run harder, the way I did during my long climbs at Mount Si. Here’s how: After you’ve been running for 30 to 45 minutes at least three times a week for six to eight weeks, you’re ready to start running occasionally at 85 to 90 percent of your physical capacity, or the point where lactate is building up in your muscles but your body is still able to clear and process it. Build to where you can maintain that lactate threshold level for 5 minutes. Then take 1 minute of easy running to give the body time to recover, then repeat. As you progress, increase the number of the intervals and their length while maintaining a 5:1 ratio between work and rest. So you would do 10-minute intervals of hard running followed by 2-minute breaks, or 15 minutes of hard running followed by 3 minutes of rest, and so on. After four to six weeks, you’ll be able to maintain this effort level for 45 to 50 minutes. And you’ll be faster.

My biggest challenge in plant-based eating isn’t taking in enough protein but taking in enough calories to replace those I burn on my training runs. I make a big effort to include enough calorie-dense foods in my diet—nuts and nut butters, seeds, avocados, starchy root vegetables, coconut milk, and oils such as olive oil, coconut oil, flaxseed oil, and sesame oil. When you’re eliminating so many foods in your diet, you need to be careful to include enough new ones to compensate. If you’re new to plant-based eating, that’s my biggest piece of advice for you: Think about what high-quality foods you can bring into your diet to replace the calories from animal products you’re excluding. And make sure you get enough.

Running with the Whole Body, one of the few books I could find on running technique.

I even tinkered with my breathing. I knew from reading Spontaneous Healing that mindful, deep breathing could help the body repair itself. And in yoga (which I struggled with until I understood that it was a practice, not a competition), I learned the concept of Pranayama (literally, “extension of the life force” breathing), which would help, not just my body, but my mind and emotions as well. I picked up a book called Body, Mind, and Sport, by John Douillard, and learned that breathing through the nose rather than the mouth lowers one’s heart rate and helps brain activity. A yogi announced in class that “the nose is for breathing, the mouth is for eating.”

The better I ate, the better I felt. The better I felt, the more I ate. Since going vegan, I had lost a layer of fat—the layer that came with eating the cookies and cakes and Twinkies and cheese pizza that so many omnivores and even vegetarians gulp down. I learned that I could eat more, enjoy it more, and still get leaner than I had ever been in my life. When I went vegan, I started eating more whole grains and legumes, fruits and vegetables. My cheekbones seemed more pronounced, my face more chiseled. Muscles I didn’t even know I had popped out. I was eating more, losing weight, and gaining muscle—all on a vegan diet.

My recovery times between workouts and races got even shorter. I wasn’t even sore the day after 50-mile races. I woke up with more energy every day. Fruit tasted sweeter, vegetables crunchier and more flavorful.

Breathing is critical no matter what you’re doing, whether it be meditation, calculus, or boxing (beginning fighters first learn how to breathe so they don’t exhaust themselves by panting). One of the most important things you can do as an ultrarunner is to breathe abdominally, and a good way to learn that skill is to practice nasal breathing. Lying on your back, place a book on your stomach. Breathe in and out through your nose, and try to make your stomach rise and fall with each breath. When you succeed in doing so, you’re breathing from your diaphragm rather than your chest (which allows you to breathe more deeply and efficiently). Once you’ve mastered that, try nasal breathing (in and out through the nose) while you’re running easy routes. For more difficult runs, like hills and tempo workouts, breathe in through the nose, then exhale forcefully through the mouth (akin to what yoga practitioners call “breath of fire”). Eventually, you should be able to breathe through your nose for entire easy runs and to inhale nasally during the less strenuous sections of even 100-mile runs. I experimented with nasal breathing when I was training for the Western States 100, and it helped me become more of an abdominal runner. Nasal breathing humidifies and cleans the air. As a bonus, it allows you to eat quickly and breathe at the same time, whether running easy or hard.

I’m healthier and I can run longer and faster because I eat a plant-based diet. But I don’t preach to my carnivorous friends or lambaste anyone who eats a baked potato slathered with butter and sour cream. Anyone who pays attention to what they eat and how it affects them will naturally move toward plants—and toward health. Exercise is simpler and more complicated. We need to move. But should training be an intuitive, free-form affair or a structured science? I try to let science steer my training while staying open to the animal joy of running. I take days off when I feel I need them, even if my training plan doesn’t call for it. Ultrarunners need to bring all the knowledge we can bear to our training, but we can’t afford to be rigid. If there’s one thing I can count on in a 100-mile race, it’s that I will encounter things I didn’t count on.

A recent study in the American Journal of Epidemiology followed 123,216 subjects over fourteen years and found that men who spent more than 6 hours a day sitting were 17 percent more likely to die during that time than men who sat for less than 3 hours. For women, the increased risk of death was 34 percent. This increased mortality persisted regardless of whether the participants smoked, were overweight, and—this shocked me—regardless of how much they exercised.

The beautiful thing about running barefoot or in minimal footwear is that you are working with your body’s natural proprioception, the ability to sense your own position in space. With nothing between you and the ground, you get immediate sensory feedback with every step, which encourages you to stay light on your feet and run with proper form. Some people who are recovering from injuries or who have structural anomalies or who just like their shoes will keep lacing up. But whether you wear shoes or go barefoot, what’s important is that you pay attention to your form. If running barefoot helps with that, it’s beneficial. You want to try barefoot running? Before you toss the shoes and enter a 10K, remember: slow and easy. When runners do too much too soon, injuries often result. First, find an area of grass or sand and take easy 5- to 10-minute runs once or twice a week. Remember, easy. Don’t worry about speed at all. You’re working on your running form. As long as it feels good, increase the length of one of the runs until you’re up to a 20- to 45-minute barefoot run once a week. I like to do 2 to 3 miles on the infield of a track or in a park after an easy run day or for a cooldown run after a track workout. Two important things to remember—other than starting slow and easy—are that you don’t need to run barefoot all the time to get the benefits. And you don’t need to run completely barefoot. Lighter weight, minimal running shoes and racing flats will give you a similar type of feel as running barefoot. It will all help you with form. I have been running most of my long training runs and ultra races in Brooks racing flats for almost a decade, even Badwater and Spartathlon. Racing flats and minimal shoes provide the best of both worlds: comfort and performance.

Brian told me the downhills hurt, but I told him pain was temporary, to get through it.

In Lore of Running, Dr. Tim Noakes promotes an alternate theory about how our bodies endure exercise. He believes that a central governor in the brain evaluates the athletic task and determines how many muscle fibers should be recruited. In the case of a run, the brain judges how far away the finish line is, compares it to past training runs, and sets a pace that, barring accidents, the body can maintain without injury. Push too hard, and the brain ramps up sensations of fatigue and pain, trying to fool you into slowing down. Once you understand this, you can reprogram yourself to go much faster. Noakes teaches us to stop giving credence to negative thoughts that are only related to how close we are to the finish line.

To run far, fast, or efficiently, you have to run with proper posture. Keep your shoulders back and your arms bent 45 degrees at the elbow. Allow your arms to swing freely, but don’t let them cross the imaginary vertical line bisecting your body. This will create openness in the chest, better breathing, and more balance. Lean forward, but not at the hips. Imagine a rod running through your body from the head to the toes. Keep the rod at a slight forward angle to the ground, with a neutral pelvis. When the entire body participates, you’re using gravity to your advantage. Remember, running is controlled falling.

I even avoided anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen, which other long-distance runners gobbled by the handful. I thought it masked pain so much that I might risk serious injury by running when I shouldn’t.

We focus on something external to motivate us, but we need to remember that it’s the process of reaching for that prize—not the prize itself—that can bring us peace and joy.

But the longer and farther I ran, the more I realized that what I was often chasing was a state of mind—a place where worries that seemed monumental melted away, where the beauty and timelessness of the universe, of the present moment, came into sharp focus.

I was sympathetic to him and admired his courage and tenacity, but when you have a chance to demoralize a competitor, you take it. I took it.

Almost every competitive runner I know goes through a period when he or she feels like quitting. I certainly include myself in that category. What’s ironic is that the tools that help make an elite athlete—focus, effort, attention to the latest technology—definitely do not provide the answer to getting out of a funk. I find the best way to get your running mojo back is to lose the technology, forget results, and run free. And forget that running needs to be painful or that it’s punishment. (Definitely get rid of those echoes of countless coaches ordering you to “take a lap” because you dropped a pass or double-dribbled.) Run for the same reason you ran as a child—for enjoyment. Take your watch off. Run in your jeans. Run with a dog (does he seem worried?). Run with someone older or younger, and you’ll see running, and the world, differently. I know I have. Run a trail you have never run before. Pick a new goal, race, or a large loop that keeps you motivated to get out on those bad-weather days. Do all and any of these things often enough, and you’ll remember why you started running in the first place—it’s fun.

My teacher regularly walked over chasms thousands of feet deep. He scaled terminal granite rock faces with no safety equipment. He pioneered the sport of freeBASE climbing (free solo climbing with a parachute as the only means of protection) and at the moment was trying to figure out a way to dive off a cliff, soar through the air, and land without a parachute. He said it was merely a matter of physics. Because he practiced “dark” arts, they called him the Dark Wizard. His real name was Dean Potter.

His refrigerator was stocked with chia seeds, young coconuts, and spirulina powder.