Monday, January 7, 2013

Food for the Long Run

Many times in conversation, my dad, a former steeplechaser at the University of Florida, and I will steer the conversation toward running. And on more than one occasion, he’ll say, “I wonder what we could have done had we known then what we know now about nutrition.”

It was with this in mind that I sat in our basement yesterday afternoon watching the Redskins, a Sam Adams chocolate bock (my second) in one hand, and a slice of asiago peppercorn bread (my fourth) in the other. The sweet potato pancakes I’d ordered earlier in the day at brunch had largely disappeared by then, but the never ending hunger from yesterday’s 16 miler had not.

I don’t normally sit down and go to work on a loaf of bread, but yesterday was not normal. It was effectively my farewell tour to processed carbs for the next eight weeks. No bread. No pizza dough. No rice. No *gasp* pasta. No pancakes (wipes away tear).

Let me explain.

Back in August, I downloaded Scott Jurek’s book, “Eat and Run” about his journey as both an ultra-runner and a vegan. I tore through it like an herbivore grinding up a fresh batch of kale. I was by no means prepared to give up meat, but I did take pause and begin to incorporate some of the book’s principles, namely taking on a plant-based diet. So, my meals centered on fresh vegetables rather than meat, and, in fact, I only ate meat at dinner these days.

I noticed that I grew leaner, felt more alert, and recovered more quickly from workouts.

Then the holidays hit, not quite as bad as last year, but still. Then, I discovered what I can only describe as a food hangover. Over indulge the day / night before – and BAM! – wakeup the next morning hit by a bus. Same symptoms: bloated, headache, grogginess, self-loathing. I won’t even get into what’s going on in the bathroom.

Finally, that brings us to this past Saturday. Mrs. Onthebusrunning is an avid cross-fitter in addition to a runner, and her gym (or box?) held a seminar / kickoff for its New Year’s nutrition kickoff. In the past, this has been billed as a “Paleo Challenge,” i.e., the eat like a caveman diet, or no processed foods (including all our favorite running carby foods and beverages – see chocolate bock above) or sugars. The program predicates itself on eating whole foods: fresh vegetables, fruit (for now), meat, oils. This one, however, is a “nutrition plan” based on the book “It Starts with Food.”

In the past, I took the same cafeteria approach to this plan that I did the Scott Jurek one: "I like this, I’ll pass on that…." Namely, as a runner, I want my quinoa and pasta, my Kashi blueberry clusters, my yogurt.

Well, Mrs. OTBR wanted to try it and asked if I’d go with and both see what it’s all about and also know about the guidelines so as to help her with the process.

So I went.

And the more I listened, the more intrigued I became until finally, I was in too. Here’s what got me:
This isn’t a paleo diet, per se. It’s a reset of your body. They called it healing. A purging of all the western diet ills that plague us. The fact that there’s added sugar in everything. That’s all well and good but, it also teaches your body to burn energy more efficiently. Your body learns to burn fat first and leave the glycogen in your muscles for later. That means no more wall, or at least prolonging it.

Then Mrs. OTBR asked my question: “What impact will this have on a long distance runner, whose diet is based on the things you’re taking away?"

The answer: there are tenets of every sport that everyone holds to be true; a huge one for runners is that we need processed carbs for fuel. Once and a while, someone comes along and challenges those tenets and it gets scoffed at because it’s not the norm. See minimalist running.

So, I was in. I wanted to be the guinea pig. Even though I was in a room with cross-fitters, I tapped into a Loop friend, Healthy Gumbo, who is an ultra-runner and logs many many more miles than I do for her advice and support and who has taken the paleo template and modified it to suit her needs.

And the beauty of these next eight weeks is not to deprive myself for the rest of my life of these things, it’s to reintroduce things after the reset to see how they’ll affect my body and performance. Even if it reacts badly and I still want it, at least I know the consequences.

Really, in the end, can eating whole foods really be that bad of an idea to try?

Part of our plan is to log the food that we eat at each meal. Check out my Tumblr, “Food for the Long Run” to see what I’m eating and just how this "whole" plan is going.

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