Sunday, October 30, 2011

the Born to Run Diet

As I've mentioned before, I am reading Born to a pace of about 1 page per week.   I began reading it this past January, and am about 3/4 of the way through it.

Anyone jealous of my speed-reading skills? Maybe I should trash running and start blogging about my reading training instead.  "Today was pretty good, I hit about 20 pages in 2 hours and 30 minutes.  That's 1.3 chapters in metric terms.  I ate one Gu, and a milkshake.  I wore my green Costco sweatpants and managed to complete the session chafe free." 

Oh, blogging about running is so dorky. 

This book, compelling in so many ways, does it's fair share of very gentle and subtle preaching about the "best" way to run.  It leads and guides you to the discovery that barefoot running (or minimalist running, avoiding a heel strike) is the way to improve speed, agility, and banish injuries once and for all.

It also leads and guides you to the conclusion that vegetarian (and maybe even vegan or raw) eating is key for a strong, elite runner. 

One example is Scott Jurek, ultra-marathon runner sensation, who saw his energy and performance grow stronger and stronger as he focused on a vegan diet focused on plants, fruit, and whole grains.

Scott Jurek

Another example is the Tarahumara, a native American tribe in Northwestern Mexico who are known to be long-distance running phenomenons.  They eat little more than chia and pinole (ground corn). 

The last example is the author of the book, Christopher McDougall, who started eating salads for breakfast before runs and found himself stronger, and naturally, lighter than ever.

All, of course, on top of weeks of, I don't know, 150 miles or more.

I was reading this thinking, "I love plants.  I already haven't tasted meat in almost 2 years.  It would feel so great to follow this native, naturey, minimalist eating plan and shun the Standard American Diet."

And then it struck me that while it sounds like an athletic and disciplined approach to becoming the best runner one can be, in real life, this diet would peg me as severely disordered and underweight.

Seriously guys.  This regimen in the book describes my college self perfectly.

Running 100 miles a week: check
Eating a diet based on plants, fruit, and whole grains: check
Avoiding white flours and sugars: check

What was the result.

Was I being heralded for my athleticism?

Was my trim, ethiopian-like body leading to a lightness that made me run as fast as the wind?

ha. haha.

No.  I was told to eat a burger.  I was told to eat a sandwich.  I was told, through the tears of my sister, to get help.

That's me on the right.  This was about 3 months after my first marathon, 22 years old.

This may be hard to believe, but I was eating in the range of 1800-2200 calories every day.  I was running 10-15 miles every day.   I was 22.   And all that food was "healthy" -- vegetables, fruit, popcorn, frozen yogurt, whole grain cereal and bread.

You know what else?  I was not unhappy.  People see someone underweight and think there must be a sadness hidden underneath that thin layer of skin. 

I felt great, every day.  I was so in love with running. Reaching for an apple instead of a candy bar was never a hard choice.  It was a simple time for me -- the hardest part was trying to make people leave me alone.

Cute hip bone, psycho.  21 years old.

Obviously, I can look at these pictures now and recognize why people were concerned.  But I can still freshly remember what it felt like to be in that head, to know I was skinny, but to feel really, really good.

So now what?

Now, I more or less follow a Standard American Diet -- full of daily pieces of candy (snickers, whoppers, donuts and lollypops find me at work every day), pizza, cheetos and chips of all varieties, extra salt and sugar in everything.  All in order to run 80 miles a week, and look like this.

Healthier looking, but no Deena Kastor

I've spent nearly 5 years training myself to "understand" that in order to run as much as I do, I need to (or get to) eat a bit excessive.  I'm in the 2500-3000 calorie range almost every day.  I don't think I could do it any other way now that I am in the delicious habit of eating 3 dinners.

So what am I to think of this running wisdom, that it is to my benefit to be a twiggy little Tarahumara man?

Scott Jurek and a Tarahumara man

Well....what do YOU think?  Is the book spouting elite athletic wisdom, to eat a vegan and limited calorie diet on heavy miles? Or is it a recipe for a scarily underweight runner?

I have to say that many of the top runners probably would strike us as sickeningly skinny if we saw them in our every day lives.  I know Skinnyrunner just posted about her date with Kara Goucher, and she couldn't help notice how tiny tiny she was.   But they have doctors approval that they are in good health.  Is skinny the new healthy for runners?


  1. It's taking me a looooooong time to finish "Born to Run." I pick it up every few months. The writing is good, but I don't feel compelled to finish it. Weird.

    I recently leafed through a book titled "Racing Weight" in Barnes & Noble. The book has a formula on determining your "ideal" weight for running. If I did the math correctly, I'd have to lose 10 lbs to reach that ideal. Which I thought was crazy, until I read that Desiree Davila (who is my height) weighs that much.

    However, I don't have an interest in losing any weight, even if getting smaller results in a new PR. I've actually gained a few pounds since picking up this running thing, and I don't mind because I actually think I look 10x better, and I'm constantly pleased with how strong my body is becoming. Even though I'm not at my so-called ideal weight, I'm still making PRs, so my body and I are on good terms.

    My weight gain is pretty much the only reason why my mom supports my running hobby.

  2. Ahh, Skinny. this is a hard one. First off, when I met Kara, I did NOT think she was tiny. I thought she was BUFF and well proportioned but wouldn't have described her as tiny..this is funny and makes me think that Kara must have lost weight over the last several months (likely since her baby is older and she has been training harder). Which brings me to another point of the training...when I train, no matter how much I'm eating or what I'm eating, I have a really hard time keeping the weight on. I get so many comments about how skinny I'm getting and people start getting concerned but really, I'm probably eating better then than I am now when I'm not in serious training mode. I do eat meat and I think that i need it because I don't know how to wisely and properly make a vegetarian or vegan diet for myself. I know people that do. I'm not so I'm even answering your question...I'm not sure about the book since I am only 3/4 of the way into it and that is over a long long time...just can't get into it the way my husband did. He found it to be life changing and the book that got him into running but he never mentioned wanting to eat vegetarian or vegan. Interesting post here. I think you look GREAT now!

  3. such a hard but important topic! I loved this book and actually read it in about five days, oops... I think I was trying to get psyched up for the SF marathon. anyways, I struggle with ANY diet that is lauded as the ideal diet. I think we can agree that fast food and preservatives and a meat-BASED diet are not great for you. But other than that, everyone's body is so different. i went veg this year, and I gained 10-12 pounds and I think I will run faster and be healthier with adding some meat back in. but that's just me. other people go vegan and their life changes. It's hard to say what is correct. i think skinny topics are so hard because they invoke so many other thoughts and insecurity. i'd kill to be considered skinny these days after what the candy at my office has done to me! but that being said, when some line gets crossed, things have to be re evaluated. it's not fair for people to judge you or anyone else based on their own perceptions and sometimes it's just hard to tell!

  4. You look adorable in those pictures!!! And I finally know why you are you so speedy, you train really hard!! When I first started running, I lost about 15 pounds, and I wasn't at all over weight to begin with. Family got concerned, my cousin started to think that I'm hiding food and throwing them away secretly (happened to her daughter a few years ago).... But now it has reached equilibrium and I'm at a better weight, but I can pretty much eat what I want and maintain my weight. Do what we gotta do to be healthy, that's all it matters, meat or no meat.
    Confusion, I have a very hard time reading born to run, it's been sitting in my bathroom forever.....cannot get into it.

  5. That guy with Scott Jurek is Arnulfo Quirmare. I think he should be mentioned by name since he's a badass runner too. Also, the Raramuri eat more than pinole and chia (lots of tortillas, beans, peppers, basically a traditional mesoamerican diet). Honestly, I didn't come away from reading Born to Run thinking we should all be vegan. I don't think the author is vegan.

  6. Being a 'heavier' runner is something I struggle to accept - your photos look very similar to a post I did a while back comparing my former racing self to myself now, 30lbs heavier. I ate very similarly to you at your lighter weight, I was vegan, and I also ran 100 mpw, and had a similar figure (only I'm much, much shorter at 5ft 3ins so still had short, stubby hobbit legs). I was also pretty speedy.

    Then I suffered a string of injuries and ate my way up to my current size - I still struggle with binge eating. I'd say I'm heavier in equivalent BMI than you are now (because you don't look heavy at all!). I was vegan then, and still am now, but eat a lot more calorie-dense vegan foods now, dark chocolate, nut butters, avocado, etc. I hadn't beaten any of my 'thin' times until yesterday, when I managed to set a marathon PR for myself, and I really needed that. I couldn't get past equating 'thinner' to 'faster' and I'll be honest, at races I always expect the thinnest runners to be at the front of the pack.

    I haven't read Born to Run, but the issue with the tribe is that it's probably more genetics than diet that make them gifted runners. I am vegan for ethical reasons, but just because veganism improves running performance for a small sample of people, doesn't mean it works for everyone. I know just as many people that have become stronger runners by eating more meat, much as it pains me to admit.

    Kara Goucher didn't look tiny in the photos on SR's blog - she looked healthy, slim, althetic, but not unhealthy. I love SR but I think she believes everyone is tiny other than herself, which is a shame as she really is very slender!

    Thanks for bringing up this subject - it's an emotive and controversial issue to an extent, and it's nice to see a 'proper' runner talk about it as opposed to an HLB.


  7. this is a great post!! And really well written!! (And I would like to say that your reading skills are almost as fast as mine! ;) ...........when I'm in school, I have almost NO TIME at all to pleasure read! so much to do!)

    I definitely found protein a key factor in gaining health , muscle, and stamina while training for skating! I sort of had a similar thing happen, where I got down to eating mostly fruits, veggies, cheese, and a few whole grains........and frankly I became so fatigued and unhealthy.

    As soon as I added more carbs, fats, and protein into my skating improved well as my energy, mood, etc. etc.

    nice job again on this post!! :D

    happy monday!

  8. Great conversation going on in here and great post!! This is a really tough subject and it is something BIlly and I talk a lot about. I have gained a good amount of weight since my injuries and could definitely feel it on my race yesterday. When I am training hard I get really thin and people get concerned. I am lighter but I get injured SO easily. I think there is a fine line where most elites usually hang out in where they are light so they can be fast but also have enough muscle to keep their bones healthy.....I need to find that area ha! I personally NEED meat in my diet but I am sure there are people that don't and can find ways to sub in the nutrients that they are not getting through meat. Sorry for the novel comment. Hope you are having a great day! PS Billy and I are coming to San Fran some time in the next few months.....want to go for a run?

  9. Let's have a brief round of applause for eating donuts... :)

    I saw the Kara Goucher pictures and I thought the same thing. I run with a woman built like that and in running clothes, she looks FAST but in street clothes, she looks scary skinny. Makes me think about what "fast" really looks like..

  10. This is really interesting. I think for a lot of people, the problem lies in eating enough calories to stave off injury, and still getting in enough nutrients. Personally, if I ate less and ran more (ha!) it would be a disaster because I wouldn't get enough nutrients. But maybe if I was following a perfectly clean diet, it wouldn't be a problem?

  11. I started Born to Run about 400 years ago and NEVER got through it. I made it over halfway. But I never fully made it, not sure why not. Perhaps because of all the hype that it just wasn't living up to for me.

    I am happy with my current weight. Hasn't really changed since I started running a year or two ago. But about three years ago, I was TOO TOO skinny because I was stressed out during school and lost my appetite. When I was that thin, I was afraid to exercise because I was paranoid about having a health as you can imagine it was not a good place in my life. But as soon as I stopped being stressed out, I returned to a more normal weight and I started exercising and the mental benefits have kept me in the running world. Now I wouldn't trade that for anything.

    But the key to my food stuff is to eat whatever feels appropriate. I do NOT restrict any foods-- I actually hate eating meat and for most of my life I never really ate any AT ALL. But in this past year, I've been craving meat more and I have adjusted my diet accordingly-- more chicken/turkey breast, etc. I just try to listen to my body. I also drink a TON of milk and I totally think that has helped me prevent any sorts of injuries and aches during this marathon training session this year.
    And interestingly enough, I don't actually like the taste of milk, but rather I just drink it because it's so good for me.

  12. I think that there is a very thin gray line between too skinny and a healthy, lean weight for a runner. I know for me... putting on some weight over the past couple of months has really helped me both physically and mentally. I hate to admit it, but I think it has also played a huge role in injury prevention. Before, if I increased my miles/week over about 20 I was injured... now that is a different story!:) Everyone's body is so different and handles things differently... we all just have to find a balance on that gray line and try like hell not fall off:)

    Great post today lady!

  13. and one more comment... I think you look FABULOUS now.

  14. I can't say I know anything about runner's diets, or what would truly be healthiest for you, but I will say this. From everything I've ever read or heard, what you put in your body is extremely important, but there is not one perfect diet for everybody. Some people do better without meat, others need more protein, etc. I say eat what makes you feel good, make sure it includes lots of vegetables, and get some routine bloodwork every once in a while to make sure that type of diet is working for you. And as far as your weight, it would seem to me as long as you never feel starved, and you're eating a healthy diet and taking vitamins, and the exercise feels good and your body feels healthy, then whatever weight your at should be the right one. Screw what other people might think :)

  15. Eh. I'm one cupcake away from being an Athena, and any coach I've ever had has made no attempt to hide it. While it wasn't fun to be 15 years old and have a number of older men (including my father) point out how I was the fattest girl on the line (I think I was 5'2" 109 at the time) at a particular seeded mile, close to two decades later and I'm over long as I don't think about it too much. When I'm actually training and eating well I'm still going to be fucking fat - and that's just the reality of it.

    What bothers me is there are plenty of people who don't fit the "mold" who try to do it anyway. Spreadsheets and changing your diet isn't going to help if you just carry more muscle than most runners. There is only so much you can do to fight nature and there comes a time you kind of just have to go with it.

    At least speaking as someone who is just always gonna be kinda fat for a runner.

  16. I'll probably be the only guy to comment on this post, but how much someone should weigh as a runner is a tough topic. I've always been skinny growing up - in high school I was 5'9", 140 lbs or so, basically skin and bones! But this did help me as a runner I think.

    Now I'm 5'11", 160-165 lbs or so, still skinny but not a skinny as I was in high school.

    I have heard that generally the elite runners have a big engine with a small frame (basically to try to cut excess fat off your body, because you have to carry all your body weight to the finish line). The hard part is determining what is excess weight and what is healthy weight.

    I've heard Ryan Hall is like 5'10", 130 lbs - basically even skinnier than I was in high school.

    Back in 2000 I don't think I was eating as much as I should have been - and while I did set some great times (I ran my fastest road races back then), I wasn't healthy I don't think. Now I think I'm at a healthy weight for me, and I feel fine. Though I know I could lose a little weight around my midsection - I think I just need to concentrate on eating a little bit better to get rid of this.

  17. I've thought about this, alot too. I certainly don't work out nearly as often as you, but when I eat a nearly Vegan diet, I feel fantastic. Without fail, someone makes a snide comment a few weeks in, and I feel like people are judging me. I feel fantastic, and they see sad or too thin. I don't know - I guess I just think you should do whatever works for you and whatever makes you the happiest.

  18. Early this fall I switched over from grain-based carbs to plant and fruit based carbs, and guess what happened? I couldn't recover from my workouts, I was tired all the time, and I dropped 6 pounds in a month that I really really didn't need to lose.
    I think a plant-based diet of all natural foods is absolute BS. We runners burn up tons of calories, and there is nothing wrong with occasionally replenishing those burned calories with a couple slices of 'za or some homemade cookies.
    Plus, honestly, those elite runners have no butts or boobs. I like being able to fill out my jeans and bras- when I was running a lot and not eating as much, I went flat in both areas, and let me tell you, losing your junk in the trunk doesn't make you any speedier. It just makes clothes look REALLY WEIRD on you.
    These books need to realize that "racing weight" and "training diets" can often lead to crazy food fears for people. Moderation is the key to everything, and I am sorry, but a life without New York style pizza is not a life worth living.

  19. How much someone 'should' weigh to run is a bullshit conversation. Everyone is different. People get way too focused on a number, on a size. Any woman who has low enough body fat to stop getting a period has health issues (yes, women stop getting periods for other reasons... my point is that a period tends to be great indicator of our health). When you train to be an elite athlete, there is no balance. Understand that. I was one. We are not. Healthful diets... there are so many incarnations of a healthful diet. Okay, I need to stop. I haven't even read the book :P
    But dates... yes! love my Medjool dates instead of Gu things. I need to get some more :)

  20. I got that book as a gift, and I never finished it. I couldn't get into it. I heard it got better after the first few chapters but I put it down and havn't been compelled to read it again. Someday.

    I love your honesty here. One of the things I loved about your race pictures was how strong you looked. Your quads were so muscular and I admired that. The pictures from when you were 22
    are a little scary to me, but I'm built bigger so naturally it's my way to say it's not desireable becasue I could physically never get there.

    And if I did get there I'm positive I would have no joy in life. I would have to restrice myself so much and I'm sure it would reak havok on my energy level. The price comes with too much cost. I apprecieate your honesty when you say you were happy. I believe that. Every body is different. If your performace was up then oboviously you were where you needed to be.

    I don't think Kara Goucher is tiny. I think she is incredibly lean. Deena Kastor - tiny.

  21. I got that book as a gift, and I never finished it. I couldn't get into it. I heard it got better after the first few chapters but I put it down and havn't been compelled to read it again. Someday.

    I love your honesty here. One of the things I loved about your race pictures was how strong you looked. Your quads were so muscular and I admired that. The pictures from when you were 22
    are a little scary to me, but I'm built bigger so naturally it's my way to say it's not desireable becasue I could physically never get there.

    And if I did get there I'm positive I would have no joy in life. I would have to restrice myself so much and I'm sure it would reak havok on my energy level. The price comes with too much cost. I apprecieate your honesty when you say you were happy. I believe that. Every body is different. If your performace was up then oboviously you were where you needed to be.

    I don't think Kara Goucher is tiny. I think she is incredibly lean. Deena Kastor - tiny.

  22. Born to Run: I inhaled that book. However, I wouldn't trust everything in it. For example, I took the "running shoes don't do really do anything for you" as gospel and experimented with running on some older beat up shoes (as one of the people in the book did) and would up with a stress injury.

    With eating, I think you should do what works for you and not worry too much about what other people think. However, it's easy to get carried away with numbers (whether that's BMI, body fat, what the scale says, or the importance of a PR). You look great now, and were also damn cute as a kid. Do what feels good, but be mindful.

    Magdalena Lewy-Boulet lives in my neighborhood and shows up at the neighborhood pool every once in a while (and I see her zipping by on the trails). She's damn skinny, but she's also running professionally.

  23. LOL... literally when i read that i laughed out loud. i started reading born to run this summer and i'm only on page 30. so i guess my diet is 2 pages a week.

  24. New to your blog! I have read Born to Run as well.

    When I watch Olympic Trials or the great races on TV - I don't see any women winning who are my size. They seriously have no fat on their bodies.

    I don't think I'm big by any means, but I am also not 90% muscle like those women. So that being said, I don't think it matters what you eat (ie. vegan or not) but if you have that 90% muscle body you are going to be a champion runner.

    Many of the elite female runners remind me of gymanasts. They are also almost all muscle too.

  25. Well, at 100 mpw, 1800 cals seems a little low. Even 2200 seems low. I eat about 1800-2000 now but I'm only 5'0" and 108 and run 30 mpw.

    That being said, it's seriously annoying getting the "too thin I'm worried" bs from people. I was like 106 or something in January - eating what I eat now, not starving myself - and I was getting those types of comments. My BMI is still over 20. I honestly don't understand why everyone assumes if you've lost weight and weren't necessarily "fat" before then you must have an eating disorder.

    I think you should eat how you want to eat as long as you feel healthy and you're not getting injured (and not experiencing amenorrhea).

  26. the sad part is..if you are an elite runner, being lower in weight DOES mean faster/speed. I think you look beautiful now (yes I am sucking on your ass cheeks)...but if you HONESTLY didn't have disordered thoughts/eating then f*ck the haters. Be happy and running is your passion. No one would dare cry and say "get help" after my 8lb weight gain!

  27. Loved that book. Made me want to go out and run 100 miles in the dessert with no shoes on...

    My 2 cents: I really don't think there's anything wrong with eating a plant-based diet, provided it's done the right way. I think too many people read a couple of vegan blogs and jump on a fad without consulting a doctor, RD, nutritionist or whatever, have no idea how to properly fuel and they end up weak, malnourished and injured.

    I also think the Tarahumara, a race of people who have evolved over thousands of years as vegan super-runners, have a genetic edge over the rest of us fat, lazy, sedentary Americans. No matter how I try to mimic their diet/training, it's just not something that's going to happen for me.

  28. I know the feeling. I used to be the same way and people accused me of some horrible stuff too. But I had thyroid issues and was literally eating weight gainer bars to try and up the lbs. But I digress, you look happy, healthy and are faster than ever now. My only question is: what's with all the creepy dolls in the background of those photos ;)

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