I’ve recently changed a major part of my life for the sake of trying to run fast. No, I haven’t started training at altitude and I haven’t started running 180 miles a week. I didn’t get into barefoot running (I’ll keep wearing the Brooks Ghost), and I haven’t started running on an anti-gravity treadmill. Instead, I remembered something that John Kellogg (a college running mentor and regular assistant at Cornell) questioned us on a couple years ago: “What is the one thing besides running that will directly have an influence on your racing performance?” Answer: Diet. With variables like sleep and types of training held constant, WHAT you EAT and WHEN you EAT is obviously a huge determinant of how your body is going to run. And by “diet” I mean the types of foods you consume and the variety of the macro and micronutrients that your body has to absorb on a regular basis. So recently I made a rather radical change to my diet: I went from being a strict vegetarian for 24 years to becoming a meat-eater overnight.
Now I’ve taken Chem, Bio, and Nutrition classes at Cornell University so I have some background in the science behind healthy eating, the physical demands involved with highly aerobic performances, and the implications of possible dietary deficiencies within the body. Yes, I’ve read the typical spiel in Runners World every month about how chocolate milk is a great recovery drink (why people are still coming up and telling me that like its some magical secret is beyond me). Yes, beets are good for your blood and aid in weight-loss. I know the differences between heme and non-heme iron. Yes, kale makes the “miracle” salad, and Brazil nuts are full of a magical dose of Selenium, etc. I know about the “15min post-workout window,” and the ergogenic effects of caffeine. I’ve read Born to Run, and I know about Scott Jurek’s vegan lifestyle. My home doctor back in Oregon predicted long ago that runners would find that they are low on vitamin D. So over the years I’ve been taking magnesium, vitamin B-12, a little kids chewable multivitamin, vitamin D, C and a little E…and a little zinc…sometimes. I love chocolate milk after a workout. Problem is, I seem to drink a half-gallon of chocolate milk at a time- Then I like to feast at Taco Bell. A frozen pizza for dinner after a Taco Bell lunch used to be a typical (and delicious!) day. Heck, throw in a stack of chocolate-chip peanut butter pancakes and I’m loving life. Like Brian Sell I would occasionally even snack on McDonalds before a day of work at the running store.
I’ve been extremely lucky. I’ve piled on 100 + mile weeks and have never been injured enough to have to take time off from running. I thought I had the quality that Mark Wetmore described in Running With The Buffaloes as “durability.” In college my ability to not get injured was my main strength. I don’t have the talent of raw speed, I don’t have a high Vo2max…but I’ve put in 30 mile days easily. Well, as durable as my tree-trunk-like-legs and sturdy bones are, my weakness in durability lies elsewhere. I have allergies to tree and grass pollen (so far in Oregon, New York and Michigan); I have asthma; and most related to this blog post: I have trouble absorbing enough iron and boosting my red blood cell count. Now I don’t care if you can run 180 miles a week- if you can’t get your hematocrit (percentage of blood volume occupied by red blood cells) much over 40 you just aren’t going to run very fast! I’ve had my blood drawn so many times in the last 6 years that I have permanent scars over the veins on the inside of my elbows. My ferritin seems to jump up and down. My red blood cell count is typically low. If I didn’t have a scientific mind I wouldn’t even bother getting the tests done….I’d just shut up and run (and maybe now I will?). But then, if you have a “break though” performance wouldn’t you like to attribute it to some data? Wouldn’t you like to know that it wasn’t just a “fluke performance”?
The same goes for bad races. I’m coming off of a disastrous last marathon. Whether or not my poor performances can be attributed to a poor diet is debatable. However, I suspect that there is a connection. Anyway, you don’t want to make the same mistake twice…that is one definition of stupidity!
So now, it’s going to be an “experiment” of one- a method of testing myself. I’ve been an ovo-lacto vegetarian the last 24 years of my life and I just quit cold turkey (bad pun intended). This summer I’ll be out on the Bloomer House patio deck, firing up the grill 2-3 times a week. I’m not going to worry about taking my liquid iron as much anymore…it just doesn’t seem as healthy or as natural as real food sources of iron-and plus, it doesn’t taste nearly as good as a bison burger!