There are only a few aspects of human behavior more elemental than running. One of those is eating. We eat to fuel our bodies and minds, of course, but eating represents far more than that in the human experience. From the beginning of time, preparing, sharing and enjoying food has been a central part of cultures around the world.
In the scope of human history, not until recently has food been anything but a blessing—a celebration of health, creativity, community, and the pleasure of senses fully engaged. That has changed in an age of excess food and inadequate exercise. Now, food is often more associated with guilt than gratitude, more likely to be labeled and tracked than seasoned and savored.
As a distance runner since I was 13 years old, however, I’ve been fortunate to be able to continue to view food as a cultural delight to be embraced with gusto. Being a runner has allowed me to remain blissfully ignorant of our society’s obsessive fascination with calorie counts and fat content, portion size and proportion of protein. I’ve gone my whole life able to think of food—pretty much every kind of food—simply as good.
In my youth, I subscribed to the thinking reflected in John L. Parker’s Once a Runner: “If the furnace was hot enough, anything would burn, even Big Macs.” As I’ve aged, the furnace hasn’t been quite as hot and I’ve had to pay some attention to the volume I consume. I’m still reluctant, however, to start seeing food as simply fuel, or to ruin a good meal by figuring out its caloric total or percentage of nutrients.
Besides my respect for food’s place in the context of life, I am reluctant to focus too much on it for two other reasons. The first stems from the main conclusions of the research I did on lifetime competitors for my book Run Strong, Stay Hungry. One of the keys I found to staying engaged and competitive for a lifetime is to keep running simple, flexible and harmonious with the rest of life. Just as runners who follow rigid training schedules tend to get overwhelmed by the structure and how it interferes with their relationships and other pursuits, it seems to me those who believe they need a special, highly-controlled diet often negate any performance gains through added stress, and are more likely to grow weary of the imposition and give up the chase.
The second reason follows from the idea that our subconscious brains usually know more about what we need than we do. We often try to impose “one size fits all” solutions to bodies that are different and complex, while we’d do better to pay attention to internal signals. This holds true in training: those same lifetime competitors often train “by feel,” having learned to monitor and trust what their bodies tell them. Similarly, when I researched biomechanics for my book Your Best Stride, I learned that experts agree that the central nervous system finds the best stride for each unique body, and that trying to impose a different, “ideal” form usually creates more problems than improvements. The way to your best stride is to correct for imbalances and weakness created by our unnatural lifestyles, then run and let the body find its best movement patterns.
With these parameters in mind, knowing that my metabolism doesn’t burn as much as it used to, and wanting to be healthy while keeping my dietary concerns simple and unobtrusive, I was looking for the nutritional equivalent of improving hip flexibility and glute strength or learning to train by feel. A talk with sports nutritionist and ultra-endurance athlete Meredith Terranova, founder of Eating and Living Healthy, encouraged me, and gave me some guidelines I can fully embrace without altering my view of food in my life. You may have a very different relationship to nutrition, but these ideas seem useful, regardless of where you are on the “monitor my food” spectrum.
Eat Real Food
“Across the board, if the base of your food is real and whole foods, not packaged food, you’re not going to have to monitor at the level that somebody who has a bunch of boxes and packages in their house has,” Terranova says. It’s not new advice, having been popularized in Michael Pollen’s Food Rules, which include “Don’t eat anything your great-great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” But it is comforting to hear it from a sports nutritionist.
Eating real foods requires a commitment to preparing the foods that you eat. But it frees you from having to see that food as a sum of calories or percentages of different chemicals. The very nature of real food ensures that you’re going to get the variety of nutrients you need and it will fill you up so you won’t eat in excess. “I’m not as worried about your calories as about your commitment to balance and eating whole, real foods,” Terranova says. “You don’t have to count how many tomatoes you put on your salad.”
Like me, Terranova is leery of diets that exclude things or drastically skew proportions. “On some level, we’re looking for things, in this unbalanced, crazy world we’re living in; we’re seeking sometimes what’s unrealistic,” she says. No matter how controlled you make your diet, she finds that usually, “This is not the thing that is going to change your performance.”
Learn to Listen
Just as an attentive and experienced runner can tell how many miles their body needs today, a mindful eater can gauge the right amount of food they need without requiring charts or apps. The body has a special way to communicate this: It’s called hunger.
“I want everybody to get in touch with your hunger and full feeling,” Terranova says. “When you’re comfortably hungry, it is time to eat. And you eat until you’re full.”
I came from the generation where you cleaned your plate (so much so that my son makes fun of how my plate looks like it was never used after a meal). Terranova suggests that I serve myself half a portion, then, judging where I am in my fullness, I can take additional small portions, still clean my plate, and stop when the needle hits full.
In addition to hunger, we need to pay attention to what works for us, what makes us feel healthy and strong. “People are like, ‘This amazing runner is on this plan, this is what I should be doing,’” Terranova says. They never step back and say, “I’m kind of tired, I don’t actually feel very good—maybe this is not right for me.”
This kind of evaluation works over time, as well as on a daily basis if we choose what we put in our mouths. “If we’re thinking about it, rather than just grabbing, we tend to think in a bigger picture,” Terranova says. “What’s going to make me feel good? What makes my stomach feel full? What’s going to last for bit of time?”
“Leftovers are the key to easy health,” Terranova says. “There’s nothing healthier than repurposing your healthy meal you created once for another meal.”
Real-food leftovers taste better and fill you up more than the convenience lunch and snacks we often eat instead. Especially if you treat them like food, present them on a plate, and pay attention. “All food, even a cupcake, should go on a proper plate,” Terranova says. “Enjoy it on a plate, with a fork, as though you meant to eat it.”
Which brings us full circle to the idea of food as something special, a celebration of life, culture and the senses. Rather than deny ourselves these pleasures and reduce food to fuel, could it be the way to better eating, even for runners, is to embrace that food is good—when it is real food, lovingly prepared and eaten mindfully. I can go for that.
The Whole Athlete is a monthly running series written by Jonathan Beverly and brought to you by Topo Athletic. We aim to deliver advice that serves the whole athlete, from training and recovery to nutrition and psychology.
He served as editor of Running Times from 2000-2015 and has coached runners of all ages and disciplines.