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One afternoon my sophomore year of high school, I was eating a snack before indoor track practice when a teammate chastised me. “I thought you were serious about running,” he told me. “You shouldn’t be eating that.” A couple of older teammates agreed.
Strictly speaking, he was not wrong, nor was it his intent to be malicious. Some foods better support athletic objectives than the snack I was about to consume, and I had not considered this before his comment. Really, this should have been a teachable moment in my development as an endurance athlete. Nutrition plays a considerable role in running and triathlon—alongside rest, lifting, recovery, and hydration—in enabling us to stay healthy and to perform well over the long-term. It would be untruthful to suggest otherwise. Still, the way this comment was framed—that my abstention from certain foods was a testing grounds for my commitment to my new sport—was unhelpful to me. I did want to be serious. I was willing to do whatever it took, and to abstain from whatever I ought. This was the first time I remember wondering what exactly I should be eating as an athlete. What mystical set of foods is running-approved, if not the ones I had chosen for my afternoon snack? Which foods meant I was a serious athlete?
It has taken me many years since, including several years competing in elite and professional racing and interacting with peers who do the same, to be able to articulate what it is that I find concerning about how endurance athletes often speak, and are spoken to, about nutrition. Let’s start here: There are no special running foods, and what you eat does not determine your seriousness for the sport. Moreover, conversations about nutrition often betray a misunderstanding about what competitive endurance sport is actually about.
The Athlete Diet: Burritos and Otherwise
Recently, a professional track athlete tested positive for a banned substance. Her defense has rested on the fact that she consumed a burrito with tainted meat in the hours prior to her failed test. It has been a difficult, dispiriting subject in the running world. Social media erupted at the news, with armchair psychologizing and numerous arguments to exonerate or condemn her. I am not interested in adding to this chorus of voices, and I have no privileged access to additional information. But of all the takes (reasonable and otherwise) floating around the internet regarding the athlete’s defense, the worst is probably the one about how a professional runner would never eat a burrito.
We eat burritos.
Clearly, these public conversations were only incidentally about what a runner might eat, in the wake of more important news. But they served as a reminder that there is work to be done in demystifying the diets of runners and athletes. So, for the sake of young runners out there who—like high school me—want to be serious and committed, I would like to state for the record that a professional runner would indeed eat a burrito. Likely, the diet of a professional runner is not too dissimilar from what you’re already eating now, but perhaps appears in greater volume, (sometimes) using higher quality ingredients, and with a bit more precision of meal timing to aid recovery between sessions. Personally, I have eaten a burrito the night before four of my national titles. I also eat pizza, salmon, fruit, and pasta. I find that baking pairs well with hard training, and I love Panera because it offers bread as the side to its sandwiches. At Italian restaurants, I wait a long time to say “when” when they grate fresh cheese onto my salads—so long that they sometimes think I have forgotten to indicate when they should stop. All of these habits support my training because they keep me well-fueled. And athletics aside, they keep me happy as part of an embodied, full human life.
What I am not saying is that food or an athlete’s diet does not matter. Of course it matters. What I am saying is that there is no mystical set of special foods for runners. I am saying that conversations about nutrition warrant more nuance than drawing lines in the sand between good foods and bad foods, or “clean” foods and everything else. And I am saying that framing nutrition in terms of privation—or in terms of what one cannot have—is more confusing than instructive, particularly when these comments are not paired with an alternative vision for what foods might better fuel your training. The truth is, I have been competing at a high level for years, and the only time I wonder whether my food is clean is when it falls on the trail and gets mud on it. Champions eat burritos, and, yes, they eat fruits and vegetables, too. But I personally perform a lot better when I don’t overthink what is on my plate.
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Sport or Exercise? That is the Question
A number of years ago, I competed in my first World Championships. My training leading up to the race was imperfect, and I was young in the event and lacked racing confidence. That day, we ran through a sleet storm, and there was a lot of carnage among the front-running women who took the race out too quickly for the conditions. But wearing the Team USA kit for the first time was deeply motivating to me, and running among women I had looked up to for years drove me to run really hard that day. When it was all over, I landed on the podium as the individual silver medalist, and the American women stood on top of the podium as the gold medal-winning team. We heard our national anthem play, and it was a special, unforgettable moment in my life.
After the race, I fielded questions from friends and the media. One of the first people I talked to asked me how many calories I burned in twenty-four hours. Frankly, I have no idea, and this seemed to me the least interesting question one could ask. Yes, I probed the depths of the human spirit. I persevered when everything inside of me wanted to quit, and yes, there were snacks. The snacks were the annoying part. I had to carry them and eat them with my muddy hands, and I couldn’t use my manners. Did people ask Dante how many calories he burned on his trek through the underworld, or Dorothy on her journey to Oz? No, because that was not the point. Calories are a secondary, or subsidiary, consideration of competitive running and triathlon. Of course they matter. But they matter in the way that they matter for other sports, as a means of performing, which is to say this is a less interesting question than many people think it is.
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In some ways, it seems endurance sport is engaged in a struggle of identity that other sports are not subjected to. Moreover, it seems that this struggle of identity is in part responsible for the confusion around nutrition and performance. This is because most of society is not engaged in running as sport. Rather, many people encounter running as a diet tool or treat it exclusively as a means of exercise. While the objectives in competitive running and triathlon is to get faster and stronger, running, cycling, and swimming is often perceived through the lens of its alternative objectives—to get smaller, or to take up less space—the kinds of objectives that are more compatible with a privation account of nutrition. These are not the same goals, and to reframe competitive running in terms of diet and exercise, instead of fueling and training, is to diminish the beauty endurance sport—or to remove it from its position as a peer to football, baseball, and soccer.
Furthermore, speaking in these terms motivates the kind of rhetoric I encountered as a teenager—a rhetoric of restriction or abstention, informed by a culture that sees running, cycling, and swimming not through an athletic paradigm, but only as a means of exercise. Ask me about perseverance and courage. Ask about strength and speed. But if you ask me about food, these questions should reflect the same performance-framing that they would receive in other sports.
What I am not saying is that food does not matter. Of course it matters. What I am proposing is that endurance sport’s uneasy relationship with nutrition is, in part, a consequence of a culture that has a difficult time disentangling running as an exercise, from running as a sport. And I think this is a problem unique to endurance.We need to disentangle these two objectives because they do not share a common goal. Otherwise, we stand to diminish the beauty and athletic character of competitive running and triathlon—and to confuse a lot of young runners about how to fuel their bodies well to perform at their best, over the long-term.