10 Simple Guidelines for Eating Healthier than Ever

healthy eatingThe more I learn about habits, the more I believe that simplicity is the best policy — especially when it comes to food.

I’m not a fan of restrictions or numbers when it’s time to eat. People often email me to ask why I don’t include nutrition facts with the recipes on No Meat Athlete, and I always answer that I simply don’t believe they’re good, except perhaps in cases where extreme weight loss is required.

Food, and the time we spend eating it, should be enjoyed — it’s one of the great pleasures of life, and to constrain it with complicated rules and numbers is completely unnatural.

Simple is good

Simplicity is the reason Michael Pollan’s three-sentence manifesto from In Defense of Food resonated so well (“Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”). And the stickiness of that phrase is probably what led Pollan to write Food Rules, another goodie full of short, memorable rules-of-thumb like “Eat only what your great-grandmother would recognize as food.”

And so here I list the simple food rules I live by. They’re not meant to be as catchy or easy to remember as Pollan’s, but they’re an honest distillation of what I believe is the healthiest way to eat. Not just this month, or until you lose those last 15 pounds, but for life.

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6 Runners, 208 Miles — My Blue Ridge Relay Recap

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205 miles down, just 3 to go ...

If you’re a mildly serious runner who hangs around with other mildly serious runners, then I’d bet good money that one of those friends has been telling you how much fun the RAGNAR relay he or she ran was.

And how you’ve just got to do one yourself. I bet you’re even sick of hearing it.

If you don’t have a friend like that, well, consider me that friend. You know I’m not a big fan of race recaps, because I refuse to believe anyone truly cares that “at mile 17 I ate a gel, and at mile 20 I really had to take a crap but decided to ignore it and keep going.”

But this one’s different enough that I figured you might like to hear about it. No crap stories, I promise.

How it works

While the Blue Ridge Relay isn’t run by RAGNAR, the idea is the same: Find a team of runners (usually 6 to 12), rent a van, and spend 24-36 hours stinking up that van, getting out to run every once in a while when it’s your turn. Cover an absurd distance in the process, get almost zero sleep, and then tell your friends how much fun it was when you’re done. Or blog about it.

I’d never done one of these before, and with a team of only six (meaning each person would run six legs and average 35 total miles), I was nervous about how it would go. But now that it’s done, I can say it was one of the best races I’ve ever done, and I can’t wait to do another one.

Like an ultra, but different?

I’ve run several 50K’s and 50-milers now, but I worried about this one because I hadn’t been treating it like an ultra. Sure, I had put in plenty of 8-10 milers and had run every day for a good part of the summer, but I really hadn’t tested myself with more than a handful of runs over two hours, the way I would normally do for anything of this distance.

But this wasn’t a normal ultra. 35 miles, yes, but not continuously. After each leg, which ranged from three to 10 miles, I’d have a break for about four hours. A break in which I could put on my compression socks and shorts, stuff my face, hydrate, and contribute to the smelliness of the car (we went with two cars instead of one van). And sleep, or so I thought.

In that way, it was a lot easier than an ultra. In another way it was harder.

There’s a competitive aspect to the race, where teams dress up their vans (and sometimes themselves) and keep a tally on the side of the van of how many roadkills they rack up — I actually thought at first that they were actually hitting animals with their van, only to realize later that a “roadkill” meant passing a runner on another team. So while I had planned, in the nerve-filled days leading up to the race, to take it very easy at first — 10 minute miles, perhaps, since it was really hilly — the competitive atmosphere and my desire not to let down my team quickly forced that plan out the window, and I finished my first, five-mile leg totally gassed, a full minute per mile under my planned pace.

The second and toughest leg

Next up, four very quick hours later, was the leg I was most concerned about. 10 miles, a 600-foot climb up the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the second half of it in the dark. This leg alone could take me two hours, I thought, and that’s the longest I’ve run in the past few months.

Somehow, it didn’t — I averaged 9-minute miles up the hill. If you could ask my wife, she’d tell you I’m literally the worst orienteer in the world, and for about half an hour I was convinced that I had missed a turn (as is par for the course, for me) and would surely be eaten by coyotes when night fell in the Blue Ridge Mountains and I was lost at the top. But eventually I saw the orange, reflective sign that marked the turn off the parkway and down to the transition spot, and just like that, my dreaded leg was complete. And in only an hour and 25 minutes!

I worried that I was going too fast. It was now nighttime, we’d put in a full day and I’d run 15 miles. With my stomach full from a black bean burger from a stand at the transition zone, I caught myself feeling relieved that we were on the home stretch. Of course, we weren’t — I still had four legs and 20 miles to run, and the next two legs would be in the dead of night.

Legs 3 and 4 — through the night

The next two legs, at 11pm and 3am, were the most mentally challenging of the bunch. I’ve only done a few runs at night in my life, and the overnight is still the part that scares me most about one day running a 100-miler.

But I realized as I was running them that I was lucky in my assignment — these night legs were substantially downhill, and it took almost no effort to just let gravity pull me along. They weren’t all easy; one notable steep climb brought everyone running the downhill that preceded it to a screeching halt, leaving us all to walk up a good bit of it. But overall, I felt like I had dodged a bullet — I had gone way faster than planned for the first two legs, and been able to keep that same 8-to-9 minute pace without expending much effort on my two night legs.

Finally, with my second night leg complete and nobody in our 3-person car needing to run until the other three guys had gone, I slept my deepest, most satisfying slumber of the race: One hour, crunched in the backseat of the car.

When it was my buddy’s turn to run and the car awoke, I realized that in just two hours it’d be my leg again. And then I felt the unmistakable urge to puke in the Porta-Pot. Instead, I ate my third or fourth hummus sandwich of the trip, along with an orange and some Gatorade. And maybe a Newman-O for dessert.

The last two legs

My fifth leg was uneventful. Flat, just four miles, and in the sun. It was only 8am, so it wasn’t hot yet, but all I remember now is that sun. And my legs feeling like lead and my head full of cobwebs. But the thought that this thing was almost over (well, kind of) kept me going, and I managed to keep an 8:15 pace for my 24th through 28th miles of the race.

One more to go. My teammates, all of whom had been through the same ups and downs and fought the same mental fight I had, each ran their final legs, and I could only imagine how great done must feel. (We had to keep the same order throughout the race, and I was the sixth and final person to run.)

Our fastest runner, who ran 45 miles in all, ran his final 8-mile leg at something like 6:30 pace, and that got everybody fired up again when it was desperately needed.

Finally, it was my turn to finish it off. I was tasked with running the last 7 miles, all downhill, into my now-hometown of Asheville. Right to the door of Mellow Mushroom pizza, where the finish line was set up and where precious water, beer, and rest awaited. (And vegan pizza with Daiya cheese.)

The thought of seven more miles at this point was overwhelming. In some way, I avoided the thought entirely and just ran. Early on, I heard someone coming up behind me, surely looking to chalk me up as another roadkill — as one of the slower guys on our team, I was used to being passed at this point. But this time, I decided I would not let it happen.

And so I sped up. I clocked a few seven-minute miles — downhill, but seven-minute miles nonetheless. When I passed my wife and son, who came out to support us for the final legs of the race, I told her, “I’m running too fast!”

But I couldn’t slow down. I had decided I would not be caught from behind, and I kept going.

I ran the sixth mile in 6:28. I don’t run 6:28 miles, especially not after 33 other miles and an hour of sleep in the past two days. Maybe it was the hill, seeing my family, the relief that it was really almost over, or the knowledge that my team would be there waiting for me at the bottom. I’m not sure what exactly it was, but I kept pushing, and finished the leg and race exhausted. But proud.

What made this misery so much fun?

Somehow, in six legs and 35 miles, I never crashed. I kept waiting for it to happen and it never did.

That final, seven-mile leg (which I finished in 51 minutes or so) is one of the best runs I’ve ever done, ranking up there even with those last four miles I ran to get into Boston a few years ago. There aren’t too many moments when you shock yourself like this, when you have no idea where what you’re doing is coming from, but it feels like there’s a force behind you that’s guiding you along.

For me, this was one of those moments.

260178 10151199673684758 1221740353 nOur six-man team finished the 208-mile Blue Ridge Relay in 27 hours, 51 minutes. Good enough for 7th place among the 30 teams in the Ultra division (6 runners or fewer), and 26th out of the 141 total teams in the race, most of which had 12 members.

The whole time, I kept telling myself it wasn’t about the competition. A teammate and I kept laughing at the fact that we were killing ourselves every leg, just to hand off the baton three or four minutes earlier than if we were to pull back, take it easy, and treat every leg as a relaxing run in the mountains. Those few minutes wouldn’t make a difference; we knew we weren’t going to win this thing.

And somehow, it was about the competition. Not so much about beating the other teams, but about pulling your weight on our team. About showing up and running the paces the team was expecting you to run, counting on you to run.

I haven’t experienced that before. Running has always been an individual sport for me, and one where I’m not even thinking about competitors — just me, the clock, and goal time. This was all new: the team, the other teams, trying to avoid being someone else’s roadkill and even getting a few roadkills of your own (and I do mean a few; I might have gotten three the whole time).

If that friend is bugging you to join his or her RAGNAR team, I say do it. Or find another relay in your area and put your own team together. If running has always been about you, try making it about a team. When you go through something like this with a team, you feel like you know these people, even if it’s the first time you’ve met.

It’s an entirely different way to race, and it’s exactly what I needed.

The PS’s

1 — If you’re in DC, don’t forget that the DC Vegfest is this weekend! Doug and I will be there at the No Meat Athlete booth and lots of No Meat Athlete shirts, including a longsleeve version of the stamp shirt that’s not yet available online. And Rich Roll is speaking too, you can’t miss that, can you?

2 — Run Your BQ, the site I started about qualifying for Boston with Jason from Strength Running, just underwent a major tech overhaul and is more awesome than ever. We’ll be taking new members for a few days next week, and in honor of that I just made my free report The BQ Blueprint available again. If you missed it last time or you want to be notified when Run Your BQ opens, you can sign up here.

Have a great weekend; I’m looking forward to meeting a bunch of you at Vegfest!

 

 

 

 

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The Return of No Meat Athlete Radio!

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And we’re back!

To be honest, after we recorded our last episode back in January (!), I wasn’t sure when or if we’d do another No Meat Athlete Radio.

Podcasting, although fun, turned out to be a lot more work than writing a regular blog post, and I admit we were a bit ambitious in our goal of putting out a new episode every single week, or twice a month at the least.

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9 Essential Cookbooks for the Plant-Based Athlete

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My cookbook (and wine) shelf

When it comes to cookbooks, my wife and I are big fans of the library.

You can leaf through a normal book and get an idea of whether it’s any good, but you can’t really decide about a cookbook until you try it. So we like to borrow first, then buy if it’s great.

And so we’ve tried a bunch (well over 50, I bet) in our short three and a half years of being vegetarian. I’m always surprised at the selection of vegetarian and vegan cookbooks in most libraries, even if a lot of them are those 1980′s-style designed ones, with tons of fake meat recipes that are probably a lot worse for you than the even real thing.

(Case in point: I recently saw a recipe in this book, which my sister checked out from the library, for vegan chili cheese dogs. The recipe: get a vegan hot dog, vegan cheese, a bun, and vegan chili, and microwave them. Then assemble as you would an ordinary hot dog. This book also has a “Vegan Chopped Liver” recipe …)

Anyway, my point is that we’ve tried a ton of cookbooks, and we usually end up buying our favorites. And from this handful of favorites, we cook probably 90% of the meals we make.

Before I get to my list, let me explain the criteria.

What makes a great vegan or vegetarian cookbook for athletes?

I called this list 9 Essential Cookbooks for the Plant-Based Athlete, and here’s what I mean by that. To make my list, a vegetarian or vegan cookbook’s recipes had to be:

  • Whole-food based — more than any particular nutrient mix, this is my main criterion for healthy (see this post).
  • Not rabbit-foodish — it’s gotta be substantial, filling, satisfying food.
  • Quick — most meals shouldn’t take more than 30-40 minutes to prepare, since athletes are generally pretty busy.
  • Tasty — maybe the best athletes don’t care so much about this, but the rest of us do.
  • Varied — I wanted each book to have a lot of different types of food in it, so that you could buy just one and still have a nice mix of meals (as opposed to just vegan Indian or Italian food, for example).

So with that, here’s my list. Please note that amazon.com links are affiliate links, so No Meat Athlete will earn a small commission when you buy anything through them!

1. Veganomicon, by Isa Chandra Moscowitz and Terry Hope Romero.

To me, this is a classic, even if it’s only five years old. Though some of the recipes are slightly more involved than I have time for on a weeknight, most every meal in this book turns out wonderfully, and makes you feel like you did something. There’s also tons of supporting material to introduce the reader to different ingredients and techniques used in vegan cooking, making this a perfect first “serious” vegan cookbook.

See my review, along with the recipe for BBQ Black Eyed Pea Collard Rolls, here.

2. Thrive Foods, by Brendan Brazier.

Probably my favorite of all, and the one that I’d rescue from a fire if some weirdo came and lit only my cookbook shelf on fire. The reason I love Thrive Foods is because it’s the perfect balance between extremely healthy (Brendan was a pro triathlete and developed many of these recipes to fuel his career) and normal. I wouldn’t call most of this food gourmet — you can tell that health comes first in most of these recipes — but even my two-year old will eat it, and that’s saying something. And the first one-third of the book makes for interesting reading about the environmental and health benefits of a plant-based diet.

See my review of Thrive Foods for more, including the delicious Shanghai Rice Bowl recipe.

3. Clean Food, by Terry Walters.

Simple, seasonal, whole ingredients are what I think of when I think of Clean Food. Though it doesn’t say so anywhere on the cover, the book is entirely vegan and mostly gluten-free, too. This is my favorite cookbook for finding what’s fresh at the farmer’s market and making it for dinner that night. (Terry is also a marathoner and triathlete, so it’s no coincidence that the food here is so perfect for athletes.)

Here’s where you can find my review of Clean Food, along with a recipe for Millet Black Bean Patties with Corn.

4. Jai Seed, by Rich Roll.

Jai Seed is a little different — partly because it’s an ebook, but not just that. There’s something else about the food that distinguishes it from that of the other cookbooks on my list. The recipes are unique and interesting, and in general, the ingredients Rich uses are fresh, often raw, superfoods that he combines in simple smoothies, salads, sauces, meals and desserts — and somehow they turn out to be delicious. And it never hurts to know you’re eating the same food a vegan Ultraman triathlete eats!

See my review of Jai Seed here.

5. Appetite for Reduction, by Isa Chandra Moscowitz.

Isa is the only author to appear twice on my list, but Appetite for Reduction is somewhat different from Veganomicon, so I won’t lose sleep over including both. The focus is on simplifying, so that these meals are quicker, healthier, and cheaper than those in V’con. And my friend Matt Ruscigno, a vegan Registered Dietitian and ultra-distance cyclist, contributed a nutrition primer and lots of nutrition notes throughout the book (see the protein and iron posts Matt wrote for No Meat Athlete).

PS — We made the black bean zucchini tacos a few nights ago, and they were mind-blowing.

6. 1000 Vegan Recipes, by Robin Robertson.

1000 Vegan Recipes was the first vegan cookbook I ever bought, and my gateway from vegetarianism to veganism. To be honest, I haven’t found a ton of standout recipes in this book (Mac ‘n’ Chard is one delicious exception), but the sheer number (you’ll never guess how many!) and variety of quick and simple recipes in the book makes it a go-to for so many nights when I’ve got nothing planned but need to get something on the table fast. The salads section is long and excellent, too.

7. World Vegetarian, by Madhur Jaffrey.

This is the only non-vegan cookbook on my list (many of the recipes call for yogurt or other dairy products, for which you could often substitute vegan versions). But if you don’t own an ethnic cookbook, this is the one to start with. I’m always impressed by the authenticity of these meals and the depths of unfamiliar flavors in them; this is the book that helped me fall in love with vegan cooking back when I was still stuck on the idea that cooking wasn’t as much fun when you were restricted in your choice of ingredients.

8. Supermarket Vegan, by Donna Klein.

Great book, great title, kinda dumb tagline: “225 Meat-free, Egg-free, Dairy-free Recipes for Real People in the Real World.” Okay, I got the first part from “vegan,” and exactly who counts as not a real person in the real world? Still, like I said, it’s a really great book — it selectively uses prepared ingredients from the grocery store to save a lot of time when you’re in a pinch, and most of the recipes turn out well. And for the most part, these meals are cheap, even when you’re paying for the prepared ingredients. If you find yourself time-crunched or otherwise intimidated about cooking, Supermarket Vegan is a place to start.

9. __________, by ___________. Ah, trickery. I said there were nine, and I could only think of eight that truly deserved to be on *my* list. But I’m only one guy, with one set of taste buds, so I want to hear what your favorite is! Leave it in a comment and we’ll have massive list of new books to try!

Happy cooking!

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