If there’s anyone who truly needs no introduction in the vegetarian and vegan running community, it’s Scott Jurek.
Scott’s achievements have placed him squarely at the top of the ultrarunning world as a shining example of what’s possible with a vegan diet. If you didn’t already know of Scott from his prominent role in Born to Run, then it’s likely you heard his name this past spring, when Scott broke the American record for the 24-hour run, logging over 165 miles at the IAU World Championships.
It was my immense pleasure to talk with Scott about his vegan diet, his three essential tips for new vegans and vegetarians, the Brooks Green Silence and what he sees at the limits of barefoot running, his 24-hour American record, and what’s next for him, including setting his sights on the world record, and (finally!) a book.
I’ve included the recording here as well as the transcription. I really enjoyed this opportunity to speak with such a huge inspiration, and I hope you get as much out of the interview as I did.
Matt: Hey, it’s Matt from nomeatathlete.com and I am absolutely thrilled today to be talking to ultramarathon runner Scott Jurek.
You’ve certainly heard of Scott if you’ve read Born to Run, where he was pretty prominently featured, but even if not, his resume pretty much speaks for itself in the ultrarunning world. Scott won the Western States 100-miles seven consecutive times, he’s twice won the Badwater Ultramarathon, and most recently he set the American 24-hour record by running 165 miles. And, by the way, Scott does all of this on a vegan diet, which makes him an incredible inspiration for me and surely many of the readers of this site. So Scott, thanks for being here.
Scott: Thanks for having me, Matt.
Matt: So I guess you realize that you’re kind of the guy we all point to when someone says, “How can you really expect to run not just marathons, but ultramarathons and things like that, on a vegetarian or vegan diet?” and that it’s hard to get protein without animal products.
So I just wanted to talk a little bit about that; what made you become a vegan? I know you did it after you were already an established ultrarunner, so I just kind of wanted to see what were the motivating factors for you, and what impact do you think it has on your running?
Scott: My initial, first reason was long-term health. I had done a bit of reading by Dr. Andrew Weil—actually the first book I ever read of his was Spontaneous Healing—and I was going to physical therapy school at the time, and my mother had multiple sclerosis at that time for I think almost 12 years. And just seeing the chronic disease in my physical therapy work and then going through schooling in the medical profession, I just thought, “There’s gotta be something else to long-term health,” and again, I was eating not-so-great of a diet. I grew up hunting and fishing and eating a lot of meat, and definitely was a meat-and-potatoes guy, but I just got inspired by the body’s ability to heal itself through natural healing, and everything kinda kept pointing towards the vegetarian side of things.
So really it was out of long-term health, and after I read Dr. Howard Lyman’s book, Mad Cowboy, it truly inspired me. If this third generation cattle rancher can go vegan, then so can a backwoods Minnesota guy like myself.
Matt: Right. So then, certainly for the long-term health, I think a lot of people are really convinced that it is the way to go. But what about running? Where you concerned then? Because you already were an ultrarunner, right?
Scott: Definitely. Yes, in 1999 I had already run my first 100-miler six months prior, and I had raced close to eight ultras that season. So I definitely had a fair number of ultramarathons under my belt and had been competing also in Nordic ski racing, so for me, I looked at this as long-term health, but as I read more, and as I started getting into changing my diet, I just started noticing the recovery benefits, the ability of my body to be consistent for workouts and for races. And that’s so critical.
And also, as much as it’s not always linked to health and the homeostasis of the body, but injuries and injury prevention. Again, repetitive use of the joint and repetitive use of the muscles isn’t always caused by nutrition, but there is a role in terms of healing itself. So definitely once you’re running ultramarathons or any ultra-endurance sports, there’s a lot of repetition that occurs, and nutrition will support the healing process and the recovery process.
Matt: Right. Yeah, I’ve definitely noticed in my own experience that when I changed my diet, I wouldn’t necessarily say that I started putting on muscle better or all the sudden got much faster besides the fast that I lost some weight, but the recovery aspect of it seemed much better than it was when I used to eat meat.
Matt: You know, especially injury prevention. It just somehow seems like you can go longer without getting hurt.
Scott: And like you said, for some people, it is a great way to better the body composition, which I think is even better than just losing body fat, because so many assume, “It’d be great if I can lose some weight,” for whatever sport or just for health, and then they find out that they end up losing muscle, too. On a vegan diet I was improving not only my body composition, but I was increasing muscle mass. And a lot of people assume that one needs to eat animal products to gain a lot of muscle mass or sufficient muscle mass for even power sports, and that’s definitely been proved false time and time again.
Matt: Yeah, definitely. So then what type of foods are you actually eating when you’re really training hard? I read the New York Times article with Mark Bittman, where you said that you ate 5000-8000 calories a day, so I just kind of wondered what types of foods you’re eating there. Are you doing what so many vegans and vegetarians involved in sports tend to go to, like the low-gluten or the sprouting and soaking? I mean a lot of people tend to go really far with it like that, so I’m just wondering if you’re eating more normal foods like even non-vegetarians eat a lot of, or is it really specialized stuff like that?
Scott: I mean, definitely one of the reasons I did enjoy the transition to being a vegetarian/vegan, was the fact that all of these doors opened to me, and all of these new, great foods I never had used or ate before in my life, were now kind of center-stage. So for me, it became this way of incorporating new foods into my diet.
However, I still eat a lot of the traditional foods, and I think for anybody who starts out trying to be vegetarian or wanting to incorporate more plant-based foods, the important think is to not think that you have to eat all these specialized foods. There’s definitely a lot of variety now, and the amount of choices a vegetarian or vegan has can sometimes overwhelm people.
So for me, I eat a good mix. My whole emphasis now, over the years, like everybody or a lot of people, transitioned slowly, didn’t do a lot of the meat-analogs or faux-meats, but it was all about calorie intake at first. And then as time went on, I started to incorporate more quality, and that’s one of my big recommendations for so many people. For me, right now, it’s all about eating as many whole foods as I can in their original state. It incorporates a fair amount of raw food, although I do incorporate legumes and grains, obviously some of the cooked vegetables that I grew up on, although again, it was one vegetable around the meat and potato plate.
Matt: Right, right. So another food-type thing—I notice that you endorse Udo’s oil, right? The omega-3/omega-6 supplement?
Scott: That’s true, and it’s one of the few.
Matt: Yeah, that’s what I noticed, you don’t really do that; you don’t really endorse many products. I’ve seen the studies, or at least they’re advertised, saying that Udo’s oil boosts endurance by some percent. And I just wondered what it is about that makes you use it and endorse it?
Scott: Well, the number one reason is to get my essential fatty acids. And again, this is an area that is hotly-debated; there’s always new research that’s coming out. The whole basis around the product is that it’s not a supplement, per se, it is a whole-food product. It’s pressed flaxseed oil as a base but then it has the sesame oil, the sunflower oil, the omega-6’s blended in, and even a little bit of the omega-9’s, so that you’re getting a whole range with the 6’s and the 3’s. It’s a product you use in your diet; it’s not, I’d say, a supplement.
So where a lot of people use fish oil or fish capsules and the amount that you can actually get of your recommended essential fatty acid intake is quite minimal, whereas in this case, I use it like I used to use olive oil. I wouldn’t cook with the Udo’s oil, but I’m using it in a fashion that replaces a percentage of my oil. So the way to think of it is that I’m getting a high percentage of my fat intake in this very low-temperature pressed, cold-pressed oil, and I’m also getting all my essential fatty acids that I need. Which, for me, what does that mean as an athlete? It means quicker recovery, the whole inflammatory response…now a lot of people will argue, without getting into too much detail, that the 6’s create inflammation, but you need a balance and the quality of the 6’s is so critical.
So that’s the beauty of it. I used to and still do hemp seed and I still grind some flaxseeds once in a while, but now, it takes the guess work out of it. It makes it easier for me, and as an athlete, it’s a good source of fat and it’s a well-balanced source of fat, so I know I’m getting high-quality fat into my intake. And when you’re trying to eat 5000-8000 calories a day, fat is really important. It’s really hard to do that many calories without eating a good percentage of fat, which for me is anywhere from 20-25 percent. Which a lot of people would say is on the high end, but again, it’s really hard to get that kind of calorie intake without doing a percentage of fat like that, which is still healthy.
Matt: Yeah, I’ve heard of a lot of people going to a higher-fat diet, just because fat isn’t really demonized the way that it used to be and now a lot of people are recognizing the benefits of it, so you see people eating 20-25 percent of their diet as fat.
Scott: Definitely. That’s where the endurance comes through, because a lot of people say, “Well, how can you gain endurance with fat?” And the real reason is that the body is able to recover and perform better probably because people are getting a higher-quality caloric intake, and thus fat intake, when they do that, improving endurance and recovery from the inflammatory position, it’s key.
Matt: Okay. So let’s say someone is currently a runner, maybe a marathoner or ultrarunner, and they do recognize some of the benefits of a vegetarian diet or a vegan diet, but they’re just kind of not ready to really do it, or they’re scared to do it. I’ve just encountered a lot of people who are kind of intrigued, but they’re just not doing it for some reason.
Are there a few essential tips, like one or two or three things, where you can say, if you’re going to make the switch…and you kind of mentioned this before, with saying you don’t have to eat all these real strange foods, you can eat pretty normal foods. But is there anything else you think would really help someone who’s looking to make that change, and make it last?
Scott: Well I think the number one thing is making sure first-off, again, people have a lot of aspirations when they go plant-based that all the sudden they’re going to switch everything. I think Number One, transition slowly. Give yourself some time. Some people work well with going cold-turkey, changing things right around the next day. I think it’s always good to have a gradual transition; have a plan. PCRM does a great 21-Day Vegan Kickstart program and giving support along the way. It’s key to have that support network, and if you don’t have that, give yourself that allowance to transition slowly.
Number Two, the biggest mistake I think a lot of plant-based eaters make initially is that they eliminate versus integrate new foods into their diet. So they just kind of look at, “Okay, I can’t eat this, I can’t eat this, I can’t eat that,” and then they’re like, “Oh, what do I eat now?” And they end up undereating, which some people say that might be a good thing if one wants to lose weight, but it’s not the healthiest. And to do that type of approach is a big mistake. And a lot of especially active individuals, they’re probably not looking to lose a lot of weight, and it’s hard to perform workouts and stay healthy and perform everyday life tasks such as work and family stuff if you’re running low on calories constantly. So I definitely emphasize quantity of calories first, over quality, so make sure that you have foods that replace the foods that you used to eat.
And ideally, Number Three, you will boost your quality of foods that you’re eating. So if you have to eat some processed foods and products and foods that you’re used to eating, that’s totally fine, as far as transitioning. But ideally, you work on the quality of the ingredients and the foods that you’re incorporating into the diet.
Matt: Okay, great. So switching gears a little bit from diet more towards running, when you do something like the 24-hour race, or even a 50- or 100-miler, what’s going through your mind as far as focus? Like, the 24-hour race is around a track, right?
Scott: It was actually around a road loop through a park, but for all intents and purposes, it was less than a mile loop, so it very well felt like a 400-meter track at times.
Matt: Yeah, so how are you not going crazy during that? I mean, I think people have trouble not going crazy even in a 50- or 100-mile trail race, but when you’re going around one loop, what are you doing? Do you have some kind of mental tricks that you’re doing, or is it just zoning out or focusing on something in particular?
Scott: I use a number of different methods, I mean, it took me to another level as far as mental focus. And I’ve had to do this when I’ve, say, run the Spartathlon, which is 153 miles of pavement through Greece, or the Badwater Ultramarathon, with is 135 miles.
So for me, I did learn some of those tricks, and it’s like focusing on the task at hand was really key, and not thinking about, “Okay, I’m at mile 50; I have 100 miles to go.” If I were to think about that too much, it really messes with the mind; it can really be devastating. So for me, it was all about little goals.
And with the 24-hour race, I integrated music, I’d focus on my breath, I’d focus on technique, I’d focus on anything that could benefit me performance-wise, that kept me focused for a while, and kept my mind off of (a) the monotony of that type of event; and then (b) the discomfort, because that’s an issue I deal with whether I’m running in the mountains or running around a loop course such at that. It’s all about not necessarily playing tricks on the mind, but filtering out the noise.
But again, thoughts enter my head like, “Okay, I’ve got 12 more hours to go, I’ve got eight more hours to go.” I mean those things do happen, but not dwelling on them. And it’s a meditative type of…I mean running for a 24-hour period around a loop is much like any intense meditation practice; it truly is in itself a way to kind of learn the mind control and overcoming that. And that’s the beauty of something like this, because it focuses so heavily on that, you don’t have a lot of distractions, except for the usual ones.
Matt: Yeah, that’s really interesting. It’s just an entirely different test from running a 50 or 100, or even longer, but then you’re in varying scenery. It seems like so much more of a mental test just to not go crazy during that loop.
Scott: Definitely. And that’s probably why it took me towards the latter part of my career here to venture off into that realm. But it was definitely fascinating and definitely one of the hardest mental challenges I’ve ever come upon.
Matt: And I read that you wore the Brooks Green Silence when you set that record; is that true?
Scott: That is true. A lot of people asked, “Did you switch out shoes?” I wore the same pair for the whole, entire time.
Matt: Oh, really?
Scott: You know, 165.7 miles, and it felt great, and just had the right mix of cushioning and so forth. And when running a race like that you take so many steps and strides that every little weight counts, and to give my body that kind of feeling of, “Okay, I’ve got one of the lightest weight shoes that I’d feel comfortable wearing for this distance,” and gave it a shot.
Matt: Yeah, that’s what I noticed about it, was that it was extremely lightweight for the fact that it still had a kind of cushioned sole on it, compared to the Vibram FiveFingers or something like that.
Matt: And there are obviously all the environmental aspects of it. I wrote a post about that people were really interested. Was that part of it for you?
Scott: Oh, definitely, it’s been one of my favorite shoes from that standpoint as well. I mean, anytime a shoe company like Brooks… they’ve been focusing on sustainability. That was unheard of 10 years ago or 15 years ago in the footwear industry. So it is important to me, and I’ve been really focused on supporting that and encouraging Brooks to do more and more.
We’re definitely trying to do more with the design of the Cascadia as well, you know, keeping as many pieces of that shoe and the components involved in that shoe as sustainable as possible. And again, it’s not 100 percent there, but we’re making steps each reiteration and each model into making it more sustainable. Again, like the Green Silence, the heel counter is made of recycled CD’s, and again, a lot of these things would just be dumped into landfills. And shoes, unfortunately, are a very high-landfill volume type product, very throwaway in some ways. But if we can make it last better and to hold up with using recycled components, we’re definitely making strides in the right direction. We’ve got a ways to go, but we’ll keep working on it.
Matt: And do you wear that kind of minimalist-style shoe a lot, for even like a trail race, or do you ever run in Vibram FiveFingers for races? Or is that something you just work into your training every once in a while? Or do you even wear FiveFingers?
Scott: I think barefoot running and training is a great adjunct and for some people, it’s the best thing that’s happened to their running, and I say great. Or if it inspires people to get back into running because now they pay more attention to their technique, I mean there’s a lot of benefits and I do incorporate some barefoot running into my training.
But as far as everyday or the use of running in that extreme minimalism shoes, like the Vibram Fivefingers or using my bare feet, I’m not going to be able to perform as well because I’m not getting enough protection. There’s a fine line between getting enough protection…I definitely use a lighter-weight shoes when I’m out on the trails and roads, and I’ve experimented with a number of things and prototypes with Brooks, but the key is having some form of cushioning and protecting the foot.
I went down to the Copper Canyon with, of course, the Tarahumara, and the whole Born to Run book speaks of this—the Tarahumaran use tire tread. And that’s, in some cases, up to a half-inch thick or three-eights of an inch thick. I mean it’s thick rubber; it’s tire tread.
Matt: So they’re not really running barefoot.
Scott: No, they’re not. And you can’t run fast on technical terrain—and again, for some people, running fast isn’t their main objective. Their goal is to get the finish line, and I think everybody wants to get to the finish line. But if you do want to have a mix of feeling for the ground, integration and proprioception with technique, then going with a more minimal shoe would be great for that. And for some people, you know, running in barefeet and running in a minimal shoe is the best way for them to enjoy this sport, and I say go for it. Definitely.
Matt: Alright, so now that you’ve done the 24-hour record and set that American record, you mentioned that it was kind of something you did later in your career, because it required such mental focus. So what’s next for you? Are you satisfied with what you’ve accomplished in ultrarunning, or do you still have certain races in mind and certain things you’d like to achieve?
Scott: Yeah, I still have a few more projects. I’ve been at this now going on 17 years, and there’s always the question of like, “What more do I need to do?” You know, I broke the American record in the 24-hour, but there’s that world record kind of looming out there, and I’d like to see what I can do with that. And again, it’s one of the toughest experiences I’ve had in a race, and there’s something I want to improve upon; I feel like I can do better along those lines. So I’m going back to the World Championships this year for the 24-hour.
And also on the mountain-trail side of things, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, which I was training for specifically this year after the 24-hour, was cancelled 30 kilometers into the race. So unfortunately, I kind of got shut down and I haven’t had my best race there. I’m definitely going to go back there in August, so those are kind of like my two focus points for next season. And we’ll see, I usually fill in some 50K’s and 50-milers in between.
Matt: Right, ok. So for the world record, what do you need, like another 13 miles or something? Is it 178 that’s the world record?
Scott: Yeah, it’s right around…for most people, it’s 180 miles, which I’ve got some work to do on that. So we’ll see. The world record for the track—there’s different record for the road and track—the world record for the track is just over 300 kilometers, and that’s 188 miles. So there’s some distance to be covered, and I feel like I can definitely improve a lot my first.
Matt: And what specifically would you do to try to improve? I mean, just running a better race, or is it just really a conditioning thing?
Scott: I think, you know, the training. I trained hard for it; it was a very early-season race in May and last year I took my normal four to six weeks off, and it was probably a little late in the 2009 season to do that. I kind of tried to tack on a 24-race at the end of a very long season. So I’d been needing to take this break and I just didn’t have the buildup, so that’ll be different.
Plus I just recently moved to Boulder, Colorado and I’m training in the altitude now. And I’m switching some things up with training and still keeping with the strengthening and the well-rounded, balanced training that I like to incorporate. But I’m training with a bunch of young guys here and it’s just been fun to link up with other runners and get inspired by those along with the other folks and other athletes in this area of the country It’s good for me at this point in my career, definitely.
Matt: Yeah, it’s a big trail running place there, right?
Scott: It is. And the access to the trails, incorporating that with the road training for the 24-hour. I feel like I’d have a perfect mix.
Matt: And you mentioned strength; do you do strength-training exercises besides running?
Scott: Yeah, I actually get in the gym. I know runners are averse to picking up any weights or being in the gym, but I’m a firm advocate of blending in strength-training, whether it’s free weights or whatever resistance that one wants to use, bodyweight…I also do a core routine that incorporates core conditioning. And all of that, again, along with things like yoga, brings together a whole picture of training, not just putting in more miles. And obviously you have to run more if you want to take things up a notch, but I feel like at times, for some people they can’t run six days a week. So it’s important to incorporate some other cross-training or focus on strength or focus on another area of balanced fitness.
Matt: Alright, so the last thing: I think I read in Runner’s World that you are working on a book. Is that true; can you tell us about that if it is?
Scott: It is true. I’m finally, after years of people telling me that, you know, “When are you coming out with your own book?” or “Do you have a book?” It’s been on the back burner due to time constraints, but I finally decided to do that and it’ll be out by the end of 2011 or early 2012. And it’s gonna have a good mix of everything from, you know, obviously my career and what I’ve learned throughout my years of competing in ultramarathons, but along with that will be the training advice, and incorporating nutrition will be a big part of it.
And, without letting out too much, some interesting…there will even be a few recipes, because people know I love to cook and enjoy it. People have been wanting me to put out a cookbook, especially anybody that’s had my food—it’s a real passion of mine, and I’m definitely interested in preparing food. So it’s still morphing right now, and it’s going to take on probably a new shape over the next six months. But it will be out.
Matt: Oh neat. I was really excited to see that you were working on one, and I’m sure tons of other people are too, especially vegans and vegetarians. So I’m sure, you know, it’s not going to be a problem selling many copies of that!
Alright, so I guess that’s it. Thanks a lot for being here. Like I said before, you’re an incredible inspiration for vegetarians and vegans with everything you’re doing as an ultrarunner, just getting out there and proving you really can do amazing things with this kind of diet. So it’s been great to talk to you, and thanks a lot.
Scott: Well thank you for having me, and to all of your readers and followers, yeah, you don’t have to go full plant-based to feel the effects. I think for so many people, it’s…take it slowly and just try to keep running, if you can. If you’d have asked me 20 years ago if I’d be in the shoes I am not, I’d never have guessed it. So it’s just all about a life process.
Matt: Alright, well thanks a lot, Scott.
Scott: Thanks for having me.
Thanks again to Scott for taking the time to share all of this with us. Please let him know how much you appreciate what he does by leaving a comment here and by visiting his website, his Facebook page, or his Twitter page.