When Uncertainty Threatens to Ruin Your Race

Two nights ago, I got shot while I was running the Marine Corps Marathon.

There I was, running alongside my brother-in-law (who happens to be a former Marine), to try to help him break 3:30 for the first time.  Only I didn’t finish the race, because I got shot in the stomach.  And then he didn’t finish in 3:30, and it was all my fault.

As you’ve probably guessed, it was only a dream.  But pacing my brother-in-law to a 3:30 is exactly what I’ll be doing this Sunday.

When I mentioned my dream to my fellow Twitter nerds in the morning, someone linked me to an article about how they’re tightening up security at the MCM because of recent shootings.  Weird.

More interesting, though, was someone else’s response: “Jungian psychology says we’re everyone in our own dreams, so you’re afraid of sabotaging yourself?”


Could there be any truth to this?

My first thought was, “No way.”  I can run a 3:30 marathon.  Twenty-six-point-two miles has been around the halfway point of my last two races, not the finish.  And the last marathon that took me longer than 3:30 was back in 2007.  True, I haven’t done much speedwork since my 3:10 BQ race a year ago, but I’d be shocked if a year of running ultras made me a slower marathoner by more than twenty minutes.

But there’s something else here. This is the first race where if I screw up, it’ll affect someone besides just me.

With that, there’s been more anxiety.  To give myself confidence that I still have a 3:30 in me, I intended to take it easy for two weeks after my 50-miler with a few 8-mile runs, then do a fast 15 or so.

Only that fast 15 didn’t happen.  First my plan got messed up when someone asked me to fill in for them at the Baltimore Marathon relay, which would be only six miles, but fast enough to make my fast, long run the next day hard.  Then I got sick and didn’t run at all that weekend.

Okay, fine. Next weekend then.  A little close to the race, but it would work.  Except that on a quick four-mile run last week, something in my knee started grabbing.   The same feeling I had in the other knee two years ago that ended up being IT-band syndrome.

I haven’t run since then, because I’ve been scared.  My knee was sore for the next day or two.   I’ve figured that rest is better than testing it again.

So that’s where I am now, and it kinda sucks.

I bet you’ve been here before

I’m not unique in going into a race with some uncertainty—if you’ve trained for a marathon or two, you probably know the feeling.  As the training intensity increases and the mileage accumulates, there’s almost always some little injury worrying you before race day.

And it puts a damper on your excitement, sometimes by a lot: Everyone’s gearing up for a big race, with the tapering, the traveling, the expo, and the pre-race meal.  And yet there’s this thought in your mind that it’s all going to be for nothing because you might not finish.  And that you’ll be stuck with the t-shirt of a race you didn’t really run.

The worst part: It’s not because you haven’t trained well enough, but simply because you’re uncertain as to what kind of mood your ankle/knee/hip is going to be in when it matters.

Let me be clear: Marathon training doesn’t have to be that way.  I used to think it did, but I’ve learned in the past two years that it’s very possible to build a solid mileage base, maintain it, and run long distance races without those nagging and more-serious overuse injuries we’re all familiar with.

But in this case, I’m back in that uncertainty boat, even if this knee issue ends up being nothing at all.  Going into what should be an awesome, emotional day—how many people get to run the Marine Corps Marathon alongside a former Marine?—it’s hard to really relish the excitement because of the thought that I might not finish.

If my experience with little injuries like this has taught me anything, it’s that playing it super-safe and not running at all isn’t the answer.  Before I learned to train correctly and this happened more often, I was successful in managing the pain with adrenaline, walk breaks, and anti-inflammatories.  If I’d have chosen to skip those races instead, I’d have missed out on a lot of marathons that turned out perfectly fine.

On Sunday, walk breaks won’t be an option, unless they’re part of my brother-in-law’s plan.  Which leaves me with the adrenaline, anti-inflammatories as necessary, and a little faith.

Faith that everything will hold up for 26.2 miles. And faith that I won’t get shot.

Marine Corps Meetup

I’m planning on hanging out after the race for a while and hopefully meeting up with some of you who are running it.  Haven’t figured out exactly when and where yet, but I’ll update this post with that information for any who are interested.



A New Vegan Cookbook from an Ultra-Endurance Athlete

Scott Jurek.  Brendan Brazier.  Robert Cheeke.  These and a handful of other vegetarian and vegan athletes are the people we point to when someone challenges us on whether it’s possible to be a successful athlete without eating meat.

Rich at the 2009 Ultraman World Championships

To our stockpile of animal-friendly ammunition we have a new name to add: Rich Roll.

Maybe this ultra-endurance athlete (more on what that means in a minute) isn’t new to you, but I discovered Rich’s story only recently, in my search for an overlap between veganism and the Paleo diet.  And what a story it is.  Rich was a competitive swimmer at Stanford, but he gave it all up in 1989, subsequently battling a drug and alcohol addition and becoming 50 pounds overweight.

Fast forward to 2006, when at age 40, Rich went vegan.  Two years later, he became the first vegan to complete an Ultraman.  That’s a three-day race consisting of a 6.2-mile swim and a 90-mile cross-country bike ride, a 174.1-mile road bike ride, and a 52.4-mile double marathon!  And a year after that, Rich finished 6th overall at the Ultraman World Championships.

How cool is that?  Even with all that my own experience of going vegetarian has shown me, with the Boston-qualifying and running four ultras this year after never having run more than a single marathon in any given year before I changed my diet, it’s still really comforting to hear that there are people at the very top of the endurance sports universe who are doing it with a plant-based diet.  And not just vegetarian—most of these athletes are vegan.

Makes you want to go out there and do something special, doesn’t it?  Check out Rich’s blog and be inspired.

Rich’s New Jai Seed Cookbook

Rich has a brand new e-cookbook called Jai Seed, which he co-authored with his wife, Julie Piatt. Rich was generous enough to send me a copy to review, and I was surprised when he described it to me as a “coffee table type” cookbook.  You know, big, colorful photographs with a very artistic feel—not standard e-book fare by any means.

But you know what?  It really works well.  The book is beautiful; you can see this in the video preview Rich made for the book.

Now, art is great and all.  But for me, what really matters in a cookbook is the recipes.  So what are they like?

How Jai Seed is Like (and Unlike) Thrive

The best way I can describe Jai Seed is in comparison to Brendan Brazier’s Thrive.  You probably know that I’m a huge fan (like, stalker-level) of Thrive for the wealth of information it contains and the smoothies and running fuel recipes.  Thrive introduced me to so many new ingredients and dietary principles for maximizing energy, like taking it easy on the gluten, incorporating raw foods, and sprouting beans and seeds.  And that’s why I always recommend it when people ask me for a good vegan nutrition resource.

But what I don’t love about Thrive is the actual lunch and dinner food in the recipes section.  I can appreciate the meal plan as a benchmark of health to which to compare my diet, but the fact is that I just love cooking too much to enjoy the Thrive food day-in and day-out.

Jai Seed is like Thrive in that it incorporates powerhouse ingredients like kale, chia, beets, pumpkin seeds, maca, coconut oil, and little (if any) wheat.  And it’s clear that Rich values cooking foods in a way that retains their nutrients, just like Brendan Brazier does.

The difference is that in the spectrum which has health at one extreme and taste at the other, Jai Seed sits slightly closer to the “taste” side than Thrive does.  The use of some higher-temperature cooking, even grilling, and more common ingredients makes for food that’s approachable to new vegetarians and vegans, and very family-friendly.

An obvious example that jumped out at me immediately: In Jai Seed, the salad dressings are based on organic olive oil, rather than on a healthier-but-definitely-less-tastebud-pleasing EFA oil blend or hempseed oil.  I realize the shift is slight and that one could easily make substitutions, but I think this little distinction really captures the difference in feel between the recipes in the two books.

At 10 bucks, Jai Seed is an absolute steal.  If I had bought this book for 20 or 30 dollars, I’d probably be a little disappointed to find that many of the smoothie recipes rely on a Vitamix, the 450-dollar blender that’s on my wish list but which I haven’t been able to justify the purchase of just yet.  But if you’re willing to use a juicer in conjunction with a normal blender, you can probably approximate most of Jai Seed‘s smoothies that way.

Holiday Mixed Grain Pilaf with Red Chard

Yesterday I made Holiday Mixed Grain Pilaf with Red Chard.  Hearty and healthy, and easy to make.  Today it’s Veggie Burgers, with Veggie Nachos and Lasange also on my to-make-soon list.  Jai Seed has me more excited about cooking than I’ve been in a long time since I went vegetarian, and that fact that it’s vegan is icing on the cake.

Jai Seed is available for instant download at Rich’s website, Jai Lifestyle.  No affiliate relationship here, just a cool cookbook from a vegan Ultraman that I figured you’d want to know about.

For more, visit:







New Vegetarian Running E-Course (And It’s Free!)

Two posts in one today!  In a minute, I’ve got a great new Indian curry recipe to share with you.  It’s made with black-eyed peas instead of the more-standard lentils or chickpeas, so it’s kind of fun.  But first…

A New Course for Runners Interested in Going Vegetarian

Allow me to gloat, for just a second.  🙂

No Meat Athlete has grown up quite a bit recently in terms of traffic.  We’re at almost 3,000 subscribers, but the bigger deal is that over 60,000 unique readers visit the site every month!

Perez Hilton I’m not.  (Although if that’s what you want, I suppose I could try.)  But for this stupid little site I run out of my mom’s basement (not really), it’s pretty cool to know that I’m reaching that many people with the message that “vegetarian” doesn’t mean “weakling.”

But here’s the thing: Of those 60,000 people every month, a lot of them are visitors from Google.  They hang out for a little while, view 2.09 pages each, and if nothing hooks them, they leave.  That’s a lot of potential runners-on-plants who are slipping through the cracks.

I don’t really care about losing the ones who end up here accidentally in their searches for meat porn or “no meat at lent” (yes, No Meat Athlete now slightly outranks Jesus).  But for runners with even the slightest interest in seeing what going vegetarian could do for their energy levels, endurance, and durability, I wanted to have something to help nourish that idea and keep them coming back.

Introducing ‘The Vegetarian Endurance Advantage’

So that’s why I created a new free email course on the essentials of vegetarian training, called The Vegetarian Endurance Advantage.  You know, the potential benefits, a shopping list and diet plan for vegetarian endurance athletes, pre- and post-workout foods, protein and other nutrition concerns, and some stuff that’s a little more fun.  Totally non-preachy, and all based on improving performance.

So why might you, someone who has been reading for a while, be interested?  Well, two reasons:

  1. It’s designed to be a standalone resource, rather than making people click all around the site.  So while the content is stuff I write about on the site, its more organized and targeted, and probably more useful.
  2. I’ll keep adding to the course for a long time, so the material will become more in-depth as time goes on.  I’ll also send regular email updates with additional content to anyone who is signed up; it’ll be the start of an email newsletter.

So that’s it.  If you’d like to get the course in your inbox, enter your email address in the form in the RIGHT sidebar (the one on the left is for subscribing to posts).  After you confirm your subscription, you’ll get the first email right away.

And of course, I’d really appreciate it if you share this with anyone who might be interested in going vegetarian to improve their running.  As always, THANK YOU!

On to the Curry…

Remember how during the infamous 7 Things that Suck About Being Vegetarian post, I wrote that I didn’t enjoy cooking quite as much as I used to?  That was probably the most-disagreed-with point of the entire post, but several people were nice enough to offer suggestions.

More than one person suggested getting into Indian cooking, and that really sounded like something I could do.  On the recommendation of about 12 people on Twitter, I got Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian (my Amazon affiliate link) from the library.  And—BAM!—I was back, baby.

So I was really excited when my friends at Wiley sent me a copy of their new cookbook, Anjum’s New Indian, by Anjum Anand.  It’s not a vegetarian cookbook, but I’d estimate that about half the pages in the book are dedicated to meatless recipes.  It’s real, authentic Indian cooking, something I’ve never done at home and always figured was strictly the domain of restaurants.

But this black-eyed pea curry, the first recipe I tried, was fantastic.  It reminded me of the chickpea dish I always order, chana masala, with the obvious and welcome difference of black-eyed peas instead of chickpeas (much as I love them, I eat them all the damn time).

So it was great.  I reduced the chile powder amount by little bit and served this one along with some whole-wheat naan (roti) that I bought, and it was perfect.  Just enough heat and great flavor.  Anjum says it works just as well with rice too, if that’s your thing.

I hope you give this one a try to shake up your routine a little bit.  I’ll post a few more recipes from this book as I make them, so look for those soon.  Enjoy!

Black-eyed Pea Curry Recipe

(From Anjum’s New Indian, Anjum Anand, John Wiley and Sons, 2008.)  Serves 4-6.

  • 4 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2 green chiles, left whole or slit
  • 1 small-medium onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1-and-1/2 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled
  • 5 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1/4-1/2 tsp pure red chile powder
  • 1 tbsp ground corander
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • salt, to taste
  • 3 large tomatoes, peeled
  • 2 cups of black eyes peas, drained and rinsed
  • handful of fresh cilantro leaves and stalks, chopped

Heat the oil in a medium-sized nonstick saucepan.  Add the bay leaves and fry for 20 seconds, then add the cumin seeds and fry until they sizzle.  Add the green chilies and onion and cook until well browned.

Meanwhile, using a blender, make a paste of the ginger and garlic with a splash of water.  Stir into the pan and cook for about 1-2 minutes or until you can smell the cooked garlic.  Add the powdered spices and salt and stir for another 30 seconds or so before pouring in the tomatoes.  Cook over medium heat until the oil leaves the masala, around 12-15 minutes.

Add the drained beans and mix well in the masala.  Cook for a couple of minutes before pouring in 1 cup water.  Bring to the boil and simmer for 8-10 minutes.  Take 2 tablespoons of the beans out of the gravy, mash well and stir back in.  Stir in the fresh cilantro and serve.



The Great ‘Moderation’ Hoax

A few weeks ago, I went to a vegetarian potluck dinner.  I was hoping to meet some fellow vegetarians and vegans in my suburbia of a hometown, and to eat some good vegan food.

That much was a success, but it’s not why I’m telling this story.

What made the night memorable (and pretty entertaining) was the presence of a older woman that came to it.  She was there for one purpose: to argue with everyone, trying to convince us that this vegetarian stuff was all “bullshit,” and that eating meat is healthy and there’s nothing at all wrong with it.

Though I completely disagreed with what she was saying, I actually found some bit of respect for this woman for having the balls to do something like this.  She knew she’d be alone in her views and the antagonist at the dinner, yet she felt strongly enough about her views to do it anyway.  Sort of badass, really.

But then she said something that made me think.  Backpedaling a little bit in an argument with someone, she said the words, “Meat is just fine, in moderation.”

“In moderation”

I know that this woman doesn’t eat meat in moderation.  She wouldn’t have been so anti-vegetarian if she did.  But she probably tells herself that it’s moderation.

And that’s why I hate moderation as a diet strategy: “Moderation” can be any amount that’s convenient, and it’s a slippery slope from healthy moderation to excess.

For me, moderation only works with things I don’t like all that much anyway.  I can drink a soda once every two months, really enjoy it, and not want it again for another two months.  But that’s because I just don’t like soda that much.

For things I really like, such as a cup of coffee or a good craft beer, that doesn’t work.  I’m either on a kick where I’m trying to avoid it, or on a kick where I’m having one every day.  (The beer waits until evening, I swear.)

I can understand that moderation in diet does work for some people, even if not for me.  But when the “moderation” argument goes beyond diet, I have no patience for it.

Moderation is a recipe for mediocrity

You’ve heard it a million times, applied to diet, exercise, and pretty much anything else:

Everything in moderation.

I think that’s the worst advice ever.  If we listened to that, we’d all be the same boring person.

Most of you don’t eat meat in moderation.  Instead, you don’t eat it at all.  Why?  Because you’re passionate about it.  You believe that it’s either terribly unhealthy or very wrong.  Because you care about one of these things, you don’t eat meat, ever.

If you’re not vegetarian, it’s something else.  Maybe it’s running.  I know that if I had run in moderation, I sure as hell would have never qualified for Boston.  Running is not something that came naturally to me, at all.  But when I signed up this morning to run Boston next year, it sure felt good to know that all those hours on the track and the refusal to miss a workout were worth it.  (If you’re planning to run Boston in 2011, by the way, you had better get over there and sign up.)

Michael Phelps didn’t win eight gold medals in one Olympics by practicing swimming in moderation.  He does multiple workouts every day, at the expense, I’m sure, of other interests and even relationships.  But swimming is more important than these other things to him, and that’s why he’s the best at it.

My friend Robert Cheeke doesn’t practice moderation when he tours the country to reach as many people as he can as an advocate for veganism and health.  Karol Gajda wouldn’t be Ridiculously Extraordinary if he traveled in moderation or practiced minimalism in moderation.  “Own 500 things” just doesn’t have the same power to inspire that 100 or 50 or fewer does.

When people tell you to practice moderation, it’s because they like the status quo

I learned this from Tony Robbins, and I didn’t believe it at first.  But looking back, I realize that anytime someone told me to take it easy with a certain interest that I was spending all my time on, whether it was playing drums in high school, gambling and lifting weights in college, and more recently, running like a madman or experimenting with diets that seem excessive, it was because they didn’t want me to change.

They liked me the way I was, and change was threatening to them in some way.  It wasn’t for my own good they did it, but for theirs.

I’m not saying people are wrong for this.  I probably do it to my friends too.  But it’s what happens, and I’m glad that I’m aware of it now.

If you’ve practiced moderation all your life, starting practicing moderation in moderation.  For a while, go batshit crazy with whatever you’re passionate about at the moment.  Ignore anyone who tells you to chill out.  See how that treats you.  I can’t imagine being happy any other way.

(There is, of course, one good kind of moderation…the kind I do in the NMA forums!  Get in there and join the conversation if you haven’t yet.)

Congrats to Baltimore Running Festival finishers!

Just a quick shout out to a few friends who I got to see at the Baltimore Running Festival this weekend.  Congratulations to Pete, who ran his first half, his brother Matt, Joe, and other NMA readers who said they’d be there but that I didn’t get a chance to see.

I was planning to run part of the relay in place of my cousin, who got injured, but I woke up puking on Thursday and didn’t eat for two days, so I figured running would be a be a bad idea.  Fortunately, my wife, Erin, filled in for me and did a great job on such short notice.  Thanks, E! 🙂



ChiRunning: Ultimate Running Enlightenment or Expensive Stupid Crap?

This is a guest post from Susan Lacke.

Running is hard. It’s supposed to be, isn’t it?

That’s the very reason why some of you run: to push the limits of the human body and remind yourself that you’re alive. There’s a little bit of sadistic pride that comes with having sore muscles after a brutal hill workout.

Even though it’s hard, running is something that comes naturally to us. We’re hardwired to do it; No one should have to teach us. As children, it’s a natural part of development: First we scoot, then we crawl, then we walk, then we run.

For that very reason, I’ve always had a great disdain for products or services which promise to make people better runners. Such items, in my mind, fall into one of two categories: Stupid Crap or Expensive Stupid Crap. So when some readers suggested I do a review of a ChiRunning workshop for the site, I began plotting an endless barrage of jokes outing ChiRunning as Expensive Stupid Crap. Most of them centered around a Himalayan Zen Master in a mountain cave, smoking some serious grass and encouraging compression-short-clad runners to “Wax on, Wax off.”

“Effortless, Injury-Free Running”

The folks from ChiRunning sent me a copy of the book and DVD to review before the workshop. Within both, I was able to learn more about what ChiRunning actually is (and no, the words “Wax on, Wax off” do not appear anywhere). The concepts of ChiRunning seemed pretty legit, with a focus on biomechanics and form to make running feel easier and reduce the risk of injury.

For example, ChiRunning encourages the use of a mid-foot strike when a runner’s foot lands, as opposed to landing on the heel or the ball of the foot. When you land on the heel, you’re essentially “putting on the brakes” with each step. When you utilize the mid-foot strike, your making it easier on yourself to keep the continuous motion of your legs going seamlessly.

Here’s a video of ChiRunning’s Danny Dreyer talking about how to avoid heel striking, to give you an idea of what ChiRunning is about:

Makes sense, right? Pretty much everything described in the book makes logical sense, and actually parallels what a lot of “experts” say, such as the need to engage the core muscles while running.

To be honest, the book is a pretty dry read. Granted, running form is not exactly juicy stuff, but still, a little bit of entertainment (might I suggest a stoned Zen Master character?) would have helped. Plus, still pictures and written descriptions can only do so much – I needed to see what I was supposed to be doing to employ the concepts of ChiRunning.

Enter the DVD. It was good to see the concepts in action, and having talking heads was slightly more entertaining than the book. As I practiced the form adjustments demonstrated in the DVD, I found myself getting frustrated: Was I doing it right? Was I making mistakes? What the hell am I doing? My poor dogs must have thought I’d finally gone batshit crazy, watching a DVD, pausing it, and running laps around the apartment cursing.

The ChiRunning Workshop

Remember Carnivore from the great NMA Chamois Cream Experiment? I asked him to come with me to the 4-hour ChiRunning workshop that Saturday morning. At first, he rolled his eyes and made jokes  (“You want me to teach you how to run right, Susan? Put one foot in front of the other. Repeat. Quickly!”). Then I think secretly he was just glad I didn’t ask him to subject his frank and beans to NMA scientific inquiry again. At any rate, he agreed to come along, though both of us were already convinced the workshop would be a waste of a perfectly good Saturday morning.

We were greeted at the workshop by Mark Wallis, an extremely approachable instructor. Mark began teaching ChiRunning after discovering the skills involved with the approach eliminated injury for him during his own running. His basic philosophy: Running should be fun, comfortable, and injury-free. Running should make you happy. When you’re learning from him, you can’t help but agree.

We began the day with Mark videotaping each participant running. We then watched each person’s video and Mark helped identify each person’s cadence, or number of footfalls each minute. In ChiRunning, the ideal cadence is 174-180 footfalls per minute – most of us run with far less. The initial video also helped identify basic form errors each participant had and how they could lead to injury down the line.  From there, Mark guided us through a series of drills to help us understand concepts such as keeping a straight posture; leaning forward from the ankles (as opposed to leaning backwards or from the hip); and lifting your heels to avoid the slow “marathon shuffle” so many runners settle into.

To help us see our accurate use of the mid-foot strike, Mark had us run through sand and analyze our footprints. In order to feel the correct amount of lean, we tilted our bodies so our foreheads were touching the wall. To get us to pick up our feet, we did kicking drills, Riverdance-style (the homeless people watching us in the park were thoroughly amused, I’m sure). We ran up hills and down hills, and through it all were given solid constructive criticism.

The moment of truth came when we were videotaped, once again, at the end of the workshop. It was somewhat surprising to see how quickly everyone’s form changed in such a short period of time.

The Verdict

Going in, C and I both thought the whole thing was going to be a load of B.S. We were so looking forward to outing ChiRunning workshops as Expensive Stupid Crap.

And we can’t. We just can’t.

Mark, our instructor, gave us some new weapons in our arsenal to make us stronger runners. We were given great feedback in the classroom, and the drills made the application to running form easy. All videos from the class were emailed to us after the workshop, along with links to multiple resources that would help us continue to monitor our progress.

Though C and I both attended the workshop as guests of ChiRunning, we agree we’d have paid for this: the video analysis alone is worth the cost of the workshop (usually $125). Having Mark there to provide us with immediate feedback during the drills is so much better than trying to figure it out yourself while reading the book or watching the DVD.

The stamp of approval: If you can afford the workshop, do it. s not a waste of a Saturday morning, and it is not, in fact, Expensive Stupid Crap.

So now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find someplace else to use all those stoned Himalayan monk jokes.



How to Follow the Paleo Diet Without Eating a Single Piece of Meat

“The Paleo diet for vegetarians.”  At first glance, it seems like a contradiction in terms.

The Paleo diet is everywhere these days. Four Hour Workweek author Tim Ferriss does it. Former pro Ironman triathlete Mark Sisson promotes a variant of it in his book, The Primal Blueprint, and on his blog.

But the Paleo diet is by no means veggie-friendly.  It’s heavy on the protein and fat, and as we’ll see, most of the common vegetarian sources of protein are off limits.

Does that mean you can’t be a Paleo-vegetarian?  I don’t think so.  Welcome to my next diet experiment.

Why Paleo?

The rationale for the Paleo diet is the same rationale I like to apply to almost anything related to diet and fitness: Do what we’re built to do.

Our bodies have adapted over the course of millions of years to a form that is highly suited for survival in its environment.  Therefore, by looking at how humans ate and lived for most of our evolution, we can determine what the type of diet we’re “meant” to eat.

Unfortunately for vegetarians, a lot of what we are “meant” to eat, in the evolutionary sense, is probably meat:  Relatively speaking, agriculture is a recent development.  For a much longer period than we’ve been growing our own food, we hunted it and we gathered it.  That basic principle is what the Paleo diet is based on.

Paleo diet basics

My intention with this post is not to give an in-depth description of the Paleo diet.  If you find yourself intrigued, you should absolutely do your own research or talk to a doctor to make sure it’s right for you.  For a more in-depth introduction to the Paleo diet, I’ll refer you to my friend Steve Kamb’s Beginner’s Guide to the Paleo Diet.

If you want to go deeper still, I recommend The Paleo Diet for Athletes, which adapts the Paleo diet so as to make it jive with a higher-carbohydrate, endurance-sports diet.  It’s worth it for the detailed section on pre-, during-, and post-workout nutrition, even if the closest you ever get to Paleo is s’mores and not-dogs around the campfire.

Briefly, here the basic tenets of a standard Paleo diet for endurance athletes (as outlined in The Paleo Diet for Athletes):

  • The breakdown: Roughly, 35% fat, 40% carbohydrate, 25% protein.
  • Staple foods: Wild and free-range meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, nut-like seeds, some tubers, such as sweet potatoes
  • Not allowed (here’s the tricky part): All grains, including wheat, rice, barley, oats, rye, and corn; grain-like seeds, including quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat; all legumes, including beans, chickpeas, lentils, peas, and soy; starchy tubers such as potatoes; dairy, alcohol, most sugars except in fruit

(See a complete list of Paleo foods here.)

I’m not going to go into the detailed reasons for what’s allowed and what isn’t.  The basic explanation: Pre-agricultural man (and woman) ate a lot of the staple foods, and had very limited or no access to the disallowed foods.

So, simply ignoring the meat issue for now, we see that if you were to follow the Paleo diet as a vegetarian or vegan, you’d be eating a lot of lots of fruits and vegetables, sweet potatoes, oils like olive, coconut, and canola, nuts, and nut-like seeds.  And pretty much any sugar you’d eat would come from fruits.

A bit bland, perhaps, but doable.

Hopefully, you’re already eating a lot of these foods.  And—bonus!—most Paleo diets allow you to eat as much as you feel like eating.  If cavemen had appointed kings, that’s what you’d be eating like.

But…do you see the problem?

If you don’t see why the Paleo diet is tough for vegetarians, either (a) you’re skimming this post while you eat a quinoa salad with tofu and black beans, or (b) your version of a vegetarian/vegan diet is severely lacking in protein.

First, note that grains are out.  Tough, since they’re a big part of most vegetarians’ diets, especially runners’.  But that’s not the worst part.

The hardest thing about this is that every major vegan protein source is off limits in a strict Paleo diet.  Anything soy, every kind of bean except string beans, and quinoa are all Paleo no-no’s.

Your Paleo options as a vegetarian

It appears impossible to strictly follow the Paleo diet as a vegetarian.  And to be honest, it probably is.  Since we don’t eat meat, and the diet is based on eating meat—it should account for up to 55% of one’s calories, according to The Paleo Diet for Athletes—anything we do as vegetarians is going to be a bastardization.

But then again, aren’t all modern Paleo diets pretty poor substitutes for the real thing?  The fruits, vegetables, and tubers we find in modern grocery stores, even farmers markets, probably do not resemble the fibrous ones Paleolithic humans were eating.  And while a dedicated Paleo-dieter might be able to eat truly wild meats a high percentage of the time, it’s likely that the vast majority of modern Paleos either can’t access or can’t afford such authenticity, and must resort to the factory-farmed meat they find at the grocery store.

My point:  Any modern Paleo diet is merely an approximation to the real thing.  So as vegetarians, we can (and must) approximate too.  Here’s how I suggest going about it.

Vegetarian Paleo Diet Option #1: Eat lots of eggs

Obviously, this option is not for vegans.  And it’s not exactly Paleo, since the versions I’ve seen usually recommend eggs in moderation, say, up to six per week.  But theoretically, one could eat lots of eggs and meet the protein requirements of the Paleo diet without eating any unauthorized foods.

One egg has about six grams of protein, so if they’re going to be your primary source (lets say they’ll provide 50% of your protein), you could be eating a dozen eggs a day.  Possible, but you’d better like eggs.

Vegetarian Paleo Diet Option #2: Allow hemp seed and grain-like seeds

The argument against grain-like seeds like quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat is that they behave more like grains than like nuts.  While seeds like sunflower seeds contain mostly fat and protein with just a small amount of carbohydrates, these grain-like seeds contain mostly carbohydrate.

But carbohydrate isn’t the only problem.  Grain-like seeds have other negative properties of grains: Quinoa, for example, “includes chemical defense systems that irritate the gut,” according to an excerpt from Robb Wolf’s The Paleo Solution.

Option #2 is to allow these grain-like seeds in your diet to help you meet the Paleo diets protein requirements.  The bonus prize behind Door #2 is that quinoa can be used in cooking like rice, or even made into “pasta,” so you’ll gain some variety in your meals over those based on strict Paleo fare.

But let’s not forget about our old friend hemp.  I’ve been unable to get a definitive answer to whether or not hempseed is considered “grain-like.”  In terms of macronutrient content, it’s more like a nut: high in protein and good fats, very low in carbohydrates.  If it’s allowed, the inclusion of whole hempseeds and minimally processed hemp protein powder could provide enough protein to make the other deviations from the strict Paleo diet unnecessary.

Vegetarian Paleo Diet Option #3: Allow soaked or sprouted beans and legumes

To me, this seems like the easiest option, and perhaps the best.  “Easiest” in that it wouldn’t represent a major change from the way many of us already eat, minus the grains.  “Best” in that allowing beans and legumes would provide us with about a dozen obvious sources of protein.

Though pre-agricultural man didn’t eat beans (at all?), that’s not the major issue most Paleos have with them.  Instead, it’s the “antinutrients” in beans and other legumes, the enzyme inhibitors which make them inedible in their raw state and which may interfere with digestion even after cooking.

We can reduce the amounts of these antinutrients by soaking and sprouting legumes.  According to Tim Ferriss, who claims to eat a lot of lentils on his version of a Paleo diet, “Soaking for 24 hours at room temperature has been shown to remove 66% of the trypsin (protease) inhibitor activity in mung bean, 93% in lentil, 59% in chickpea, and 100% in broad bean.”  Soaked beans should of course be well-cooked in order to make them non-toxic.

Sprouting goes a step farther in reducing the amounts of enzyme inhibitors, in addition to converting some of the starches into sugars, and proteins into amino acids.  Though some sprouts can be eaten raw, cooking them will eliminate more of the antinutrients.  For more on sprouting and related health issues (such as not eating toxic soybean and kidney bean sprouts), see a post from GrowYouthful.com.

All of this assumes, of course, that you’re starting with dried beans.  The pre-cooked, canned versions won’t do here.

‘This sounds reasonable, even if extremely dull.  But if we’re meant to eat meat, why be vegetarian at all?’

To me, the evidence that we are built to hunt and eat meat is pretty convincing.

Does that mean we should eat meat at every meal?  No.  But does it mean we should eat meat sometimes?

If your only goal is health, I’d say you’d do well to eat an occasional piece of fish, or even wild land animals.  It would certainly make getting an optimal Paleo balance of nutrients easier.

But let’s not forget that by the same argument, males are “built” to impregnate as many women as possible.  That’s what would maximize the chances of having ones genes propagate, and probably still would today.

But most of us don’t do that anymore, because as a species we’re beyond that.  And that’s how I feel about eating animals.  Even if it’s what we’re built to do because eating them helped us survive and thrive in the past, it’s something most of us are now capable of making a choice not to do, thanks to our advancement as a civilization.




My Vegan Month, and Why (for Now) I’m Happy Just Being a Vegetarian

First, to clear up any confusion for new readers: I’m vegetarian, not vegan. This post is about my one-month experiment with a vegan diet.

Second, I have tremendous respect for vegans.  In my experience, they’re more passionate and vocal, as a group, than vegetarians are, and the result is that vegans are a huge force in changing the world’s eating habits.  So if you’re a vegan, thank you.  I admire what you do and I’m grateful that there are people like you in the world.

All of that said, here’s how my month went. And why, for now, I’m happy staying vegetarian.

Why didn’t you write about it more?

A lot of people have asked where all the posts about my vegan month were.  The reason I didn’t write more about it: There wasn’t much to write!

Eating at home was nearly identical to the way we usually eat at home.  In fact, eating vegan for 30 days made me realize just how close to vegan my diet already is: Until now, it had never occurred to me that almost every vegetarian cookbook I have is a vegan cookbook.

The only major changes I had to make were to stop eating foods that contain honey, and to be careful not to buy the loaves of bread from my grocery store’s bakery that are made with egg whites.  (I actually don’t like eggs, but sometimes eat things made with them.)  Oh yeah, and I switched out the Barilla Plus pasta that I usually buy for standard whole-grain pasta.  While most dried pasta isn’t made with eggs, Barilla Plus is.  Which is a damn shame, because its protein numbers are fantastic.

To be fair, if it were a normal month, I probably would have found occasion to use butter in a dish, or to make a homemade pizza with cheese.  But substituting olive oil for butter, and buying Amy’s cheeseless Roasted Vegetable Pizza when the craving struck, made any slight changes in my diet at home barely perceptible.

Eating out was the real challenge

If I was in denial of the fact that I live in suburbia, I’m now over that denial.  For the most part, I found nothing good to eat at restaurants.  In the land of Applebee’s (and its Italian equivalents, Olive Garden and Bertucci’s), it’s pretty much salad and plain pasta for vegans.  And even with those, you’d better double-check.

I did find some choices at the only Indian place in my town, but even then I wasn’t sure that I was eating vegan.  I instituted a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy regarding whether they used ghee (clarified butter) and ate chana masala and baigan bharta.  I should have been a more diligent vegan here, but I didn’t want to lose the only place I could find good food outside my house.

Twice, I knowingly ate dairy.  Both times were at weddings, when a dish had been specially prepared for me as a vegetarian.  I’m simply not going to be the guy who refuses something like that, when someone has been nice enough to make something special for me (see my favorite Karol Gajda post again regarding this point).  I didn’t feel badly about this, and if I were to decide to eat vegan for good, I’d still make these exceptions.

In short, eating out in my town sucked even more than it usually does.  I try not to blame external circumstances much, but vegan sure would be easier if I lived in a more progressive place.  (By the way, if you live somewhere that’s great for vegetarians and vegans, can you let me know about it?)

How I felt on the vegan diet

In a word, great.  I ran a 50-mile race towards the end of the month, in addition to a 30-miler in training two weeks before that, and a 20-miler in the week before that.  So I have no doubts that a vegan diet can support serious endurance training and even ultrarunning.  (As if I had any to begin with.  See Scott Jurek.)

I also found the energy to start waking up at 4:30 in the morning.  Not every morning, but most of them.  This was probably more due to a post I read on Zen Habits about waking up early than about having extra energy from eliminating the small amount of dairy that I normally eat, but who can say for sure?  Either way, I’ve found that I absolutely love having that time to myself in the morning before everyone else is awake.  This isn’t to say that I don’t love spending time with my wife and son, but I’ve been feeling really pinched for time recently, so it’s nice to have an extra two hours to get stuff done.

Why I’m not going to stay vegan

Don’t get me wrong.  It wasn’t like I was counting down the days until the month ended, and I didn’t celebrate with a pizza and a trip to Rita’s, the two things I thought I’d miss most.  Even with the eating out issues, this wasn’t bad at all.  If you’re in the situation I was, thinking about veganism but not sure if it’s for you, then I’d absolutely recommend you give it a try.  You can always go back after 30 days, right?

What I learned during the month, though, was that vegan isn’t for me, right now.  And I know why: I don’t have strong enough reasons, in my head, to make it work.

I heard a great talk once by a woman named Judy May Murphy.  (In fact, it was on the day I decided to start this website.)  She talked about having a range of acceptable behavior in anything you do.  The example she gave was eating; she said she had a baseline she would not cross (eating animals) and an ideal she strove for (raw vegan).  Within that range, anything was ok, but she said she did her best to stay close to the ideal.

That image made a lot of sense to me, and it still does.  As much as I learn about the cruelty in the dairy industry, and as much as I believe that eating dairy is mostly unhealthy, my baseline is still at animal flesh, not animal products.   It might move one day, but for now, that’s where it is.

I don’t know how many ounces of cheese I eat in a normal month, or how many actual eggs.  But I know the amounts of both are very small, and I don’t believe that my cutting them out entirely (as opposed to striving to avoid them most of the time) would have a significant impact on anything.

True, if I did cut them out, I could call my diet “vegan.”  Personally, I don’t think how it is labeled matters much.  I guess one could argue that I could be a better example to the non-vegan readers of this site if they could identify me as “vegan” instead of “vegetarian.” But I honestly don’t think that’s true.  I think “vegetarian” has the virtue of being very approachable to those who still eat meat.  I believe that what I post on this site as a vegetarian can encourage just as many, maybe more, runners who currently eat meat to try cutting it out.  Being vegan might somehow be more inspiring, or it might be intimidating.

Maybe this sounds like an excuse.  And maybe it is.  But either way, making a decision based on how I’ll be perceived by others rather than on what really feels like the right thing for me right now is surely a recipe for dissatisfaction.

And that’s why, at least for now, I’ll continue being a vegetarian.  A vegetarian whose diet is closer to being vegan than it ever was before, but a vegetarian nonetheless.

And that, my friends, is how vegan month went.  As I said above, I learned a lot from this experiment and I’m glad I tried it.  If you’re thinking about it, stop thinking and just try it.  You won’t know until you do.

For those who tried a vegan month along with me, how it did you like it?  Are you going to stay vegan?



How YOU Can Run an Ultramarathon (and Still Have a Life)

Psst! Want to hear a big secret? It might get me banned from the cool table at my running club, but here goes:

Running an ultramarathon isn’t that hard.

Make no mistake: I’m not saying it’s easy.  But running 50 miles isn’t twice as hard as running a marathon, and going from marathon-to-50 is definitely way easier than going from the couch-to-marathon (or even 5K-to-marathon).

It doesn’t take tons of mileage either.  I ran my first 50K on about 40 miles per week, and even for my first 50-miler, I didn’t log more than 50 miles in any one week.

If you can make marathon training work with your lifestyle, you can make ultramarathon training work with your lifestyle.

In fact, when I first decided I wanted to run a 50-miler, something I had budgeted six to nine months to train for, I was shocked when the only ultrarunner I knew nonchalantly told me this:

If you’re in marathon shape, you’re in shape to at least finish a 50-mile race. Will it be pretty at the end? Probably not. But you can at least finish.  There’s a flat, fast one out in California [three weeks from the time he wrote this email], and you could probably do that on the [marathon-distance] training that you have now. If you were able to run back-to-back 20-mile runs this weekend, and about 30 miles next weekend, while maintaining a similar schedule during the week, I’d say you’ll probably surprise yourself with how fast you’ll finish.

I’m not saying you should go out there and try to run a 50-miler in three weeks.  That could be dangerous, so don’t do it without proper training.  What I am saying is that once you can run a marathon, your first ultra is well within reach.

You’re probably a lot closer to doing an ultra than you realize.

This is not going to be the No Meat Athlete Guide to Training for Your First Ultra.  (That one’s coming, one day.)  Today, I just want to give you the foundation, the first steps you can take if you’re in the “just barely thinking about an ultra” boat.

In writing this post, I have one goal: to convince you that if you wanted to run an ultra, you could.  That people who run ultramarathons aren’t superhuman endurance machines—they’re normal people like you (and like me).

So here goes. Open your mind, read on, and discover that it’s possible.  From there, you can decide if it’s for you.

Step 1: Start running on trails.

Actually, once you’re in marathon shape, running on trails is probably the biggest obstacle standing between you and an ultra.  Don’t underestimate how different trail running is from running on roads—during the Vermont 50 a week and a half ago, I heard a guy say he had fallen three times during the first 12 miles, because he had never run trails before.  (And his shirt was covered in mud, so I’m pretty sure he wasn’t exaggerating.)

That said, trail running isn’t necessarily harder that road running, just different.  It’ll take a few weeks for you to build up the small stabilizer muscles in your legs and core.  You’ll learn just how high you need to pick up your feet, and you’ll naturally adjust your stride to deal with the terrain.

The upside: trail running will help you avoid injury.  In addition to making you stronger and your stride safer, trail running will give your bones and joints a break.  You’ll find that the wave of foot and leg pain that shows up after about 20 miles on roads doesn’t happen on trails, or at least that it takes much longer to arrive.

Oh yeah, and it’s fun.  So start incorporating trail runs into your normal training, and when you’re ready to train for an ultra, you’ll have a big head start.  Check out my Zen Habits post, A Beginners Guide to Trail Running, if you need a place to begin.

Step 2: Get comfortable with going slow.

I said running an ultra isn’t that hard.  I didn’t say anything about running an ultra fast.

Many runners are conditioned to equate “running” with “running fast.”  But what if you slowed waaay down?  Even with zero additional training, what if you started running 10-minute miles instead of 8’s, or 12-minute miles instead of 10’s?

When I qualified for Boston, my pace was just under 7:15.  When I ran the North Face 50-miler, my pace was over 12:30.  Granted, the latter was on trails and in 95-degree heat, but even after accounting for those factors, that’s a huge difference in speed.  How much farther could you run, today, if you slowed down by that much?

For all but the elites, running anything longer than 50K involves a lot of walking.  For really good runners, maybe it’s just the hills.  For me and many others, it’s some flat spots too, when you just need a break.

So once you start running trails, get comfortable with a slower pace, or even walking.  If your goal is to finish an ultra, that’s the quickest way to get there.

Step 3: Increase your long run distance or frequency.

Maybe it’s the popularity of the marathon distance, 26.2 miles, that makes people want to view it as an upper limit on how far we can run.  Of the distance, non-runners are fond of saying, “The human body just isn’t meant to run that far.”

But this is no more than a mindset thing.  When 26.2 miles is the ultimate goal, 20 or 22 miles seems frighteningly close to it.  The thought of running 30 is just plain nuts.

But you can shift that mindset.  When you recalibrate your thinking and focus on, say, 50 miles, everything changes.  Over time, slow-paced 20-milers become less intimidating.  And when you run your first marathon in training, without all the hoopla of a race, you realize that your muscles don’t suddenly shut down after 26.2 miles.  And that it’s something that, with the proper training, normal people can do without a big buildup and taper, crowds, or the long recovery period that goes along with the big event.

And then you can go 30 miles, if you decide that you want to.  But many ultrarunners will tell you that you don’t need to run even that far to prepare for a 50-miler.  Some prefer to run several 20-to-25-milers within a few days of each other.

For me, the length of the long run is the only difference between a marathon training plan and an ultramarathon training plan.  Keep doing the speedwork and hill workouts you would as part of a marathon program, and gradually increase either the frequency or the distance of your long (slow) runs.  That’s all it takes.

Step 4: Start paying attention to what you eat while you run.

So much of running long distances is about learning how to fuel effectively.

Personally, I can get through a marathon on mostly sugar, relying on sports drinks, energy gels, and bananas to get energy to my muscles as quickly as possible.  But by the end of that marathon, I want to puke.  For me, eating that way does not work for any amount of time longer than maybe three and a half hours.

Everyone is different, and if you’re going to convince your body to keep working for 50K, 50 miles, or more, you need to find a race-day diet that your body will tolerate for five or 10 or 24 hours.  (Chances are, sugar alone won’t work for that long.)

For long distances, I like to eat whole foods, like pinole, potatoes, nuts, pitas with hummus, bagels with peanut butter, and occasional fruits, shifting to higher-sugar foods (like sports drinks, Coke, and more fruit) for a pick-me-up toward the end.  This isn’t an uncommon strategy, but it’s not what works for everyone.

I can’t tell you what will work for your stomach and your body.  I suggest recording what you eat during long runs and how it makes you feel, and experimenting with different eating strategies to find out what works best.

That’s it.  Doesn’t sound so hard, does it?

I’m not trying to downplay the difficulty of running an ultra.  It’s an incredible feat that only a tiny percentage of people will ever have the discipline and courage to do.  It requires a lot of work, especially when you consider that inside every ultrarunner, there’s a marathoner, something that requires plenty of work in its own right.

But I hope you can see that these first steps to training for an ultra don’t require any spectacular level of fitness, and that the thrill and pure joy and pride of finishing an ultramarathon aren’t reserved for some select group of extremely gifted athletes.

I’d be willing to bet that there’s an ultrarunner out there who is a lot like you.  Someone who has your body type, or at the very least, someone who had your body type at one time.  Someone who runs a marathon or a half marathon in the same time you do, but who also has the ability to run 50 miles in half a day.  And I know for a fact that there’s someone who is busy as hell, with a kid, grad school, a couple blogs, and something resembling a normal social life, who also manages to run ultras.

There’s not a big difference between ultrarunners and other runners.  Once you can run a marathon, the ability to run farther is there for you if you want it.  You just need to decide if you do.  If so, I can tell you that it’s been worth every mile.

This post is part of a series of posts designed to teach you how to run long and strong.  Go check out the rest!