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

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!



Announcing the No Meat Athlete Community Message Boards

First off today: THANK YOU to everyone who donated to the Semper Fi fund.

I was truly touched when, within an hour or two of my posting about it here, you had already helped me raise the 300 dollars I had pledged for my Marine Corps Marathon team, in time to meet the next morning’s deadline.

Now, at 850 dollars, we’ve far exceeded that goal, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still donate up until the race day (it’s Halloween, and there is no truth to the rumors that I’ll be wearing a carrot costume).  It’s a great fund to help injured Marines, so I encourage you to contribute if that’s a cause that means something to you.

Plant-powered athletes, connect!

My friend Jose, who writes the Blood and the Sweat, sent me this photo from the Urban Cow Half Marathon in California yesterday.  Jose is a vegan and a guy I admire for how much he simply loves running.  With some people you can just tell, even online, how passionate they are about something, and Jose is one of them.

The photo is perfect for today, when I’m excited to announce a new section of the site, the No Meat Athlete Community.  Jose told me that the runners in this photo just happened to see each other wearing NMA shirts—it wasn’t planned.

But with the new community message boards, we won’t have to rely on coincidence to meet other vegetarian and vegan runners.

[Note: The message boards are now gone.  Spammers, you win.]

A way to get in touch with other vegetarian athletes

If you’re running a marathon and don’t know anyone in the city, you hop on the message boards and figure out who you can meet for dinner at a vegetarian place before the race.

In your home city, you could find a training group or organize your own dinner meetup.

And when the husband/wife kicks you out of the house, I mean, is there any more obvious place to turn than the NMA message boards for a friendly couch to crash on?

Besides facilitating face-to-face meetings with other vegetarian and vegan athletes, the Community section is the perfect place to discuss anything at all related to running, fitness, and nutrition, with people whose values and concerns about their diets are like yours.  (Plus, you know they automatically rule because they read NMA.)

So head to the message boards, sign up, and get the conversation going by starting a couple threads.  I’m brand new to this forum-moderation thing, so if anything seems screwed up, just let me know and I’ll get on it.  (And for the record, I completely stole this idea from my pal Steve at Nerd Fitness, where there’s a thriving forum community, for good reason.)

Hey, this sort of sounds like Running on Plants…

This may remind you of Running on Plants, the ill-fated community site I tried to launch a few months back.  Why “ill-fated,” you ask?  Well, it wasn’t for lack of interest.  The problem was that the site was built on a new platform that didn’t have much in the way of anti-spam technology, so spammers flooded the place with dumb ads, and I had no way of keeping them out while letting legitimate people in.  So I eventually was forced to shut it down.  The new Community is built on a much more common, proven forum platform called phpbb, so I suspect spam issues will be minimal and easier to take care of.



Will You Help Me Raise Money for Injured Marines?

If you’re a dedicated reader, you’re probably wondering why there are two NMA posts in one day.  (That is, if you’re a dedicated reader who doesn’t read post titles.)

Anyway, I kinda screwed up on something, and I’m hoping you’ll help me out.

For several months now, I’ve known that I’ll be running the Marine Corps Marathon on October 31st.  Not only that, but I’ll have the immense pleasure of running it with a former marine, my brother-in-law Kevin, to help pace him to his first 3:30 marathon.

I can only imagine what an emotional experience it will be.  And to make it even better, we’re part of a team that’s raising money for the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund.  I committed to raise 300 dollars.

Doesn’t sound too screwed up yet, does it?  Well, here’s what happened.

I decided I’d wait until after my Vermont 50-miler before I announced this on the blog and asked you to help me reach that goal.  I planned to do so next week, but today I got an email saying that the team deadline is tomorrow (Friday)!

So basically, I need to come up with my 300 bucks in a few hours.  And that’s where I’m hoping you’ll help me out.

If a marine or other armed forces member you know has touched your life in some way, I hope you’ll consider donating to this cause.  You’ll be doing something great, and (far less importantly) doing me a big favor as well.

If you’d like to help out, here’s my link where you can donate and learn more about the Semper Fi Fund.  Like I said, I need to raise this money by tomorrow, or who knows what those marines that make up the rest of the team will do to “that tree-hugger guy who didn’t raise his money.” 🙂

In all seriousness, I really appreciate your help.  Here’s a little info about Kevin, the former marine I’ll be running with and a guy I’m damn proud to call my brother-in-law.

I’m a former Marine Corps Staff Sergeant, served 11 years on active duty.  I was born in Hudson, NY and joined the Marine Corps in December of ‘94 – seeking to support the greatest war fighting machine on the planet and wear those dress blues. 😉 I worked in various communications roles throughout my 11 years served on active duty.

Highlights, 2 tours of duty supporting Operation(s) Iraqi Freedom (OIF) Enduring Freedom (OEF), first tour in Kuwait and Iraq during the war conflict in ’02-‘03 and again in Fallujah ’04-‘05.  Also, supported Joint Task Force – Southwest Asia (JTF-SWA) in ’96-’97.  My various duty stations included Japan, Kaneohe Bay Hawaii, and Camp Pendleton, CA, and 29 Palms, CA.  I left the active duty ranks in ’05 and made San Diego, CA my home.  I’ve been supporting Government contracts since at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command – Pacific (SPAWAR – PAC) and at Camp Pendleton, CA working in the Information Assurance (IA) industry.

I’m running the 35th running of the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) aka ‘Peoples Marathon’ for the first time and fund raising/promoting awareness for the ‘Injured Marine | Semper Fi’ fund.

I enjoy spending time with my girlfriend, taking long walks with my dog, hiking, running, mountain bike running, golfing, exploring/sight seeing, and travel.



Again, if you’d like to help out, you can click here to donate, even if it’s just a couple dollars.  Thanks so much for your help.

*Just to clarify: You’re more than welcome to donate after Friday, and it’ll go to the same place.  It’s just that I need to have raised 300 by tomorrow.



The Chocolate Quinoa Protein Bars that Cured My Pop-Tart Addiction

My name is Christine, and I have a Pop-Tart problem.

Ever since I discovered these accidentally-vegan goodies in the vending machine at law school, I can’t seem to get my dollar in the slot fast enough.  That wouldn’t be a big deal every once in awhile, but the vending machine seems to call out my name every time I’m heading to the gym.  My banana just looks so blah next to the shimmering strawberry-frosty goodness!  And yes—by “goodness,” I’m mean 10% strawberries, 90% flavored corn syrup.

Besides packing extra coins for the vending machine, I’ve also started carrying around ibuprofen.  It worked for Matt during his 50-miler, and I count on it for my killer 3:00 headache.  But you know when these headaches started?  Right about the time I started a daily 40-grams of sugar ritual with these damn Pop-Tarts.

I knew I had to break this sugar-rush-crash-medicate cycle, and vowed to make a batch of my Homemade Energy Bars to satisfy that starchy-sweet craving.

Lo and behold, for maybe the first time in NMA-kitchen history, the pantry was out of beans.  Not a legume in sight.  But, times of crisis have a knack of spurring creativity—with a deep pantry rummage I pulled together ingredients for some awesome quinoa energy-protein bars.

With over 7 grams of protein per bar (more if you use nuts!) and about a third of the sugar in Pop-Tarts (from energizing dates and agave nectar instead of corn syrup), the case of the addictive pop-tarts is officially closed.   Enjoy!

Chocolate Quinoa Protein Energy Bars

  • 3/4 cup dry quinoa, or about 2 cups cooked
  • 1/2 cup dates, pitted
  • 3 tablespoons agave nectar
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons ground flaxseed
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup protein powder (I used an unsweetened hemp-based version)
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup stir-ins like dry fruit, nuts, shredded coconut, or vegan chocolate chips. (I went for half chocolate chips and half coconut)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Spray a 8×8 baking dish lightly with baking spray.

Rinse the dry quinoa in cold water, then let sit in a bowl of water for 10 minutes.  In the meantime, bring 1 cup of water to boil.  Drain the quinoa and add to the boiling water.  Cover, and reduce heat to simmer for about 12 minutes.  Let cool enough to handle.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the cooked quinoa, dates, agave nectar, vegetable oil, flaxseed, almond extract, and salt.  Process until relatively smooth (the quinoa is so small it stays slightly lumpy).

In a small bowl, stir together the protein powder, flour, and stir-ins.  Fold this dry mixture into wet mixture with a spatula.  The dough is very thick, like cookie dough, so use the spatula to press into prepared pan evenly.

Bake for about 22-25 minutes, until firm.  Let cool, then slice into a dozen bars.  Store in an airtight container for up to a week, or freeze for up to 3 months.

Nutrition facts (with chocolate chip and coconut option): Calories: 184, Total Fat: 5.4 g, Saturated Fat: 3 g, Cholesterol: 0 g, Sodium: 37 mg,  Potassium: 113 mg, Total Carbs: 29 g, Fiber: 3 g, : Sugars: 16 g, Protein: 7.3 g.