From marathons to fell running, ultramarathons to cross country races, long-distance running takes a vast amount of training and discipline. And just as you need the right fuel for the right vehicle, the right diet can help enhance the performance of any endurance athlete, professional or amateur.
In recent years, an entire industry has grown up around sports nutrition. The market is flooded with gels and energy drinks. A multitude of expert nutritionists dispense advice on pre-race carb-loading programmes, all making big promises to boost performance, endurance and recovery. But is there is a different way to fuel a run? Sportswriter, author and ultramarathoner Adharanand Finn knows more than most. In fact, he has a unique perspective and insight into the diet of a marathon and ultra runner.
A unique perspective
You could argue that Adharanand was marked out as different from the outset. Born in 1974 to Irish parents, his mother and father lived in an ashram in south London and had an Indian guru. In Adharanand’s own words, “you could say they were hippies”. His name is Sanskrit and means ‘eternal bliss’. A vegetarian from birth, Adharanand was a schoolboy track and cross-country runner before graduating to marathons and then onto ultra-running. In adulthood, running became more than a hobby, more than mere exercise. It became an all-consuming passion.
In 2011, he uprooted his whole family to Iten, Kenya, often dubbed the ‘running capital of the world’. This town in west-central Kenya is home to St. Patrick’s High School, which has, over the last 30 years, produced more world-class long-distance athletes than perhaps any other institution. Alumni include Ibrahim Hussein, winner of three Boston Marathons and one New York City Marathon; Peter Rono, a 1988 Olympic gold medallist at 1,500 metres; Wilson Kipketer, a 1997 world champion and 2000 Olympic silver medallist in the 3,000-metre steeplechase; Matthew Birir, 1992 Olympic gold medallist at the 3,000-metre steeplechase; and David Rudisha, 2012 and 2016 Olympic gold medallist and 800m world record holder. All were coached by Brother Colm O’Connell, an Irish missionary who first came to Iten in 1976, and never left. In Iten, Adharanand had the opportunity to live and train with some of the country’s top athletes. His account of his experiences became the best-selling book Running With Kenyans.
A few short years later, he again travelled abroad, once more with family in tow, boarding the overland train to Japan, where he spent six months in the company of Japan’s top long-distance athletes. The resulting book was called The Way of the Runner.
But this wasn’t the end of either his running or writing career. Familiar with Adharanand’s background in marathon running, an editor asked him to tackle the notoriously gruelling Oman desert run. This race requires runners to be entirely self-sufficient over four stages, including a night stage, as they run 165km across the arid landscapes of Oman. Although initially this sounded too crazy to even consider, eventually it pulled him in. Adharanand went on to run 10 ultramarathons in the space of two years.
Adharanand’s first real insight into the diet of a marathon runner came when he stayed with the Kenyan Olympic squad in Iten. “The first thing you notice about Kenyan runners is that meat figures very low down, being eaten only around once a week, if that.” The diet is not vegan though; it does include milk, but it is boiled before it is drunk. They also drink Mursik, a fermented milk often served in a gourd. Adharanand adds: “Traditionally blood would have been mixed in with the milk, but this practice is fading a little.”
It is interesting that the milk is processed before being consumed. The dairy industry in Kenya is mostly informal and not as heavily regulated as it is in other countries. Raw milk can be teeming with pathogens – every year it is estimated that 53,000 healthy life years are lost because of milk-related infectious diseases. Boiling reduces the number of pathogens present in the milk but importantly for the runner, it also breaks down some of the long-chain fatty acids into shorter-chain fatty acids and lactose into galactose and glucose. Breaking these nutrients down into a simpler form has a positive impact on the energy gained from milk, perhaps giving the runners that all-important edge. Fermenting goes a little further: it preserves even more of the nutrients and breaks down the lactose. Although somewhat unpalatable, adding blood would increase the overall nutrient content, especially iron levels, akin to fortifying the milk.
Another thing that Adharanand found striking about the local diet was the sheer quantity of kale that was eaten. In training camps, many of the runners had their own kale patches, harvesting this green leafy vegetable every day. Kale is high in a range of nutrients including vitamin K, an important vitamin for the healing of bones and clotting of blood. This would have a protective effect on the athletes’ bones, helping alleviate impact injuries caused by running on a daily basis.
Alongside kale, the runners’ diet was largely made up of fruits and vegetables such as beans, potatoes, carrots and avocados along with carbohydrates such as maize, rice and potatoes. Recent studies have shown that diets high in a variety of antioxidants help aid recovery time after a run, so a mixed vegetarian diet like this would certainly be beneficial to the athletes.
For those who run but don’t run marathons, there is little need to increase carbohydrate intake much more than a non-runner. But once you get into the world of endurance running, overall carbohydrate intake needs to be increased to around 8 to 10g per kilo of body weight per day. For a 70kg runner, this means consuming up to 700g of carbohydrates a day – almost an entire large loaf of bread! It’s no coincidence that carbohydrate-rich foods such as chapatis, rice, bread and porridges made from either maize flour or millet and water all figure quite highly in the Kenyan diet.
Conversely, there are no energy drinks as such, although one of the favourite drinks of these performance athletes was a type of sweet milky chai, which was regularly drunk throughout the day.
For over 200 years, Japan was effectively cut off from the rest of the world. This had a huge impact on not only the art and culture of the country, but also its food. The diet became very insular and as there is very little livestock in Japan, traditional dishes did not contain much meat or dairy. Contrary to popular belief, fish wasn’t widely eaten either. In fact, much of inland Japan was basically vegan. As a vegetarian, Adharanand sought out traditional Japanese food, heading to the temples where it was served.
Although their diet does not completely follow that of 16th-century Japan, these cultural influences still have a great impact on what the present-day population eats. For the runners, this meant little meat was eaten. Instead, the mainstay of their protein came in the form of tofu, fish and seafood. Carbohydrates came in the form of noodles and rice, including rice balls which would be eaten throughout the day.
As with the Kenyan runners, tea was popular, though with regional differences. In Japan, it took the form of green tea, a beverage high in antioxidants, which would help with recovery times. Fresh fruits and vegetables also help to create a balanced nutritional profile. With a diet so low in dairy products, vitamin B12, iron and calcium instead come from sources such as seaweed and sesame seeds.
Any running race over the standard marathon distance of 26 miles and 365 yds (or 42.195 km) is considered an ultramarathon, often abbreviated to ‘ultra’. But what fits into this category can vary considerably, encompassing anything from a ‘mere’ 30 miles to multi-day events of 200 miles plus. Most ultra events tend to focus on large whole numbers, such as 50k, 100k or 100 miles. Regardless of the distance, each takes an immense amount of discipline, a considerable amount of training and importantly a specialist diet to complete.
Adharanand didn’t have to adapt his diet much for these races, sticking to much the same foods he always ate; fresh fruit and vegetables with a good range of carbohydrates including rice, bread and potatoes. Nuts and seeds also figured in his daily diet – but there were some odd things that he had to modify. “One strange thing,” he says, with a glint in his eye, “Is that you don’t produce saliva whilst on an ultrarun, so it is impossible to eat energy bars etc.”
So during these ultraruns, rather than dry bars, he instead found himself filling up on soups and nuts, especially peanuts and peanut butter. “In one South African ultramarathon, they serve potatoes and salt,” he said, laughing at how odd this must sound to the uninitiated. Foods need to be easily digestible, so things like tinned peaches and custard go down well. Because of the effect on the gut, white pasta rather than wholemeal pasta is also better for carb-loading before a race. In the feeding station, Adharanand often let his hands decide what his body needed. One thing he always went for was crystallised ginger.
Foods tailored for the runner did come into play during extremely long runs. He would take gels, especially natural ones, along with energy drinks. However, this wasn’t always in the form most of us would expect – it turns out that flat Coke is a popular drink amongst runners. High in both sugar and caffeine, it is almost perfect hydration for an endurance race.
An education in eating
Ultimately, what Adharanand found most remarkable about the food choices of runners from Japan, Kenya and the UK were the similarities rather than the differences. The best diets seemed to be predominantly simple foods with the odd addition to give them the edge. This meant plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, unprocessed proteins, often from a vegetable source, and interestingly, white rather than wholemeal sources of carbohydrate.
Bottom line? When fuelling for a mountain hike, a fell run or even a marathon, what seems most important is to keep your diet varied but full of fresh, healthy food, perhaps washed down with the occasional swig of flat Coke and a couple of chunks of crystallised ginger. It’s an unusual nutrition plan, granted – but it’s one proven through hundreds of hard miles in the company of elite athletes.
Dave Hamilton is a writer, tutor, photographer and forager, specialising in nature and the great outdoors. His books have been translated into five different languages and sold more than 80,000 copies worldwide. He was also a childhood friend of fellow writer and journalist Adharanand Finn - though Dave never took up long-distance running.
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