Do we really need special diets in order to increase our performance?
Do runners need a special diet? There are many influential figures in the sport who believe we do. They just can’t agree on what that special diet is. Some say it’s vegetarian, others say it’s Paleo and still others say it’s gluten-free, low-carb or something else.
What’s interesting is that very few professional runners are on special diets. To understand why, all we have to do is consider how people become elite runners. Let’s look at an example.
Molly Huddle grew up in Elmira, N.Y., on what she describes as “the typical American diet” of cereal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch and meat and potatoes for dinner. This diet fueled Huddle to a fourth-place finish at the Foot Locker High School Cross Country Championship and a national high school record for 2 miles (10:01).
In college, Huddle ate like a typical college athlete. Her dietary mainstays were cereal and milk and bagels and peanut butter. Conscious of the need to consume vegetables, she ate salads “occasionally” in order to check that box. During her four years at the University of Notre Dame, this diet fueled Huddle to nine All-America selections and a runner-up finish in the 2006 NCAA Championships 5000 meters.
Since turning professional, Huddle has increased the overall quality of her diet. No longer will she eat half a box of cereal for dinner. But her diet remains recognizably normal for a 21st-century American. She usually eats whole-grain pancakes for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and meat with vegetables and a salad for dinner. This diet has fueled Huddle to nine national championships and two American records at 5000 meters.
Huddle’s story is not the least bit unusual. Nearly all runners who are blessed with world-class talent grow up on a diet that is typical for their culture. This is as true in other countries as it is in the United States. In 2004, Vincent Onywera spent two weeks studying the diet of elite Kenyan runners. His conclusion, as he said in an NPR interview, was that “they eat food eaten by ordinary Kenyans.”
The other thing that nearly all runners with world-class talent do in their youth—besides eat a normal diet—is experience immediate success in competition. This experience teaches them that it is possible to perform at the highest level on a normal diet. No special diet is needed.
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Runners like us who lack world-class talent don’t have this experience, so it is a lot easier to convince us that a special diet is needed. Since we don’t win races or break records, we cannot rule out the possibility that diet is somehow holding us back. So when diet gurus approach us and say that a grain-free, meat-free or other special diet is essential to maximum endurance performance, we are inclined to believe it might be true.
But it’s not true, and elite runners are living proof of it. At the professional level, the sport of running is so ultra-competitive that it is impossible for athletes with any amount of talent to succeed with inferior methods of training or nourishment. The high-quality versions of culturally normal diets that almost all elite runners maintain are clearly sufficient and perhaps optimal to support the highest level of performance. Therefore, the most sensible diet for non-elite runners who want to perform their best is one that emulates those of the professionals.
But wait a minute: Kenyan runners eat tons of ugali (cornmeal porridge), whereas American runners eat none. And Japanese runners eat lots of fish while Ethiopian runners are more partial to teff. In short, elite runners in different places eat different foods, so it doesn’t seem possible to copy their diet generally.
Eating like an elite does not mean eating the specific foods that any particular group of elite runners eat. Rather, it means emulating their key dietary habits. There are five salient dietary habits that are shared by elite runners everywhere. It is these universal best practices you’ll want to copy. Let’s take a look at them.