A few weeks ago, I had the treat of hearing ultramarathoner and author of the bestselling new book Eat & Run, Scott Jurek, speak in Wayzata, Minnesota, when he came through on his sold-out book tour. Because he happened to be in his home state, he called his sidekicks up to the podium, including Hippie Dan Proctor; his high school Nordic ski coach, Glen Sorenson; and his pacer, Dusty Olson. With plenty of families and young kids in the audience, the conversation naturally turned to how athletes of all ages can eat healthily.
Growing up in Duluth in the 1980s, running high school cross country, and fueling up on meat and potatoes and greasy gut bombs at McDonald's, Jurek learned first hand that eating well is essential to running well. Now 38, he’s won 24 ultra races in the past decade, including the infamously brutal Hard Rock 100 and the Western States 100 (with a record seven straight victories) and has established himself as the most dominant ultrarunner in history. Not coincidentally, he’s also vegan.
Seeing Jurek speak inspired me to look closely at the link between what I eat and how I run—something I’ve been thinking about a lot ever since I came down with the flu this winter and a friend delivered freshly juiced veggies to my door. After two juices, I felt so much better that I dusted off our juicer so I could concoct my own super elixirs. Three months in, my husband, four sons, and I eat more fruits and veggies throughout the day and crave less meat and carbohydrates. As a result, we have more energy and have both been running more—a half marathon for Peter and the Afton Trail Run 25K this past weekend for both of us. We’re not going vegan or raw any time soon, but it’s safe to say we’re becoming “flexitarians.” On the days we don’t juice or rely heavily on fruits and veggies, we all feel the energy drag.
My boys are still too small to start running seriously, but they’re never too young to start building healthy, strong bodies. Jurek’s lifelong friend and pacer, Dusty Olson, recalled running kids' races starting when he was eight: "I was that hyperactive little kid people would tell to run around the parking lot a few times to calm me down." When he was in fourth grade, he joined the Northern Minnesota Track Club and started racing the fall trail series with adults. “Ah, the good old days when I could get myself to puke in almost every race. I would always feel horrible when I would just eat eggs before exercising," said Olson, who reps Scott running sneakers. "Eating fruit before races is always the best. Looking back, I never paid much attention to protein and I mainly ate carbohydrates. When I started paying attention, I started getting stronger. Most kids can burn more calories then they consume, so they can eat a lot of things. Iron is important—you can get it in green leafy vegetables, kale, spinach, broccoli, and even raisins, but you need enough vitamin C to help with the iron absorption. A good multi-vitamin can help depending on the variety of your kids diet. And plenty of water and fluids with electrolytes in them." As far as raising your kids vegan or vegetarian, Olson advised, “You can’t be an uneducated vegetarian who doesn’t do protein when you've got growing, athletic kids."
Jurek ate his first vegetarian meal when he was a teenager training at the prestigious Team Birkie cross country ski camp: vegetarian lasagna, salad, homemade whole wheat bread. “I didn’t have any choice, so I ate it all,” he writes in Eat & Run. “And I couldn’t believe how good it tasted! What was even more amazing was how great I felt. I trained more, and more often, at that camp than I ever had before. And I had never felt better, stronger. I suspected that what I was eating had something to do with how I was feeling, but it wasn’t until years later, when I began to study the connection between diet and exercise, nutrition and health, that I learned the importance of diet for everyone—not just athletes.”
In front of a packed hometown crowd, Jurek shared five secrets to eating for endurance, strength, and maybe most important, sheer joy. As parents, we can use these tips to help our aspiring young runners put their best feet forward for a lifetime of fitness and healthy nutrition. Start them young and the habits will stick.
1. “Try to eat whole foods that look as close to how they are grown as possible,” he said. Avoid the processed food-like foods that dominate most conventional grocery chains. They’re packed with sodium, sugar, empty calories, and are a drain on your digestive system.
2. “Try to eat a new food every week, so that you don’t focus on what you are eliminating,” Jurek suggested. Namely, refined carbs, excess protein, trans fats, and concentrated carginogens. "Factory-farmed animals are treated with growth hormones and steroids to encourage their rapid transit from birth to slaughterhouse," he writes in his book. "If we wouldn’t take steroids ourselves—or eat a bowl of transgenic, pesticide-soaked soybeans—why would we eat the flesh of an animal that has?" It's a self perpetuating cycle: The more good whole foods you eat, the less you’ll crave the overly processed foods that give you a quick pick-me-up but not sustained energy. Growing your own is a great way to incorporate more fresh veggies in your diet. Jurek recalled how, from a young age, he was in charge of harvesting the potatoes and vegetables from his family's backyard garden. Joining a CSA (community supported agriculture) is another great way to try a new whole food a week. Some CSAs, like Wisconsin-based Driftless Organics, even provide recipes; check out their newsletters and their Facebook page, where they give two or three recipes every week to go with the crops in the boxes.
3. If you want to go vegan like Scott, start gradually by following the tips above, and also “look for inspiration from ethnic foods,” Jurek urged. “I like to learn the local cuisine where I travel. I love Ethiopian and Mexican dishes.” In Eat & Run Jurek shares 21 of his favorite vegan recipes, a few at the end of every chapter, in a way that feels manageable, not overwhelming. Scott assured us that you can find most ingredients at most major supermarkets, as well as at your health food stores and Whole Foods.
4. Eating healthy can be a challenge, but Scott recalls his mother’s commitment to making dinner every night. His mom was a home-ec major who suffered from multiple sclerosis, but despite her challenges, Scott said, “the one thing she insisted on was that if she was making dinner we had to sit at the table to eat together for an hour.” This, he said, “instilled the love of cooking and eating in me.” After all, eating is as much about building community as it is about feeding the body and tempting the taste buds.
5. Run from the heart. Branch out from eating “meat, potatoes, and salt and pepper and get inspired,” said Jurek. When a 10-year-old in the crowd asked Jurek who inspires him, he replied, “Steve Prefontaine because he loved running and did it with joy!” As far as what parents can do to encourage young runners, Dusty Olson says: “My parents put me in five-mile race instead of the one-mile race. They were trying to make me an ultra at an early age. Most importantly it has to be fun. Get the kids in whippersnapper races and encourage them that if they run in-between those races with some light training they will actually get faster. You don’t want to sit there with a stopwatch pushing them. Scott didn’t even run until high school. There is plenty of time to be focused.”
For more on Eat & Run and Jurek's appearance schedule, check out http://scottjurek.com/.