Vegan diet: Scott Jurek’s secret weapon?

Right after the new year, I received a review copy of a book by a fellow extreme endurance athlete, and although there was a lot to love about it, what stopped me in my tracks was the author’s insistence that a vegan diet was the secret to his success.

Honestly, just the mention of tofu makes me crave a steak.

Anyway, no, it wasn’t Scott Jurek‘s book, which comes out this spring. It was one by a lesser known and less accomplished athlete. But it got me thinking again about how much runners tend to seek out the silver bullet and how quick we are to seize on diet as the answer.

So let’s dismiss that first illusion: “If I could just do/eat/think this ONE THING, it would make me a monster. I’d crush my old records and stomp the competition.” True, there are a few elements of form and some nutrition facts that, if you don’t follow them, tend to hold you back. When you fix and follow them, then your performance tends to improve. (Indisputably, hydration is crucial, for example, as performance suffers the most when you don’t hydrate and use sodium to balance fluid retention — easy enough to fix, right? Proper shoes make a difference too, despite the current affection for “barefoot” running. A topic for another day, perhaps.)

But what sets apart the superstars, the Scott Jureks and the rest, isn’t that “one thing.” It’s all about training and talent. Hard work and good genes. That ain’t news, and it ain’t sexy, I know. But it’s the truth.

Which leads me to the second illusion, that food is the be-all and end-all of performance. Discipline yourself to train well and work hard, and it doesn’t matter all that much what you eat. Crazy talk? Maybe. But I’ve always subscribed to something I call the “incinerator theory,” which posits: when you work the body hard enough, it will burn any kind of fuel you give it.

Okay, okay. Please don’t write to me about cholesterol and digestive issues and food sensitivities. These are important to consider in some cases, not all. Sure, I have high cholesterol, but then so does my good friend who’s also a highly accomplished endurance athlete as well as a vegetarian. And no, I don’t have digestive problems — I’m blessed with an iron gut — so I don’t have to worry about how foods will affect me. Some people do. I get that.

So let’s accept that genetics and predispositions make dietary choices highly individual.

There are some things we all share, including ancestors who developed large brains mainly because they had access to animal protein. In short, when we no longer needed the bigger belly of an herbivore, we got smarter. Being an omnivore is part of what makes us human, what put us at the top of the food chain. It’s a privilege to be able to eat whatever we like, especially pork chile verde burritos.

If someone’s a vegan or vegetarian because they object to the way we raise or butcher livestock, that’s one thing. But if you’ve given up meat because you think it will make you run stronger or longer, think again. There’s simply no evidence of this.

My personal dietary theory is based entirely on listening to my body and letting it direct me to foods that will sustain me during long (5- to 50-day) endurance events. Our old Eco-Challenge teams would sometimes go for days with water but no food, burning body fat and doing well. To be frank, during my 9000-calorie-per-day, 52-day, 3,063-mile run across the U.S., I’m sure I couldn’t have made it without listening to what my body was telling me to eat. I lost a grand total of four pounds during that endeavor, so I’m pretty sure I was doing something right.

Normally, I have a simple, balanced diet with limited fats, more protein than most, and limited carbs. During endurance events, it can be kind of bizarre, and when I climbed Mt. Everest, it was perhaps stranger still, higher in fat and protein than at any other time in my life.

My point is not that you shouldn’t try a vegetarian or vegan diet if you feel drawn to that. Most of the elite runners I know, including me, have given it a whirl at one time. But I counsel you to pay attention to what’s working and what isn’t, to listen to your instincts and be aware. Just because someone else says it’s their secret weapon, don’t assume it’s the best for everyone including you. Circumstances, environment, and genetics all matter.

So for the vegan badasses like Jurek, who eat their competition for breakfast instead of bacon and eggs, I have to wonder what might change if they had a steak every now and again.

What about you? Are you a vegetarian or vegan runner? If you aren’t, would you try it because of the success of some endurance athletes? If so, why? If not, why not?

Postscript, added 2/6/12: Thank you to everyone who has commented, including my good buddy, Terri Schneider, who was prompted to write about her passion for the pork chop in her blog. Folks, I don’t profess to know all the answers, but experience and 30 years of practical running, including 13 years of racing more than 1,000 miles per year with an additional 2,000 or 3,000 miles training, just leaves me suspicious of “miracle diets.” In no way did I say that animal protein is the only suitable protein; neither should someone urge that a vegan or vegetarian diet is the only way to be successful in races–or healthy, for that matter. Whenever we present ourselves as “experts,” it’s especially crucial that we are accurate and look at both sides. No one can argue with Jurek’s success. But we can agree to disagree about his dietary choice as the best solution for all runners.

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