I get asked on a regular basis to outline my thoughts on nutrition. Here are a few gastronomical musings if you care to follow along…
In my experience, diets are a lot like religions or political parties – people like the structure, the boundaries, and the clear delineations. This is especially true among endurance athletes. We like to be able to label the “good” and “bad”, the “clean” and the “unclean”. We gravitate towards the simplistic, polarized, fool proof comfort that comes from absolute thinking. We are drawn to the identity forming, and community building components that are fostered by the types of foods we choose to eat, or perhaps more importantly, not eat. We are prone to excess and so we find comfort in the extremes – the space at the end of the pendulum’s swing. That moment of brief weightlessness, where it appears that we are fully devoted to that overzealous cause, but in reality we are loaded with potential energy, ready to swing with nearly just as much force and reach nearly equal and opposite extremes on the other end of that pendulum’s swing. And so it goes. Back and forth. From one “absolute right way”, to the other opposite “absolute right”.
I don’t think it’s that binary or simple, or for that matter, that complicated.
As long as our bodies get all of the nutrients that they need, there are countless paths that can lead to optimal health and performance.
My diet changes depending on the time of year, my goals, and my geographical location.
Growing up in the rural American west, I subsisted off of grains, dairy, meat, and incredible produce. Lunch, every. single. day. consisted of 2 packs of Maruchan Ramen. Beef flavor. It was light enough that it would sit well for my afternoon workouts, and had enough carbs to fuel me until the work was done. My fastest times ever were set during that simple time as a driven 17 year old Oregonian, trying to become the next Steve Prefontaine.
When I lived in Rio, I survived on black beans, white rice, bananas, coconuts, and Acai.
When I lived in Hawaii, I subsisted almost entirely off of sushi rice, fruits that I foraged in the jungle on my morning runs – papaya, banana, coconut, passion fruit, strawberry guavas, and a host of other fruits that would never show up in a supermarket, but that I’m pretty sure were edible. My only source of protein was from fish and eels that I would spear while free diving off the reef in front of my little plantation home. That lasted until I realized that I was overfishing and my thoughtless meals were having a devastating effect on that reef’s ecosystem. I spent more time under water than on land, and unintentionally I realized that those fish had become my peers. I knew their habits. I knew the crags where each lived. I admired their beautiful colors, patterns, and personalities, and I realized that I enjoyed their presence and missed their absence more than the desire I had for a quick meal. So I shifted to beans.
When I managed an Acai farm in the Atlantic Rainforest in Eastern Brazil, I lived mostly off of Acai (that we harvested and processed, then combined with Bananas, Guarana, and granola), coconut flesh and water, beans and rice, and Tuna, Red Snapper, or Grouper that we caught out of the ocean. Also a lot of cake. Brazilians love cake for breakfast.
When I worked as a cultural anthropologist with a group of mountain porters in Central America, I ate like they did. Gallo Pinto (a mixture of beans and rice), eggs, fried cheese, and lots of local fruit.
When I am in Europe I eat a lot of cured meat, good cheese, fatty breads and pastries, confections made of nuts and honey, dark chocolate, and olives. So many olives.
In the time I have spent in Palestine and other middle eastern countries I have eaten lots of pita, hummus, cucumber and tomato salads dressed with yogurt, tabouli, roasted meats, and grilled vegetables.
Now I live and train in Flagstaff AZ. My diet is largely a combination of my lives.
During spring & summer I eat black beans, white rice, poached eggs, & cabbage based, citrus dressed slaw at least two meals a day. During fall & winter I eat soup and bread. (I’ve lately been obsessed with making huge batches of ramen with slow cooked broth, rice noodles, and tons of vegetables). All year round I drink tea in the morning with cocoa, coconut oil, sugar, & cream. At night I eat ice cream. Throughout the day I eat lots of raw almonds, dark chocolate, apples, oranges, and bananas. I also eat a considerable amount of Neapolitan style, naturally leavened Pizza from my favorite Restaurant Pizzicletta made by my favorite runner and Pizzaiolo, Caleb Schiff.
My diet is constantly changing. To be completely transparent, the only consistent component of my diet is a daily consumption of @firstendurance products, starting before my workout, consumed during my workouts, and the most important component being the recovery drink consumed after my workouts. To be clear, this is not a paid plug or an attempt to push product. I am simply answering as honestly as possible what I do. If this doesn’t apply to you, no need to keep reading, but if you are one of the hundreds of individuals who have asked how and why I eat the way I do, here is the honest answer.
I have found through research and experience, that my post workouts shakes are the most important daily component of my diet. Sometimes I drink them as directed, but if possible, I add them to a “Nice Cream” smoothie that I make at home. I’ll share the recipe at the end for any one that’s interested. I typically make a big batch to share, otherwise there are three wild little she-cubs and a hungry mama bear that I have to fight off. Probably because it tastes just like a Frosty from Wendy’s but has legal and ethical performance enhancing properties. The truth, is that as long as I get this component of my diet on a daily basis, the rest of what I eat is less important. Not that I can just gorge on whatever I want, but I find that if I include this recovery smoothie, my recovery is better, my mood improves, I sleep deeper, and I am less prone to injury and soreness.
There are a billion different ways to get what our bodies need dietetically. We don’t have to, and shouldn’t stick to one single, absolute way of eating. As complicated as it can seem, it can actually be pretty simple.
All of our body’s need certain macro and micro nutrients for optimal health. Macronutrients (“macro” meaning “large”) are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Micronutrients (“micro” meanings “small”) are vitamins and minerals. A good way to ensure you are getting all of the micros you need is to “Taste The Rainbow”. No, don’t tell people that I said you could subsist fully off of Skittles. You can’t. Although I have seen several college freshmen seemingly attempt it. By “Rainbow” I mean, eat a variety of naturally occuring colors. The more the better. Conveniently they are typically found in a variety of fruits and vegetables. Go wild. Rage super hard on those things. You can’t overdo it. (But don’t try. For once in your life shoot for moderation.) That will ensure that you get all the micros that your body needs.
Our body’s need both macros, and micros for optimal function and performance, both as athletes and just as human beings. My current diet consists of a pretty equal balance between each of the macronutrients, a little over 30% of each comprising what I eat on a daily basis. But it doesn’t have to be that way. For me this is not an exact proportion that I strive for, but rather an accurate breakdown if I track it. It is based largely on eating the types of food my body craves, and fulfilling those cravings from a selection of high quality, nutrient dense food options.
There are plenty of athletes who eat a higher proportion of one specific macronutrient than the others. I could name multiple examples of athletes whose dietary preferences lie on opposite ends of that spectrum, and all of whom are incredibly successful, despite their varied arrangement of macros. What you don’t find often are successful athletes with long careers who eat only one specific type of macro to the exclusion of the others, or a selection of foods that come from only one very specific time in our evolutionary journey to the exclusion of all other time periods.
Our bodies need variety. They love variety. They are uniquely capable of combining an endless combination of basic micros and macros to give us exactly what we need. That is because our bodies are highly adaptable. Especially our gastrointestinal, and other metabolic systems. In general, as long as we get all of the nutrients our bodies require, our gut bacteria have the ability to make those basic essentials work for us. That doesn’t mean that the transition period won’t be a bit dicey. That system, like every system of our bodies, needs time to adapt. The commonality between each of these successful athletes with varied dietary habits, is that each of their body’s get the basic essentials, and then fill in the gaps either directly from the food they consume, or from the incredibly adaptive nature of our systems which is able to generate some of what we need, as long as the basic macro and micro building blocks are consumed.
Don’t misunderstand. You can’t eat crap all day and sit around and expect to perform at a high level. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t indulge a little bit on occasion. At the same time, don’t think that just because your diet is “flawless” that it will make up for your lack of training. Eating chia seeds does not give the Tarahumara super-human running abilities, any more than corn beer. Subsistence farming, and running as a mode of transportation gives them super-human running abilities. All chia seeds and no running only results in a belly full of gelatinous bird food.
In general, I think plants are good. Real food is better than NOT real food. And animal protein is an efficient means of getting most of the nutrients your body needs, but I acknowledge that the world would likely be a better place if we ate more plants & less animals. That said, I still eat meat and feel ok about it most of the time.
These aren’t instructions on a right way, just simply a look at what I do.
I’ll give more insights in the future, but that’s enough for now. Check out my Recovery “Nice Cream” recipe below:
Riv’s Recovery “Nice Cream”
- 3-4 Frozen Bananas (Obviously, I like bananas)
- 2 scoops First Endurance Ultragen Chocolate or Vanilla. (3 scoops if you want to share)
- 2 tablespoons of peanut butter (Or nut butter if you’re into that sort of thing)
- Almond or Coconut milk – amount varies based on desired consistency. (You can use normal milk if you want, but Lactose doesn’t tolerate me very well. I’ve tried, but that’s one thing my GI system hasn’t been able to adapt to, unless it’s in the form of cheese or high-fat ice cream for some reason)
A tablespoon of coconut oil if you want a smoother texture, or if you’re trying to get a few more lipids in your life. If you’re new to this start easy. Your body will likely adapt, but it can take a few weeks. An easy way to tell if you’ve overdone it is hot flashes and nausea about 20 minutes after consumption and possible vomiting. True story. Try not to do that. It doesn’t mean it’s bad. It just means that you ate too much for your liver and gallbladder to handle. Don’t worry, they’ll catch on soon. They’re quick learners.
*Blend everything with a good blender.
- Chopped roasted and salted almonds
- Sliced bananas (Yes more bananas. I eat a lot of those)
- Chia Seeds (For dietary purposes, but also if your jam is picking seeds out of your teeth for the rest of the day, and using it as a conversation starter about how you’re super hard and run ultra-distances for fun while eating only on the raw materials for a Chia Pet).
- More peanut butter. I like to add a pinch of salt to it. It gives it that salty peanut taste you get with a hot fudge Sunday. You can melt the peanut butter in the microwave for 20 seconds and then drizzle it over the top. Unless you are opposed to microwaves. In which case, you can just easily warm it up in your clay pot over your buffalo chip fire.