Elite Diet?
by on Tuesday, October 22, 2013  (9 comments)

I am looking for an edge to make better improvements in my speed and endurance. I refuse to use caffeine or other stimulants (even if natural) to help give a boost. I wondered what diet the amazing Kenyan's ate or even other elite runners. Some of what the Kenyan diet consists of seems to go against the grain of current dietary health trends in the US. I am going to explore other elite runner diet habits and begin to adapt some from each. I know I will have to find what I can afford, what other members of my family can tolerate as well as what will work for me. Should be a good challenge. Here is a good article about a typical elite Kenyan runner's diet.


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Ed, I think the best advice is to eat as close to natural as possible. I recently dropped orange juice from my usual pre-work breakfast in favor of, if I choose to have one, a whole citrus fruit. Likewise with other processed foods, I've been trying to move toward more "whole" foods and fewer processed ones.

I think one key to making this change is to take small steps. If you try to revamp your whole diet overnight, it's going to be a very difficult change and you'll probably give up. However, small changes made as you're ready can be effective. Think of my giving up orange juice. If it were a part of a massive change, I'd probably give up on it all and be drinking orange juice again within a month or two. As of now, though, I made that relatively small change easily and have no interest in going back. Now I can pick something else to work on.

If you are interested in the Kenyan diet, Ugali gets a lot of attention. Running Times posted a Ugali recipe and video on how to make it about a year ago. Unfortunately, it appears both have been taken down but I saved the Ugali recipe to Pocket while it was still around. Here you go:

Go Kenyan Option: Ugali

Ingredients: 4 cups water, 2 cups finely ground cornmeal, 2 teaspoons salt (if desired)

Recipe: Bring the water and salt to a boil in a heavy saucepan. Stir in the cornmeal slowly, letting it fall through the fingers of your hand. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue stirring regularly, smashing any lumps with a wooden spoon, until the mush pulls away from the sides of the pot and becomes very thick, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool somewhat before serving. Can be eaten by hand, rolling ugali into a ball and using it to scoop up meat, stew, greens or vegetables. Balls of ugali can also be put in a bowl with stew spooned on and around them.

Of course, I'd stress my usual stipulation. There is no silver bullet. Ugali isn't going to make you run like a Kenyan. Honestly, I've never tried Ugali and the recipe leaves me fairly uninterested. I just saved it off as a curiosity. Again, the best thing in my opinion would be incremental steps toward more natural food and less processed food.

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Andrew A.

I am with Ryan, I have never been fond of grits (the U.S. equivalent of ugali) so I stick to things I like because that is what I will tend to eat most often. Humans are creatures of habit and we will invariably default to the flavors and textures we grew up on. One should consider the typical Kenyan/Masai diet within its context, as the staples for what they eat are necessarily constrained to what can be grown within 50 miles of where they live and those staples (grains, dairy, etc.) tend to have far cleaner sources than what you're apt to find at the local Safeway in the USA. For what it's worth, Kenyan runners are known to consume plenty of stimulants in the form of their traditional chai tea (black tea, spices, copious amounts of sugar and milk). I would not consider the Kenyans (or Ethiopians) to have the corner on a diet that is necessarily the most ideal for elite runners, they simply eat what they're used to and most of them are young enough (with high enough metabolisms) and active enough to burn through anything excessive or useless. The takeaway for us from their diet is what Ryan touches on, more whole foods from cleaner sources. In a general sense, the advisable diet for a runner is the time-worn adage: eat like a pauper. In the Western world, that would be more beans and rice (complete protein) perhaps with a healthy vegetable oil (olive, flax) seasoning, seasonal greens, potatoes/yams, and so on. I would look more to top NFL players for performance diet insights, as they are the ones among us in this country who have the education, access, and motivation to eat the best. This is not the rule, yet, though you can find many who are adopting vegetarian and even vegan diets, going primarily plant-based. I always think of an interview I heard with Shannon Sharpe, who even after retiring has kept himself in great shape. He was asked if he ever has cheat days in his diet, to which he replied: yes, once a year I allow myself to have a club sandwich. That's it, not hot wings or a burger or a pork chop, a single club sandwich per year. Otherwise, he is eating very clean greens, grains, and lean protein for his meals 364 days a year. I would also recommend looking to something known as the Blue Zones, which is a book that examined the diets of contemporary people across the globe who have had the longest lives.

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I completely agree on the slow and small change thing.

Most of what I have found is high vegetable, fruit and healthy fats with a protein source. Most elite US runners eat eggs as their primary protein source where the Kenyan's eat beef. I think a balance of both the beef and eggs would be best at least for me.

The link I tried to give has the recipe for Ugali and it really is unappealing - boiled cornmeal just doesn't sound appetizing. I was thinking about trying a 1/4 or 1/2 recipe just to try it as a source of carbs with a beef stew and or some green beans.

There is no silver bullet, I agree, and even if there was - it might not work for me.

It is going to be a combination of a better diet, with more training at a better effort and learning to gut it out in races close to the point of true collapse.

My main issue is not eating properly after a hard workout to rebuild the glycogen stores and allow for maximum nutritional recovery. That I will work on solving as well.

I figure if I work this out over the winter I could have much in place by spring and have a super summer and fall racing season.

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That is some good info as well. I'll be sure to look into that as well. I need to play with it all, this winter, to find what will work for me.

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As usual, great advice from Andrew. I especially like the "eat like a pauper" idea. As you notice, the list Andrew gives is basically a list of simple, unprocessed natural foods. I've heard the "eat like a pauper" idea before and I think it makes a lot of sense.

Ed, I kept that Ugali recipe just because I thought it would be fun to try it sometime. The fact that I haven't tried it in over a year, even though I recalled no problem that I had it around, shows how appetizing I get the sense it would be. It seems like something that would be fun to try...until you actually get right down to actually doing it. Then it doesn't seem that fun at all.

The best advice I could give you at this point, don't over think this whole thing. Make small changes that move you in the right direction. Once one change sticks, you can move on to something else. Start with the points where you can make the biggest gains and work your way down the ladder. Personally, my point of emphasis right now is on more whole fruits and veggies. I'm doing pretty decent on fruits but I need to work on eating more whole veggies more consistently.

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I don't know about Ugali. I don't think that's the Kenyan secret to endurance and speed. Most cornmeal in the US is genetically modified and we already know that's not healthy. Quinoa is a great choice for a healthy grain alternative. It has lots of protein and is actually a vegetable, but appears and tastes more like a grain. One good way to make a healthy modification to your diet is quit drinking soda. If you don't drink soda, another modification to make is stop eating stuff in packages, like cookies, chips, crackers, pop tarts, cereal, etc. That stuff is loaded with fructose, sugar, hydrogenated fats and other preservatives which are all bad for you. Bake your own cookies and stick with fruit and oatmeal (not the kind in the flavored packages- real oatmeal you have to cook) for breakfast.

I like the "eat like a pauper" idea, but I can't help thinking that the actual poor people in this country can't eat like paupers because they can only afford cheap, unhealthy processed foods. A head of broccoli or a bag of apples costs more than 4 cheeseburgers off the dollar menu... sadly.

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Andrew A.

Still unsure what your source would be for either they typical Kenyan elite runner's or typical U.S. elite runner's diet: http://thestepsfoundation.org/ryan-and-sara-hall/east-african-summer-part-iii-kenya

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Great points by Lighty. Ed knows well that I'm always preaching cutting the soda. That's the biggest calorie dump a person can get. No positive nutrition, just a bunch of empty calories, and it does nothing to fill you. That stuff is just evil. I have to admit I've never tried Quinoa but I am interested and I will likely give it a shot in the future.

Limiting packaged foods is another great piece of advice. I once read that you should shop around the perimeter of a store and avoid the aisles. This seems like a good way to go. Most of the unhealthy stuff is in the aisles and most of the good stuff is in the perimeter.

I've also thought of how poor people eat in the city. Not only is a head of broccoli more expensive than a burger off the dollar menu. In the inner city, it is much harder to find. In Milwaukee, there are people who don't have cars and live over 30 minutes by bus from a grocery store that carries fresh produce but live a 1-2 block walk from Mickey D's or some other place that serves up cheap trash. When I think of "eat like a pauper" I try to think how the rural poor live. They grow their own food (not always an option in the inner city) and eat what they grow because it's cheap. As an added bonus, it's far more healthy than what most Americans, rich or poor, eat.

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Andrew A.

Regarding "eat like a pauper," it's an old adage based on a more traditional (at this point, more global) perspective. It goes well beyond the food deserts resulting from urban public policy in the U.S. Go back fifty, sixty, seventy years or more in the U.S. and you would find people in most walks of life eating far less meat than they do today. Back then, meat was simply a rather occasional variety, something that ag (farm bill) policy changed with subsidies that led to cheap feed for animals which motivated the changes to factory farming and the consequences of it all. Today, true food knowledge is far less common than food marketing campaigns, complete with biased scientific findings to aid that end. It is less a duty to fuel national health and more a consumerist enterprise designed to maintain a customer base, to line the pockets of an elite minority of big ag executives, government officials, and investors . . . but I digress.

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