“If you give a mouse a cookie, he will ask you for a glass of milk.” And so begins the children’s book by Laura Numeroff. Like all children’s books, this one is more about human nature, as a lesson for kids, than it is about mice or cookies. Today I was running down Fairmount Avenue shortly after leaving work, thinking about the food I eat, and a conversation I had with one of my former high school runners-turned track club teammates, John Vu. John graduated from Cherry Hill West, where I am an assistant track coach, last spring. He is now running cross country (for the first time) at Camden County College, and is also a member of Greater Philadelphia Track Club with me. He asked if we could meet last night for a run, and I convinced him to do a track workout. It turned out that was exactly what he needed, as he has been feeling burned out from the heavy, high-intensity mileage he has been doing, and wanted some guidance from me.
We talked about a lot of things while we ran 8×400 @ 1:30 with 2-3 minute 400m jog rests. We talked about what it does to you when you train full tilt every day without breaks, we talked about getting enough sleep, etc. But at some point, we ended up on the subject of food. I think he said something about how he eats a lot of fast food, but that doesn’t matter since he is running so much. I almost stopped running in the middle of the rep we were on. He said his coach has told him not to worry about what he eats, since he doesn’t have to worry about gaining weight. She has also told him to eat about 4000 calories a day. I would guess 4000 calories is about right, but it horrified me to think of eating 4000 empty, fast food calories.
I tried to explain that how we fuel our bodies is an essential part of our success, and that if he is feeling burned out he needs to first make sure he is getting eight hours of sleep each night, and second make sure he is eating nutritious high calorie foods.
As I ran through this conversation in my mind today, I thought about how I have actually gotten to a point where just about everything that passes my lips is highly nutritious. I still drink too much diet soda, and I am still working on getting the right ratios of nutrients into my system, but in general, my diet has improved immensely over the last few years. Why?
Simply by becoming a runner I think I began to make a lot of changes. Actually, it was when I was doing some heavy triathlon training that I established a common routine of cooking lean meats, whole grains, like rice and quinoa, and nutrient rich vegetables like collards, kale, spinach and broccoli rabe. But for a while I still ate crappy food out quite a bit, like cheesesteaks and pizza. Okay, I still eat a fair amount of pizza, but that is probably the worst thing I eat, and my portions have shrunk from absurd to maybe just a little more than normal.
But today a typical day’s menu looks like this:
Rolled and steel cut oats, soaked/fermented
Ground flax seed
Walnuts or almonds
Grilled, broiled or sautéed fish
Sautéed greens with garlic
Potatoes, rice, or quinoa
Spinach, mixed green or romaine salad
Popcorn with sea salt, 3-6-9 blend oil, nutritional yeast
Handfuls of raisins, dates, dried apricots, nuts
If I could get John, the 18-year-old college runner to get eight hours of sleep and eat a diet like that I think he would be unstoppable. His coach recognizes his talent. As a first-year distance runner (ran 400m and under until half way though spring track of his senior year) he is running 8Ks at just over 30 minutes. Before he graduated he decided to “try” the 800 meters and ran 2:08 in his third or fourth race. This is on a typical teen-ager’s sleep regimen and fast-food diet!
I referred to the mouse and cookie, because I believe that like a lot of things, a simple turn of one’s attention, or a refocus can lead to eventual great change, but it usually happens slowly. I never decided to eat healthy. Actually, I tried that over the years and failed. Instead, what actually worked was simply turning my attention to a better way. If you give a mouse a cookie, he will ask you for a glass of milk. If you eat a healthy meal, you will want another.