Diets, fasts and healing for runners

When most people think of diets or fasting, they usually have weight loss in mind.  At the best of times this is a dubious practice, since changing the way you eat – especially if it involves reducing caloric intake – usually results in the body conserving energy and using calories more efficiently thereafter.  Although a more efficient body is generally a healthier body (good!), the problem is that, as a result, many people actually gain weight once they finish their diet or fast (bad!).  If you need to lose weight, the healthiest and most sustainable way to achieve this is to move.  Get out there and go for a (barefoot) run!!!

Diets and fasting were never originally intended to promote weight loss.  On a societal level, surplus food – and the obesity which it has caused – is an entirely modern phenomenon.  And yet fasting is a tradition which spreads across thousands of years through countless different cultures.  It seems likely that fasting and dieting originally came about in order to heighten spiritual experiences, although it is harder to appreciate this given the more diluted practices which exist in today’s mass religions.  However, without any question, a more serious fast can quite profoundly affect your state of consciousness.  You naturally enter into a more meditative state, at once increasingly freed from your physical body and yet at the same time more deeply rooted in it.

So what does this have to do with us runners out there?

Beyond the fact that running can be as spiritual as it is physical, one of the most important concrete by-products of fasting and certain diets is the bodily healing they can induce.  Yes, we’re talking about healing flesh-and-blood injuries.

Discounting calories burned up during running, up to a third of our entire energy is normally consumed consuming our food.  That’s right: given an average, relatively healthy diet, digestion requires as much of our energy as the brain does!  But when we consciously reduce the quantity we eat or control what types of food we eat, the body gains the potential to turn this energy elsewhere.  And so, the body naturally chooses to heal itself of current and old scars, whether physical or emotional.  In fact, it is even said that the body has two primary means of operation: ‘growth mode’ and ‘healing mode.’  Unfortunately, in everyday Western life, we only ever experience the first of these.  Growth mode applies not just to children gaining height, but also to the growth and reproduction of new cells in all of us, as our metabolism continuously wears out the old.  Healing mode is something which, in a culture of plenty, we will never experience unless we actively pursue it.


glass of waterNormally we don’t access the energy from fat cells, but rather that from directly ingested sugars and (more importantly) from the glycogen stored in our liver.  If we fast for more than 24 hours – and here I mean doing it cold turkey: no calories at all, just water – the glycogen runs out and we ‘hit the wall,’ otherwise known as ‘bonking.’  This is exactly the same process as in the latter stages of a marathon.  At this point, our body begins a transition towards burning the energy stored in fat cells, a process known as ketosis.  The reason we feel like we’ve hit a wall is because the body needs time to make the change.  In the meantime, we’ve run out of sugar and glycogen, and we can’t yet efficiently access our fat stores.  Is it any surprise we’re low on energy and feel like death?

 Desperate to find energy, the body searches out any viable source to burn.  This includes bacteria and viruses, which helps to explain why people who fast can experience an unexpected recovery from influenza or other illnesses.  It also includes scar tissue and other extraneous tissue which accumulate through injuries and inflammations.  Especially in the case of joint inflammation, the body simply burns up the material causing pain.  I myself experienced the body’s wondrous healing capabilities, turning the corner on my plantar fasciitis during my ten-day water fast last year.  On another occasion I cured myself of the sinusitis which had plagued me for years.

I’m not suggesting that everyone with aches and pains undertake a water fast.  Clearly a daily caloric intake of zero precludes anything but the most minimal amount of running — though I must confess that it did feel good to stretch my legs with a one-mile run on most days of my last fast.  More importantly, the process of detoxification which also begins as the body enters healing mode can create quite nasty if not downright dangerous symptoms, especially if you’re eating an unhealthy diet or one with much meat in it.  Anyone can try out a one- or two-day fast, but if you consider anything longer, please do some research and err on the side of caution.  I’d also like to add that, in my own case, the purpose of fasting is not to clear up injuries – even if it is a happy by-product.

Fruit diets:

Obviously, water-fasting is not a sustainable practice through the year.  Although in terms of healing, there’s no question that it is the most powerful method, fruit diets instead can provide nearly the same effect, while also maintaining a high level of energy.  Fruit diets can be applied for just a day or two, or maintained for longer periods of time, on the order of months, without any danger to health or lack of nutrients.  Some people, known as fruitarians, are able to stick to such a diet for much longer.

bowl of fruitBy fruit diet, I mean one which consists of only fruit, whether in its original solid form or as a fruit juice.  Sometimes people allow certain vegetables into their fruit diet, thereby increasing variety and intake of certain nutrients, with little loss to the efficacy of the diet.  Stricter regimes dictate that if you can’t eat it fresh – ie. raw — from mother nature, then it’s not fit for human consumption.  This would mean, for instance, that carrots are fine but potatoes are not.  And don’t forget that certain ‘vegetables,’ such as tomatoes, are actually fruits in biological terms.

The benefits of a fruit diet are similar to that of a water fast, except that it’s easy to continue an active lifestyle throughout – including running.  Whenever those around me start coming down with the flu, the first thing I do is switch to a fruit-only diet, sometimes drinking only juice and dairy-free smoothies, sometimes also eating the fruit in its solid form.  Most of the time it works, even if I feel the bug has already entered my system.

Although a strict fruit diet can cure illnesses, the process by which it does so is different from a water fast.  During a water fast, your body actively searches out and consumes bacteria and viruses in order to derive energy.  In a fruit diet, this isn’t necessary, since you’re providing yourself with plenty of calories.  One litre of pure fruit juice, for instance, contains about 600 calories, depending on the type.  And the moment you add bananas into the equation, a virtually unlimited supply of energy becomes available.  Instead, healing through fruit diets occurs because the energy required to digest fruit is virtually zero.  It is no stress on the body at all.  Every calorie you put in can be devoted to boosting the immune system.

A similar situation occurs when healing injuries.  Before last Christmas I felt myself coming down with the flu, and so switched to a fruit diet for a few days.  Although on this occasion I succumbed to the virus, I noticed that during the time I was eating only fruit, the ache of my Achilles tendonitis disappeared.  Fruitarian runners like Michael Arnstein ( swear by their diet, and the way that it reduces the incidence of injuries.  I’m not qualified to give a professional medical opinion here, but it seems to me that diets which restore the pH balance in the intestines and eliminate mucous-forming foods (such as meat, dairy and most grains) also reduce inflammation of any kind.

Being vegan:

vegan (cropped)Another diet known for its ability to reduce injury is veganism, a strict form of vegetarianism in which animal products of any kind, including dairy products and eggs, are excluded.  Vegans are a strange breed.  My kids went to a Waldorf kindergarten, in which quite a few of the families there were vegan.  It was always the vegan kids who got sick; it was always the vegan parents who looked ill — even when they weren’t.

And yet veganism is also big among ultrarunners, and, increasingly, other athletes as well.  Scott Jurek, perhaps the greatest ultrarunner ever, swears by his vegan diet: both in terms of his ability to perform, as well as the way it has kept him free from illness and injury.  As it so happens, I myself turned vegan about three months ago (Dec. 2012), after over twenty years of being a simple vegetarian.  Since then I’ve felt my Achilles tendonitis improve, while also increasing my distance back to about 30 miles a week.  A coincidence perhaps? We’ll never know…

With any extended diet, you run the risk of excluding and depleting certain vital nutrients.  The more extreme the diet, the greater the risks.  So do your research and err on the side of caution.  It’s certainly possible to eat badly on a vegetarian, vegan or any other diet – possibly even worse than on an average Western diet if, in addition to excluding nutrients, you also include a lot of ‘junk food’ as well.  There’s a frighteningly large array of vegan snacks, for instance, which are high in fat and salt.  If a diet is out of your comfort zone, the temptation will be to compensate by eating these.  Don’t.  More importantly, don’t stay out of your comfort zone for too long, as this will only create an emotional backlash in the longer term.  Any diet or fast you choose should be attainable.  Know your limits, and make it a positive experience!

A natural process:

I’m convinced that the body’s ‘healing mode’ – which is so lacking in modern life – is a natural biological process, ingrained in our genes for literally millions of years and shaped by our ancestors on the African savannah.  As much as turning vegan has been a smooth, natural evolution for me, I’m perfectly aware that homo sapiens originally relied on a diet which included meat.  It was perfectly natural for days to pass by when there was no big game to bring down and not much in the way of smaller prey either: days when there was nothing to eat at all.  Fasting may have later evolved into a practice, but in the early days of our species we had no choice.  Is it surprising that our bodies evolved to integrate such a lifestyle into our cells, growing during times of plenty and healing during leaner periods?

Modern society is all go, go, go.  As runners, too, we’re on the go, go, go!  Every now and then, though, it’s worth stopping —  just like our ancestors did — to take some time out to heal.

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