Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Monday, February 11, 2019

Sports "diets" are about the process, not the outcome

That's a basic statement of fact, not an indirect endorsement. Put another way, it means that, in my experience, people sign on to "diets" not because they have good reason to expect stellar results, but because it gives them a point of focus shared by thousands of others at any given time. If enough people are engaged in a given thing, jumping on the bandwagon may not better your life, and it may not even be medically or psychologically advisable, but you'll automatically gain a bunch of new de facto allies. The pursuit in question may be watching Real Adultresses of Botox Junction, summiting a specific group of mountain peaks wearing only a cowboy hat, or deciding that vaccinating your kids will cause them to be even more fucked up than you are.

Many have suggested that were it not for parents instilling religious ideas into their kids' heads before their brains are old enough to respond critically, the whole scheme would largely collapse, at least at the level of obviously untenable claims like six-day creation, dead people coming back to life, and the Bible -- errors, contradictions, atrocities and all -- being authored, or at least dictated, by a being of unimpeachable wisdom and utmost kindness. After all, tell any educated 18-year-old who has somehow never heard that Christianity is not merely mythology that people rally around but an actual account, and that the account established that the cosmos is between six and ten thousand years old with Earth at its center, and the response would be incredulous laughter.

But I'm not sure this "Gotta get 'em young or not at all" rule when it comes to clearly bad or at least poorly supported ideas is entirely valid. We have a whole nation of folks who, starting as formally educated adults, eagerly adopt vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free diets despite absolutely no evidence that any of these can help anyone perform better in competition. (I'm leaving ketogenic diets for ultramarathon runners out of the cross-hairs here.) Moreover, a nontrivial number of these diet fans evangelize lustily about these regimens despite having little or no objective evidence that they help improve anyone's performance, including their own. When someone points this out to them, they mumble about how these habits are better for general health -- even though there is no evidence for this, either. (Another disclaimer: I'm excluding people who adopt vegan diets out of concern for animal welfare but stop short of yoking this philosophy to "vegan is better for you anyway." Theirs is a fully respectable position, even if it's often questionable from a health standpoint, especially for athletes.)

Finally, even if people's personal testimonies -- about their nutritional journeys or about anything else -- can occasionally be viewed as reliable indicators of the veracity of the beliefs guiding their behavior, a questionable position in its own right, one thing is absolutely certain: Different people handle different nutritional inputs in markedly different ways, even those without a disease diagnosis. It is simply not reasonable to expect any large, diverse group of people to respond similarly to the same nourishment regimens.

The advent of antibiotic medications in the first half of the 20th century was undoubtedly the most significant game-changer in modern human history in terms of reducing disease and death. (One might argue that formal agricultural practices was an even greater boon, but this was more of an inevitability than an innovation.) Yet no sensible person thinks everyone can take the same antibiotics and achieve the same effect. Notably, some people are allergic to penicillin-class drugs, meaning that what is life-saving for others is frankly dangerous to these folks. Additionally, some people are allergic to certain foods, with the functional limitations this places on their lives varying from trivial (no strawberries or shellfish) to inconvenient (no dairy) to life-altering on an everyday level (no wheat products). And is dietary fat dangerous? To most people, not nearly as much as was widely believed starting in the 1970s, with the result being de facto hysteria, formalized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's warnings to basically avoid fats, especially saturated and "trans"-unsaturated fats altogether. But there was some validity in this overwrought movement: Some people really cannot eat much fat without getting gravely ill. Still, the claim that "normal" people have a higher risk of heart disease if they overdo dietary fats h.as been walked back to "Well, Americans eat more of it than they need to and it's making people fat," which is perhaps true but a different argument. And I haven't even mentioned diabetes or varying levels of insulin sensitivity among people who do not qualify as diabetic.

With all this ambient uncertainty, people can't be blamed for searching for answers on their own and latching on to whatever the most prominent Instagram runners du jour are pushing at any moment. But too many people miss the crucial aspect of individual variation -- and there is not just a little of it, but more than the average individual is led to suspect.

This is largely speculative, but I would expect that beneath the examples of outright food intolerance and allergies lie a lot of differences in the way people respond to common everyday foods.

I should interject at this point that my own diet, while passably sound on paper, is actually gruesome. I get enough calories to fuel myself, but my intake is haphazard, utilitarian and joyless. When I was training my hardest, I practically lived on starches -- pasta, bagels and the like. I still do, but I eat less of it. But regardless of my personal biases and stake (or lack of it) in the matter, it seems fair to say that, while individual responses to given food and dietary components differ, most of us have a death-clock that starts ticking the second we're born, and there isn't a lot anyone can do to add time to it. Sure, if you live on cigarettes and vodka you can shave a lot of time off, which is why I favor more people doing more of these things more often as long as I don't have to smell or watch. But except for such clearly extreme examples, it seems we're pretty well stuck with the general course our DNA grants us. We happily acknowledge this reality in non-human animal populations, but naturally want to see, and if necessary engineer, changes to this reality in the human population.

It's trivially true that someone whose diet is lacking in calories of key nutrients is going to respond positively by following whatever nutritional regiment the most recent winner of the Shitwhack 100 follows, provided the latter is "complete"; that's obvious on its face. But an already healthy active person who embraces a specific diet really is really just engaging in a religious practice -- a way for people to bond and become part of an in-group, be it at the track, the gym or online. And that's not always bad, just like religions have their clear upsides. But whatever your own ideal sports diet is, that combination of carbs, proteins and fats is unlikely to adhere perfectly to anything you'll find in a book or on a website. And no amount of experimentation is likely to land you the body or times of your idols. You may -- gasp! -- not be able to get your body-fat percentage below 10 or 15 percent no matter what you do, not that this sort of thing should be any runner's main goal anyway.

Runners are more prone to this kind of experimentation than most. For one thing, we have no skills to work on like passing or swinging at a ball (the idea that running should be considered a sport is up there with the idea that ketchup counts as a vegetable) and this leaves runners free to more gaily obsess over other things that might improve performance. For another, the activity is rife with people who are neurotic about food, and nutrition is plainly a critical concern in long-distance running. For another. now that most runners are joggers and not anyone's idea of a competitive quasi-athlete, the average income of someone who participates in races of any sort is higher than average. Maybe not "my kid plays tennis and does crew" wealthy, but well off. This means that a startling percentage of runners are OK with spending a lot more money on food when there is even the faintest possibility that, say, a 25 percent increase in one's grocery bill can reportedly afford a 5 percent jump in performance.

But realistically, like almost anything people in theory decide and practice privately but in reality engage in collectively (again, see "religion"), "sports diets" are about making an impression and bragging that you've moved up the moral chain. To each his own, but just like moving to altitude in general, this is unlikely to make an iota of difference in performance. The primary utility in adopting a diet with strict rules seems to be giving people something to focus on every day, not actually improving short- or long-term health or even performance on the race course. And this is exactly what religion is good for.

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