Easter is coming and Laura’s mother sent us a package of presents, which included a bag of accidentally vegan jelly beans. The highly concentrated sugars, colors and flavors that comprise these stupidly sweet little fake beans are not something we frequently consume…or ever buy. That isn’t to say we don’t treat ourselves or eat concentrated sugars, but to buy a bag of candy is just something we don’t do for various reasons. Put that bag in a care package, however, and it will most likely get opened and eaten. No shame. So for the past two nights, we have struggled to not open the bag and not eat them while watching our favorite Netflix shows…meaning, we opened the bag and ate the entire thing over two nights.
And despite the almost painful sweetness of the little sugar beans, and that gross feeling coating the insides of our mouths, and that weirdly thick, colored spit that filled the sink bowl while brushing our teeth…they tasted fantastic! Admittedly, well after ingesting a considerable number of these beans, my only concern was a blockage forming in my intestines around my lingering scar tissue…but all was well and I thoroughly enjoyed consuming those jelly beans like my parents left me home alone for the first time with a fully stocked cookie jar.
Competitive runners are an anxious type. We put in so much work to push our bodies, to hit faster mile paces and run longer distances, that we tend to get a bit obsessive about how best to achieve these new physical limits. We do SO MUCH that we’re always thinking about the tiny things we can do to supplement our already substantial running load, to get just a little bit more of an edge to run at our best. Sometimes, that obsessiveness can surpass reasonable limits and become more detrimental to both our running and emotional stability than it can to help. The grounded runner, though, knows to run a lot, run hard, rest well, and eat well. The other details are just icing on the cake (jelly beans in the bag?).
Still, if one doesn’t take a step back and look at the larger picture of physical progression, of running consistently, of getting better and better, of ENJOYING each run, then the details can start to overpower the general experience and cause all sorts of undue anxiety. I see this obsession about the details far too often in social media and certain niches of running / fitness culture, where an athlete becomes so focused on a specific detail of their training or lifestyle that it dictates everything they do moving forward…or backward. This could be diet, a specific food, a specific workout, shoe type, etc. etc.
So…back to those jelly beans.
There are many runners, foodies, fitness vegans, etc., that would probably say, “Dude! You’re ruining your running by eating those! I mean…processed sugar! Coloring! Flavors!” I usually just shrug it off and keep running. The funny thing is, the morning after I ate those jelly beans, I had a 12 x 200 workout with 200 recovery, and my coach told me to try and hit between :37 and :41 seconds for each rep. Turns out, I nailed every one at :37 and :36. I jokingly said to myself, “It must have been those jelly beans.”
Then last night I ate the second half of those jelly beans…and this morning’s 6 mile recovery run was one of the strongest I’ve had in far too long. My heart rate stayed relaxed and in control, while my legs pushed me forward with noticeable power. I said it again, jokingly, “I think I’m on to something. Jelly beans every night equals better running!”
But of course, that’s not how it works. The body is a complex coordination of systems that comprise the whole, working with and against each other to function properly, so any one small, momentary addition or stress or strengthening of a component of this system is not going to affect the overall functioning. It takes a CONTINUOUS, CONSISTENT acting upon the body in order to create specific, noticeable, measurable changes. Eating jelly beans the night before a workout isn’t going to allow me to hit times I previously thought out of reach. And eating jelly beans the night before a workout isn’t going fill my legs with cement and have me gasping for breath on the edge of the track. I’m continuously amazed, however, by athletes and fitness-minded individuals who think this is a realistic expectation, who continue to hyper focus on one aspect of their diet, training or lifestyle to explain away their success or failures.
Because of the niches I associate with, I see this most often with “fitness vegans” who want to profess the value of their “whole foods, plant-based” diet through athletic achievements. Follow them long enough and you’ll see them talk about how the melons they ate the day prior to their run allowed them to run faster than ever before, or even how when they “slipped up” and ate something processed like a bread item, their run was “an absolute failure”.
Let me say this again…the body doesn’t work that way. Could you imagine if we were so fragile that something as minor as a piece of bread (true celiac-disease sufferers excluded) could ruin a workout or that a handful of grapes could turn us into super humans? Wouldn’t that be great…and awful? This approach to looking at fitness success and failure in such a hyper focused way speaks to our continuous and absurd search for “the magic bullet”, for a simplification of approaches that can be easily understand and applied across the board to all individuals. At it’s most innocent, it’s just human nature needing to understand. At it’s worst, it mirrors absolute morality where the individual who has success is superior and the rest are “ignorant masses”. At it’s most capitalistic, it’s a way to write a book, create a video, and a sell a product that will FIX EVERYTHING ABOUT YOUR LIFE!
When this hyper focus is adapted specifically to diet and food it still creates all the dynamics above, but also leads to speaking about nutrients on a perceived hierarchy, labeling some foods as “super foods”, and persuading people to adopt exclusionary diet plans, indulge in one nutrient in hopes of harnessing it’s “super power” and “high vibrational energy” and other such garbage.
Ultimately, all this hyper focus leads people away from looking at the larger picture, of looking at the trends in health and fitness, of evaluating the many components that make up both the human body and the continuous line of progression. It compels people to look for the easy way out instead of putting in the necessary work, over an extended period of time.
Because some people would actually say, “Those jelly beans will ruin your running!” while others might say, “Those beets/coffee/etc. you ate the days before your run made you run well!” But hey…maybe it wasn’t those jelly beans or those beets or that water or that chocolate…maybe it was the general trend of my lifestyle and training that brought me to this new plateau/breakthrough/progression/etc. Maybe it was the months of running where I never missed a single day of training. Maybe it was all that running, coupled with specific workouts to build various systems of my body. Maybe it was all that running, all those workouts and all that rest I’ve been concentrating on getting. And then maybe it was all that paired with my emotional health, the foods I’ve been eating, the strength work I’ve been doing, and ALL THE COMPONENTS that don’t create moments of success or failure but COMPRISE A TREND of behaviors and corresponding activity.
My coach often says this when it comes to injury, “Look for the trends”, that is to say…how is the injured area feeling over time. Is it getting better or worse? It would be detrimental to go for a run and either say, “It doesn’t hurt…I’m cured!” or “It hurts…I’m broken!” Neither might not be true. But give it a week, then two, and evaluate the trends to determine where you REALLY are with your injury.
And the same applies to health and athletic progression. No one starts a marathon training plan and on the first day says, “I can’t run a marathon today. Something is wrong and I can’t do this.” No, we build and build and build and evaluate the trends of our progression to see if we’re headed in the right direction. This same, easily understandable, approach is what we need to apply to our overall health, whether that means physical progression, general health, etc.
It benefits no one when running success or failure is attributed to one moment, one food, one meal, one late night of sleep, etc. I have seen runners accomplish the most amazing feats after eating and sleeping (or not sleeping) poorly the night before a race, and I’ve seen runners fail spectacularly after doing “everything right”. It is just naive or painfully ignorant to look at our health and fitness in this hyper focused way.
So yeah, I ate those jelly beans, and I ran well each morning afterwards, but it would be absurd to attribute my running performances to jelly beans (PS – currently taking sponsorship proposals for “Sport Beans”). Now, don’t get me wrong…I’m not saying eat and live without consideration, but rather to eat and live in ways that affect a general trend, instead of a moment. Eat well, rest well, train well…and chances are you will live well. Eat like shit, rest like shit, and train like shit…and guess what…I bet I can predict the trend of your life. But just don’t get too focused on the details. Eating jelly beans won’t kill you (I can’t believe I have to say this). Eating gluten won’t kill you. Going to bed late won’t kill you. Hell, smoking a cigarette won’t kill you. But if you do these things every day, all day…then they just might. Have I made my point?
Don’t believe the hype…trust the trend.