fitness and health

Diets, fasts and healing injuries for runners

When most people think of diets or fasting, they usually have weight loss in mind.  Even at the best of times this is a dubious practice. Changing the way you eat by reducing calories 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 run!

If you’re already a runner, this doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for diets or fasting in your life. Far from it! (And this applies both to recreational runners who use movement simply in order to lose weight, as well as to professional athletes.) Besides the fact that a little extra cleansing never hurts :-), diets and fasting provide one of the most effective tools in order to prevent and treat the minor injuries often incurred through running.

How water fasting helps

glass of waterExcited and amazed, many people come to me with stories about the way that skin blemishes and moles disappear during their water fasts. This is a very visible example of the way that fasting can heal the body’s imperfections. Of course, it’s much harder to see beneath the skin, inside muscle, tendons and connective tissue, and actually observe first-hand the healing which takes place. Essentially, though, the process is the same, whether it’s happening on the surface of the body or deep inside.

So what actually happens? When you go on a zero-calorie fast (as in water fasting), your body no longer has to digest food. This means that a huge amount of energy is freed up, given that about a third of each day’s calories are normally consumed in simply digesting the food you eat. If you’ve never fasted before, I know this may sound paradoxical. How can you gain energy by not eating? Well, it’s because we derive energy not just from the calories in food, but also from calories through burning fat tissue: a process called ketosis. When you fast, it usually takes 2-3 days to reach this point efficiently (more info here). Once ketosis is up and smoothly running, though, your body turns the energy which would otherwise have been directed towards digestion towards healing instead. This is itself part of a more fundamental metabolic change during water fasting, in which the body directs its attention not towards the usual growth and reproduction of new cells (so-called ‘growth mode’) but towards the cleansing and healing of old cells (so-called ‘healing mode’).

It makes sense, doesn’t it, that a natural balance should exist between growing and healing, eating and not eating – just as it does between working and resting, and ultimately doing and being. Unfortunately, though, most of us never experience this deeper level of ‘healing mode’ because we don’t take the time to stop eating, to stop working, to stop ‘doing’ and just ‘be’ for a moment. As a result, not only do toxins gradually build up over the course of our lifetime, ultimately leading to chronic disease like cancer and autoimmune issues, but we’re also more prone to physical injuries than we have to be.

Of course, taking time out from running can help injuries to recovery. But it’s when you combine your rest time with zero-calorie fasting – thereby allowing the body to enter a deeper level of ‘healing mode’ – that you reap the greatest benefits. This applies both to forced rest when you already have a running injury, as well as to the kind of regular rest periods which help to prevent injuries in the first place. If you need advice about how to involve fasting into an athletic training schedule, whether as a preventative or palliative measure, I offer online consultations.

Fasting prevents and heals both acute muscle tears and sprains, as well as more chronic issues like tendonitis and plantar fasciitis in primarily two ways.

First, the kind of ‘healing mode’ described above means that the immune system raises its game. Searching out abnormalities in the body much more thoroughly than in everyday life, it targets growths of any kind – whether these are as innocent as moles or as insidious as tumours. Likewise, the immune system’s cells circulate through the body, identifying and then dissolving damaged tissue in a process known as autophagy. This also applies to the kind of scar tissue incurred through running – whether in terms of almost imperceptible micro-tears or more severe injuries.

Second, zero-calorie fasting is incredibly effective at permanently reducing inflammation. Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injuries of almost any kind. To prove the point, let’s take a look at some of the most common running injuries, such as those named above. Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis: anything with the suffix ‘itis’ denotes inflammation. If you’ve every suffered a sprained ankle, then you already know how badly it can swell! Although inflammation does serve its purpose in the short term by protecting the injured tissue, the end result is often a slower recovery process.

As we all know, icing provides a powerful tool to combat inflammation, especially in acute situations. When it comes to more chronic conditions, though, fasting can offer a deeper, more lasting solution. To give an example, I’ve been suffering from a quite a nasty case of tendonitis of the wrist: repetitive stress syndrome caused by mostly by bad typing technique. It reached the point that my wrists became chronically and visibly swollen. So I took some time off to do a 5-day dry fast (read my journal here), which ended up completely reducing the swelling: a permanent reduction of my wrist’s circumference by a full centimetre (1/2 inch). Over the years, I’ve also successfully used fasting to heal Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis.

A role for diets

bowl of fruitWater fasting can provide an extremely powerful healing modality, but let’s face it, you can’t be doing it all the time – especially as a runner. Unfortunately, water fasting and running are mutually exclusive, and to try and push out any miles while fasting or too soon after finishing a fast can itself only lead to injury (see my upcoming video).

Therefore, in order to maximise the efficacy of any fast, it’s important to back it up with sustainable lifestyle choices throughout the year. More than anything, this means taking a look at your diet in order to reduce inflammation. Because just as injuries cause inflammation, so inflammation from other sources increase the likelihood of potential injury, as well as slowing down the recovery of injuries already present.

In terms of what you drink, alcohol is probably the greatest offender. Even in relatively small quantities, beer, wine and spirits of all kinds are well known to cause cellular inflammation throughout the whole body – and especially so in joints. I don’t want to be a party pooper, but it’s a plain fact that if you’re trying to rehabilitate a running injury, then staying away from alcohol makes a lot of sense. In addition, sugar also causes inflammation. This means that high-sugar drinks should also be avoided, especially those which derive from a processed source source of sugar, as opposed to the natural sugar content of a fruit juice. (One exception, however, would be energy drinks consumed while actually running. In this case, your body burns the sugars so quickly that they don’t have time to cause damage.)

In terms of what you eat, several types of diet claim to possess anti-inflammatory properties. At first sight, many of these diets seem to contradict each other, but this is because the underlying anti-inflammatory biochemistry works in different ways for each diet. I’d rather not get side-tracked here with the details, so I’ll give just a few examples. The main thing is that everybody is different, and different diets inevitably impact differently on different people. If you feel like you need to change your diet, then the best thing is to try each one out for a while and see how you feel.

Paleo, low-carb, ketogenic diets

Two principles help to reduce inflammation here: (1) a big reduction in sugar intake and (2) the elimination of grains and especially gluten, which cause an inflammatory response in many people. The drawback, however, is that most of these diets incorporate a large quantity of meat, which, as one of the highest acid-forming foods, can cause a lot of inflammation in both the gut and throughout the whole body, especially in joints.

Vegetarian and vegan diets

vegan (cropped)By avoiding meat, you avoid inflammation. The vegan diet goes one step further by eliminating dairy products, which themselves can cause inflammation through a mild allergic reaction in the gut.

Whereas 30 years ago it was unheard of, nowadays veganism is big among athletes of all kinds, including ultra-runners. Scott Jurek, perhaps the greatest ultra-runner 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. I myself have been vegan for the last five years, and would certainly agree with this – except for the fact that you have to be careful and conscious to make sure you get enough quality nutrients. It’s too easy to fill up on empty carbs like pasta and bread, which can then leave you vulnerable not only to injury but also to ill health as well.

Fruitarian diets

One of the most extreme forms of diet is the fruitarian diet, which consists of only fruit and vegetables. In the same way that a fruit juice cleanse induces a similar but milder detox to that of a water fast, so a fruitarian diet extends this cleanse into a way of life, along with similar anti-inflammatory benefits.

Obviously, the main source of energy in a fruitarian diet is sugar, which, as mentioned above, tends to be a major dietary source of inflammation. However, just as the sugars in fruit juice tend not to cause a problem, so the same applies to fresh fruit itself.

Two main benefits of a fruitarian diet support healing and injury-free running. First, once fruit and vegetables leave the stomach and enter the intestinal tract, they already possess a perfect pH for the body, which is mildly alkaline. Unlike acid-forming foods such as meat and most grains, the body has no need to respond with an inflammatory response in order to protect the lining of the intestines. It’s no surprise that fruitarian runners like Michael Arnstein (www.thefruitarian.com) swear by their diet, and the way that it reduces the incidence of injuries.

Again, though, a fruitarian diet isn’t for everyone, and if you don’t get it right, you’re more likely to cause more harm to yourself than good. So my advice would always be to maintain some self-vigilance, and stop what you’re doing if your body starts responding negatively.

Whichever diet you choose, be careful!

With any extended diet, you run the risk of excluding and depleting certain vital nutrients if you’re not careful – and, of course, this can easily lead to further injury. 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 any of the diets described above – 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. If you’re vegan, for instance, there’s a frighteningly large array of vegan snacks which contain high quantities of 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!

An ancient, natural process

I’m convinced that the body’s ‘healing mode’ – which is so lacking in modern life – is a natural biological process, ingrained into our genes for literally millions of years and shaped by our ancestors on the African savannah. 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. As much as fasting may have later evolved into a conscious decision, 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?

Nowadays, though, we do have a choice about whether or not to fast. As such, it’s always easy to find a reason not to do so. This holds especially true if you’re a runner and hooked on the daily endorphins of a runner’s high! Even beyond this, though, it’s easy for anyone to find an excuse not to fast. In the case of healing an injury, it’s easy to convince yourself that you need to eat in order to rebuild yourself. It’s also easy to feel like you need the comfort of food when your injury is making you feel low. Alternatively, in the case of fasting to prevent injuries, it’s easy to worry that taking the time out to fast will harm your performance out on the trail or the track. Actually, the reverse can be true, as described in my article here. Of course, there does come a point when too many days spent fasting and not running are going to impact on your times, but you’d have to be quite fanatical to reach this point! In the worst case, it’s always possible to focus preventative fasting on the off-season. There’s always a solution if you’re willing to find it.

Modern society is all go, go, go. As runners, too, we’re on the go, go, go! But it’s precisely the imbalance and relentlessness of that go, go, go which makes us ill, which causes injuries. Isn’t it worth stopping every now and then – just like our ancestors did – to take some time out to heal?

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