I’ve never really thought too much about food when I’ve been training hard. I think Steve Jones said he did his marathon training on a diet of Mars Bars, Coca Cola and meat pies, so I just assumed that if the engine was working hard enough it would burn anything.
I’ve just been reading Natural Born Heroes by Chris McDougal, though, which has some interesting things to say about the ‘Tim Noakes Diet,’ or the theory that a high-fat diet low with almost no carbohydrates is the best way to fuel an athlete. His arguments seemed sort of convincing until I remembered that McDougal is hardly one to shy away from fads – his previous book was on barefoot running and he also extolls the virtue of crossfit in this book. It occurred to me that both Noakes and McDougal seemed to have failed to consider the diets of the best endurance athletes on the planet. They both see processed sugar as the single worst thing you could eat to fuel your running. Clearly they haven’t watched Leonard Patrick Komon make a cup of tea. When I was in Istanbul I was chatting to him as he kept spooning sugar into his cup. When he got to five I thought he’d got distracted and forgotten what he was doing. At eight I was about to say something when he carefully added another half spoonful and stirred. The cup was more sugar than liquid by this point. He finished that one and made another cup in the same way, then ran a sixty minute half marathon.
The Ethiopian athletes’ diet is actually pretty high in both sugar and fat, which makes sense given that most of them are running over 100 miles a week. Below I outline some of the foods considered by the runners to be most important.
Buso and kolo. Buso is ‘roasted barley drink’ and most runners drink it most days. If they’re short of money, they’ll more or less live off it. It’s not got a huge amount of nutritional value (they say it’s ‘gulbet bicha’ – ‘pure energy’) but you can definitely run a long way on it. It is usually prepared with three tablespoons of sugar or honey and mixed with water, and I’ve been told on more than one occasion, with a wink, ‘this is Ethiopian doping.’ Kolo is just mixed cereals, eaten at any time of day or night. Several runners have told me they wake up hungry in the night and eat kolo.
Chemaki. Juice. One of the great things about Ethiopia is the ‘chemaki bets,’ or ‘juice houses’. Usually they sell fruit and veg outside and juice inside. It’s a great business model because it means the over-ripe mangos and avocados still get used. Seven avocados mashed into a glass with a big squeeze of lime juice will cost you 40p. Try making it in the UK for that price. Avocados are really good for you, the athletes swear by avocado juice.
Shorba. Soup. We eat this a couple of times a week. It’s made by boiling cabbage, carrots, potatoes and the vital ingredient: ox bones. If someone has a cold, or a joint injury, Haile will make this. ‘You’ve got a sore knee?’ he asked me last week, ‘I’d better make some soup.’ You can see the fat floating in the soup. It’s energy content must be sky high.
Injera. This is what people think of when they think of Ethiopian food. People think nothing of eating injera three times a day if they feel like it, and they like it so much that, as in the photo, they sometimes eat injera with more injera. This is injera firfir. You use the injera on the outside to eat the injera on the inside, which has been mixed with berbere, a red chilli spice, and sometimes meat. Injera is naturally very high in iron but it’s heavy. The runners won’t eat it the evening before a hard run, for example.
When I ask Ethiopian athletes what they think the most important ingredients of success are, they invariably say, ‘hard work, lots of rest and good food,’ but the third of these is often the most difficult to come by because a lot of them can’t afford to go to the chemaki bet as often as they would like, or eat meat every day. Most of them fast for two months leading up to Easter, as well as every Monday and Friday too (essentially fasting means eating vegan food) so they will often alternate between periods of eating a lot of rich food and periods of existing on injera, buso and chick-pea stew. And there is no such thing as the ‘twenty minute window’ here: often people go for hours after training without eating, sitting on the bus in the Addis Ababa traffic.
None of this seems to do their running much harm though. One of the guys in our group recently ran a 2.09* marathon at the end of the two-month fast. He’d lost around five kilos during his marathon build up and kept telling me that training and fasting at the same time was ‘heavy’. He bought himself a juicer and must have been eating 15 avocados a day, though. Perhaps avocados are the answer.
*in fact he ran 2.09.27, a full second faster than Ron’s PB.
Michael Crawley is one of our sponsored athletes, and focuses primarily on the roads. He is also an ESRC-funded PhD student at Edinburgh University, studying the culture of long-distance running in Ethiopia. Over the next few months he will be living and training in Ethiopia, and learning one of the main languages used there, Amharic. He will be writing about his experiences of training in various locations around the city with different groups of athletes, and about trying to turn himself into a better runner in the process.