Marc Bloom's 'Amazing Racers' First Look: FM's Clean Living

1st Change at FM - "Clean" Eating

--Third in a Five-Part Series--

A MileSplit Exclusive first look at the themes and stories from the upcoming book about the most successful HS distance running program of the past two decades.

Alana Pearl (right) pushes through a muddy NXN in 2012

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Pardon the expression, but when it comes to high school cross-country, is healthy eating a throwaway? Does any team, en masse, follow accepted nutritional guidelines to fuel strenuous running and racing and enable young, growing athletes to sustain a long season? Do athletes and their parents-and even coaches-realize that nutrition plays a role in bone growth, hormonal health and injury?

Is it really that painful for a teenage runner to take peanut butter-and-jelly on whole wheat bread (preferably "natural" peanut butter, only ingredients peanuts; and "fruit" jelly, all to eliminate sugars), plus banana or other fruit, a Fayetteville-Manlius staple, for school lunch? From what I've seen, apparently it is.

No team of teens can be nutritionally "perfect," and F-M does not claim to be. But a team can attempt to be nutritionally sound. As with any approach against the norm-and we Americans love our "normal" foods-scorn and ridicule may follow. F-M runners digging into their PB&J in the school cafeteria have been mocked. Some F-M parents wondered what was wrong with their kids when they spurned typical fare in favor of what coach Bill Aris calls "clean" eating. One mom thought her daughter had an eating disorder when she began favoring fresh fruits and vegetables. 

I've seen this cultural resistance in my own coaching. With a girls' team I worked with as an assistant some years ago, I gave a team talk one night on nutrition with parents in attendance. I distributed a 20-page handout with every bit of good advice I could get hold of including weekday practice and weekend racing meal plans. I included a discussion of iron content to address crucial low ferritin levels in girls, a much under-discussed and misunderstood subject.

Afterwards, I saw little evidence that anything I spoke about was taken to heart. I can recall one Sunday morning when we did a ten-miler on a lovely trail at a brisk pace. I ran with whoever I could keep up with. After one of our leading girls faded back to me and almost collapsed, I poked my head into her mom's car before she took off, asked what happened and was told.... "Oh, so-and-so skipped breakfast."

With the school I'm currently with, the head coach has a nifty way of framing good nutrition (as well as good time management and a good night's sleep): "maximum self-care." From what I've noticed, I can't say the food part is working very well. I want to scream at fall meets when well-meaning parents bring sugar-laden goodies with empty calories for post-race snacks. Donuts, pastries... Great recovery food! 

(Earth to parents nationwide: thanks, but you can do better. What happened to the orange slices my high school coach brought us in 1963?)

Aris witnessed this nutritional debacle from his earliest coaching days, and as a former marathoner knew that when he took over the entire F-M program in 2004, the first big change in team culture would have to come in eating habits. At the pivotal boys' '04 summer camp in the Adirondacks the eight boys in attendance had only healthy food choices. You know what? They cleaned their plates with glee.

When I spoke with those '04 boys for the book, they rhapsodized about the fish dinners and piles of fruits and vegetables served at camp. Conversion proved lasting. Once back home, the boys asked their moms to prepare the same dishes they'd had in the Adirondacks. Their camp fare was pretty much what the Olympic champion Herb Elliott had eaten when under Percy Cerutty's tutelage at Portsea.

Good nutrition works at Fayetteville-Manlius not just for its own sake but as part of a broader construct impacting the entire program. The athlete learns independence from mass tastes (pun intended), demonstrates discipline, shows accountability to teammates by complying with a healthy lifestyle, and has an appreciation of what goes into peak performance. Food matters.

Nick Ryan runs away with the Regional Title in 2013, just days after Thanksgiving. (Photo by Kyle Brazeil)

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At F-M, all of the key nutritional ideas, marinating for months, merge on the weekend of the NXN New York Regional, which always falls right after Thanksgiving. Athletes are advised to go easy on heavy holiday food and maybe the skip the turkey (with its energy-sapping tryptophan) altogether. Like most teams, F-M does a course run-through the day before the meet, less than 24 hours after a Thanksgiving meal. Many F-M athletes I spoke with brought up their holiday meal discipline as a point of pride. It's that "extra something" that can make a difference in team unity and performance.

But don't think Fayetteville skimps on calories. The mantra, year-around, is clean food and plenty of it. Energy consumed, energy used. Girls are encouraged to eat enough to facilitate normal adolescent changes, to develop strong, robust bodies up to the challenge of rigorous cross-country. By and large, they get it right.

By now, it's common knowledge that a "Mediterranean diet" of fresh fruits and vegetables, dark leafy greens, olive oil, fish, nuts, healthy fats like avocado and little consumption of meat is the healthiest approach for most people, and certainly for just about any young runner. Over the years, Aris has found that teenagers wanted to do the right thing, especially if the whole team was on board and the athletes were adhering to healthy ideas "for one another." Typical teenage fare-like high-fat, high-in-sugar processed foods, along with soda-are nutritional sins that should not be tolerated on a regular basis. (A suggestion: one donut allowed per every 500 miles.)

Personally, I'm a vegetarian (not vegan), who eats fish and dairy, and cheats on a holidays by sampling the brisket just to make sure it's good. Lately, to further cut my sugar intake, I've eliminated regular whole wheat bread in favor of organic, flourless bread (kept in the frozen food shelves at the market). One slice contains a good amount of protein, fiber, carbohydrate and potassium with only one gram of sugar and no fat. Add natural peanut butter and you have a perfect post-workout or post-race snack.

At Fayetteville-Manlius, you can always tell when it's cross-country season. The shops in town have a run on peanut butter. #

Tomorrow: F-M Selflessness

Marc Bloom was the editor of four national running magazines including Harrier XC, which led to the start of NXN and Great American. "Amazing Racers," Bloom's tenth book, will be published August 6 by Pegasus Books. That same day, on Tuesday, Aug. 6, the book will be launched with a Barnes & Noble event in the Syracuse area, at the branch in DeWitt. Bloom and Aris will speak and sign books. Former F-M athletes will be in attendance. All are welcome. More information to come. "Amazing Racers" can be purchased at Amazon and wherever books are sold.