Running in the Fasting Lane

If there was ever any doubt that running is about energy, German Fernandez settled the issue for all time with this amazing race.

Energy is the holy grail of a runner. Sure, our talent is determined before we’re born – we get our VO2Max and biodynamics from Mom and Dad. So being number 1 can’t be everybody’s dream. Runners like high school 2-mile record holder Fernandez come on Earth with other-worldly talents.

Did your parents do you any favors? Mine didn’t. Still, I refuse to be daunted – at my own level, my great runs happen when I’ve got superabundant energy.

Where does energy come from?

Running is a whole thing. When we run, we ride in a machine that’s far more complex than most of us realize. Years ago, I translated a scientific paper by a well-known German coach, Ernst Van Aaken, M.D., and was amazed by the complexity of the enzyme reactions involved in turning food and oxygen into energy. When we eat, train, and sleep, our bodies do extremely complex work behind the scenes.

In most runners’ careers, there comes a time when the wheels come off — our energy sags, our joy in running withers, and we feel it’s time to take the body to the repair shop for an overhaul.

In fact, that’s exactly what needs to happen. Like a car that’s been driven too long without an oil change, the body accumulates all manner of crud and cruft, the residue of the complex processes of digestion and exercise. Getting rid of the crap can give our energy a huge boost.

There are two ways to increase our energy:

  1. Help the body generate energy more efficiently. (Eat well, sleep enough, train wisely, avoid overtraining.)
  2. Remove obstacles to the free flow of energy in the body. (Stand up straight, do yoga postures, avoid energy-killing foods like trans-fats, etc.)

One of the most powerful ways to get more energy is to give the body an internal cleansing. In indigenous cultures, a traditional method for doing that is fasting.

Back in 1972, my office mate at Runner’s World was Ian Jackson, a highly intelligent man who had led an adventurous life – Ian had surfed big waves on Oahu, stowed away on an ocean liner bound for Australia (he was caught and returned), trained with the UC Berkeley swim team, dived into the ocean from 100-foot cliffs, and won the Pacific Division AAU 50-K road championship. After leaving RW, Ian finished an Ironman triathlon and coached Olympic-caliber athletes in cycling, running, and other sports.

Ian and I were both exploring the far reaches of health, and at one point we got into juice fasting. We didn’t fast long, but we did it regularly. One to 3 days was common; I think our longest was a week or two. But Ian combined fasting and running in ways that went completely over the edge.

Runner’s World published a booklet called Food for Fitness (long out of print), in which Ian described his experiences of fasting for seven days, during which he ran 140 miles, mostly in the Berkeley Hills in the company of Rich Delgado, a top Bay Area road racer and notorious hard trainer. On the final 20-mile run (at 6:30 to 5:00 pace), Ian had an out-of-body experience. I don’t have the book, but I recall him describing how he felt a oneness with the eucalyptus trees – the branches swaying and creaking in the wind were his arms, the wind a part of his own being.

I haven’t seen Ian in over 30 years. But I’ve continued to fast, albeit sporadically. I recently had bronchitis that lasted six weeks and seemed to be trending toward the chronic variety which, at my age, 66, can be fatal. So I pulled out my copy of How to Keep Slim, Healthy & Young With Juice Fasting, by Paavo Airola, a Finnish-American health advocate with a PhD in biochemistry. Airola said that fasting had helped his patients with chronic bronchitis, so I decided to give it a try.

Back when Ian and I were fasting, my body felt clean and magnetic. I never got colds, even though I occasionally ran at night in 18-degree weather, wearing only a singlet. I believe my exceptional health and energy had a lot to do with the fact that my body was clean inside.

In the late 1980s, I fasted for 21 days, following Airola’s guidelines, and after I broke the fast I felt 20 years younger. It was as if my body had received a complete engine replacement.

Does this stuff work?

As I write this, I’m in the 30th day of a 30-day fast. I feel great – physically strong and mentally clear, with big energy. Later, below, I’ll relate some of my experiences during the fast.

If you’d like to experiment with fasting for physical, mental, and spiritual renewal, here are some tips:

1. Never fast without medical advice, especially if you have a serious illness, and if you plan to fast longer than 1-3 days. (Legal disclaimer.)

2. Don’t believe the claims of those who say that water fasting is “better” than juice fasting. A careful reading of Airola’s little bookl reveals the important role that the various broths and juices play. Raw vegetables and fruit give the heart and brain (the body’s most sugar-hungry organs) the carbs they need to function normally during the fast. They also enable the faster to go for daily walks, which, according to Airola, aid the process of elimination.

During a fast, the body lives off its inner resources. The miracle of fasting is that the body preferentially “burns” the materials with the least biological value first — stored fat, and uneliminated toxins from the environment, digestion, exercise, and so on. Metabolism and elimination of these inferior materials puts the body in an acidic state, which stresses the immune system. Raw juices and broth are strongly alkaline-forming, and keep the body in the metabolic balance that the immune system likes.

Several people have written books on water fasting, perhaps the most famous being Herbert Shelton, who ran a fasting clinic in Texas for many years. In the 1970s, I met a man who had visited Shelton’s spa. He said he’d spoken with the secretary, who told him in confidence that fully 50 percent of the people who came to the clinic for healing and rejuvenation subsequently wrote angry letters, complaining about the poor results, the difficulty in “recovering from” the fast, and the fresh health problems they had experienced.

Another friend told me that his wife had fasted for 10 days on water and suffered irreversible liver damage. Not a pretty picture.

Another water fasting advocate is Joel Fuhrman, MD. I have a huge respect for Fuhrman – his book on diet and weight-loss, Eat to Live, is the best I’ve ever read. But when it comes to fasting, he’s wrong.

3. Fasting may not be for everyone. The Indian healing system called Ayurveda describes a “body type” that generally doesn’t do well on long fasts. People of the “Vata” body type can become mentally and emotionally unbalanced if they consume too much “cooling” food like raw juices. The Vata type describes people who tend to be mentally quick, don’t like cold or windy weather, may have trouble sleeping, don’t like to get up early, and can become disoriented with too much activity or travel.

As runners, Vatas greatly prefer hot weather and gravitate toward shorter racing distances like the 5K and 10K. A strongly Vata buddy of mine accompanied me on 20-milers in 90-degree heat one summer. Amazingly, he wore a black long-sleeved turtleneck while I ran shirtless.

If you suspect that certain items in your diet may be affecting your thinking and emotions, Ayurveda can be a great aid. I speak from personal experience. A fine introduction is The Ayurvedic Cookbook by Morningstar and Desai.

4. Make your own juices – don’t buy them. Six months ago, I fasted for 7 days on pasteurized organic orange juice from Trader Joe’s and got nowhere near the benefits that I experience when I fast on home-squeezed OJ from organic Valencias. (Hint: to save labor, squeeze 10-20 lbs of oranges, freeze the juice in plastic containers (yogurt tubs, etc.), and enjoy a gelato fast!)

5. Read Airola’s book. Fasting, like weight-loss, takes mental preparation. You’ll have a better experience if your mind is thoroughly convinced, and if you know how to manage the fast so you can continue to work and do mild exercise. The stories in the book are inspiring, and the specific advice is extremely helpful.

6. Don’t attempt a long fast before you’ve done quite a few shorter, one- to three-day fasts. A good starter schedule is to fast one day a week and three days once a month on orange juice. That’s what I do, with a seven-day fast about every four months, and a longer fast in the spring. I doubt I’ll fast 30 days again for years — it’s simply not necessary, and 14 days once a year is enough.

Here are some of my experience during the month-long fast that ends today.

Day 5. Went to the gym and walked on the treadmill for 45 minutes. Wondered if I should run, since I want to fast as long as possible, and I don’t want to exercise hard if it means breaking the fast. Yesterday, on a fasting website, I read about a man who continued to train for the Western States 100 while fasting for 30 days, and another who did a standard-distance triathlon on the 30th day of a fast.

I also wondered if running, rather than walking, would expend energy that the body could use to cleanse and repair.

At any rate, two days ago, on the third day of the fast, I went to the Foothill College track and walked for 25 minutes, then did five Tabata intervals (20 seconds very hard, with a 10-second break), starting at perhaps 8:00 pace and finishing the last one fairly hard, though not all-out. I seemed to suffer no ill effects. But I don’t know if it took energy from the cleansing and healing of bronchitis that are my main goals.

Today, after 20 minutes of vigorous walking, I ran one-minute intervals at 8:30, 8:00, 7:30, 7:00, and 6:40 pace, then 10 seconds at 6:18 pace, with 3-5 minutes’ walking in between.

The first interval was very joyful. It felt as if God were giving me instruction in the “Arf!” method of training with the joy of a hound dog, which I described in a recent article. One of my goals for the fast is to recover some of the joy that I had when I started running 40 years ago and fasted regularly.

The first hard burst at the gym felt wonderful — it had the flavor of the old joyful running -no complex thoughts, just feeling happy and playful but under control. I enjoyed it very much. It was an innocent, self-forgetful, un-self-conscious style of running.

The second and third bursts were faster and a bit less joyful. But the last one, at 6:40 and briefly at 6:18, was very joyful – I had lots of energy. My heart rate was very high, well above 90%, but my breathing wasn’t pressured or painful.

Nevertheless, I could feel the weight of my physical body. My body was a sack trying to drag me down from the liberating, light feeling. My mind during the fast has been very light and free most of the time, particularly in meditation, where I’ve had wonderful experiences of childlike sincerity with God. But there have also been times when I felt quite toxic. Yesterday, while we were shopping at Whole Foods, I felt dizzy and disoriented and had to go sit in the car. When we got home, I took an enema where a lot of crud came out, and then I was all right.

Day 10. My spiritual teacher came to town today, and although I haven’t seen him, I feel his presence. In the fast, I’ve felt as if my blood has been full of crap – it has affected my thoughts and awareness – my thoughts are very earthbound, mundane, and I’ve had a hard time lifting my consciousness to pray or reflect on my higher aspirations. But today I felt a loving blessing from my spiritual teacher, and my awareness changed radically. I believe – I know – that it’s because, while I’m fasting for physical reasons also (to recover the joy of running, and to heal incipient chronic bronchitis), my essential motive is to become a simpler, more devoted person who’s focused on serving and loving God. In effect, I’ve given the fast to God.

I remember a time when I was training for the Western States 100. I began growing my hair long as a joke, so that I could run the race looking like a hoary old mountain runner. But “behind the scenes,” I also felt that I should grow it long because I was giving fitness classes with a spiritual theme, and I felt that people would relate better to a guy with long hair than my former butch haircut. So, even though I don’t like wearing my hair long, I said, “I’ll do it for God.” My spiritual teacher came through town, and when he saw me the first thing he said was, “George, I like your hair!” I wondered, “What is he talking about – why is he talking about my hair?” The next day I saw him again, and he said, “George, I really like your hair.” Finally I realized, it was because I was growing my hair long for God. Similarly, this fast has gone easily now, and I know it’s because I’m doing it for God.

Day 23. I went to the gym for the first time in two weeks. I haven’t felt much like running. I’ve walked regularly at the Baylands, and I’ve hiked in the hills several times with Mary Ellen for an hour to an hour or two.

I walked three days in a row last week, and on the fourth day I felt tired in my legs. I took Sunday off, and on Monday I felt quite low – zombified is not too strong a word – physically and mentally blah. It was the 21st day, and I wondered if this was a signal that I should end the fast. I didn’t want to give up easily, so I prayed about it, releasing personal attachments and saying, with great force that I could go either way, continue or not.

It was then that the thought occurred that I might simply be plugged-up. During a fast, a great deal of crap, literally, needs to be gotten rid of as the body throws out old cells, stored toxins, cleansing byproducts, and old fat. This is why people with long experience in fasting strongly recommend daily enemas and taking an herbal laxative.

I took a couple of Swiss Kriss tablets, and after a couple of hours felt crampy rumblings “down there,” then expelled a large amount of poop. Amazing how full of crap I am, 21 days into a juice fast. But I immediately felt much better.

This morning I felt as if I’d turned another corner in the fast. The fasting experts expound on how their clients gain strength as the fast proceeds, and how even older people with serious ailments end up walking five miles a day in the latter stages. I’ve found it to be generally true – I’ve gotten stronger, and I’ve been able to do my work with no significant downtime – last week I worked on-site for a business client, and I believe I did a better job than if I hadn’t been fasting.

I walked a lap at the track today, then did a 200-meter burst at a fast clip (for an old guy) – I suspect it was 7:00-7:30 pace. I’ve done very little running for three weeks, and I’ve lost some condition. Nevertheless, there was such get-up-and-go in my body that I truly couldn’t help running hard. I did 4×200 and 1×400, not all-out but respectably hard. It took a bit out of me – as I climbed the long dirt hill back to the athletic complex I felt tired. But I was able to go shopping with no problems, and now — two hours later — I’m fine.

Day 29. Felt rather ordinary this morning, just normal everyday energy, and wondered why I wasn’t feeling the vibrant magnetism that the experts say accompanies the last days of a long fast. I drove to the library and began feeling extraordinarily strong. I simply could not walk at my usual sauntering pace – my body wanted to rush along and my mind was intensely focused and alert. My body felt very magnetic – I could literally feel a glow of energy pulsing over my skin. It was almost too much energy.

After-Thoughts. I’m now three-days into what Paavo Airola calls the “buildup phase” after a long fast, a gradual transition to a normal diet. I’m feeling great. I’ve lost quite a bit of running fitness (two-and-a-half months of bronchitis and fasting), but I was able to go to the Baylands yesterday and walk for 45 minutes, including 12 minutes of continuous running at a fast clip (75-88% MHR). Felt fine afterward and hiked for another hour and a half with Mary Ellen in the afternoon.

Something I perhaps failed to stress sufficiently in the article: the importance of daily enemas and taking an every-other-day herbal laxative. You really do need to clear away the crap, or you’ll feel lousy mentally and physically – I suspect what Airola says is true, that uncleared detritus gets reabsorbed into the body.

Also, in regard to the spiritual experience of fasting, I remembered a story. There was a woman who had exceptionally beautiful hands, which were often photographed for women’s beauty advertisements. When she went to the American mystic and seer Edgar Cayce for a reading, he told her that she had spent her previous life as a nun, scrubbing the floors and performing other physical work, which she offered as a loving service to God. Cayce told her that the lesson of her experiences was that anything that we offer to God is blessed.

I’ve certainly found that to be true in my running. Whenever I can manage to offer my running to God, or like Eric Liddell in the movie Chariots of Fire, invite God to run with me (“When I run, I feel His pleasure.”), I do in fact feel His joy. Not easy, but emphatically worth the effort to reduce the ego and make room for God.

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