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Burning Runner: Digging Myself Out Of The Diet Rut

Week 3: T.J. takes us through a typical day and explains how he plans to break free of his bad habits.

Written by: T.J. Murphy

The alarm goes off after a night of struggling to get good sleep. I feel wiped out, my back is hurting, and joints are whining as I navigate my way to a standing position, a position I must assume if I’m going to make the trek to the kitchen where I hastily pour Starbucks Gold Coast coffee into a basket and make the first cup. The first cup goes down well, and I typically don’t crave any breakfast, so I skip it. I get to work and drink more coffee as I crawl through the schedule, and by lunch I’m desperate with hunger. The coffee high has by this point soured into a low-grade level of anxiety. My mood and energy level has now descended, and after grabbing a vegetarian sandwich from Dominick’s, the deli near our office, lunch has disintegrated into just another stepping stone into deeper fatigue I must fight. And I’m still rusty, by the way. A couple of times in the last two years with my back out and my knees creaking, I walked through the office teetering along with a grinding limp, not unlike a broken robot. Concerned co-workers have asked me if I’m OK. “Sure, I’m OK,” I’d say, believing that what I was experiencing was simply a natural part of getting older.

After work I force myself out for a run, and for the first time all day I feel a little better, scraping off a layer off anxiety. Dinner is usually pretty frantic—whatever I can find. Ideally, something that can be nuked in the microwave. A beer is almost a necessity to take off the remaining edge of the caffeine-fueled nerves. I go to sleep with work thoughts circling like vultures, and when I do manage to get to sleep it’s short-lived. Several times I’ve woken up hoping that it’s at least 5 am, but the clock reads 1:30, and I lay there, as awake as an electric current, and the anxiety grows because I’m dreading yet another day of pushing up a hill where gravity is exhaustion.

Just getting older, I assume, but that’s not what Brandon Brazier, author of “Thrive,” tells me; or Cassidy Phillips, the man behind Trigger Point therapy, and an expert in biomechanics and the movement of the human body.

This is what they tell me: My assumption that it’s normal and natural to be chronically tired, sore and anxious is severely incorrect. The problem is what I’m putting into my body. The coffee, the processed foods and the junk. Brazier tells me that by treating myself this way it’s a no-brainer that even if I’m skipping meals and exercising I’m not going to burn off any fat. He also tells me that an addiction to caffeine and processed foods locks me into downward spiraling cycle. When I wake up feeling ravaged my body is craving coffee and cream for a reason, and it’s not a good reason. How often have I coughed up the excuse that “I need coffee.”? Did I need it when I was 10 years old? Of course not.  It’s a harsh word but it’s the right one: Addiction.

Lauren Antonucci chopped the legs off another excuse I typically serve up: I don’t have time to prepare healthy meals. She counsels runners and triathletes in the stress fest of New York, and her tough love message is that the belief that you don’t have time to plan and prepare a healthy diet is a cop out. “Think of all the time you end up running around desperately trying to get a meal when hunger strikes. I guarantee you that you waste more time than you would if you planned, shopped and prepared the majority of your meals.”

Ouch! I didn’t need an Excel sheet to know that she’s right.

Phillips told me about the problems caused by being chronically dehydrated. “This is what happens,” he said. “You drink coffee early on and then by late morning you feel tired, so you think you need another coffee. It’s not coffee that you need. What you need is hydration.” Phillips used the analogy of oil for an automobile engine. “When a car runs out of oil it dies. Water and electrolytes are like oil.”

Poor food choices, says Brazier, also lead to inflammation, which is part of the reason I feel like I just staggered away from a car wreck. He recommends a plant-based diet where foods are less acidic and more alkaline, and also suggests that I’ll gain energy when I supplant processed foods with the unprocessed variety, meaning primarily fruit and vegetables. “It takes a lot of energy to digest unprocessed foods.” He claims this can lead to a net energy loss and an increase of stress on the body.

I’m writing this on my flight to Chicago for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon benefiting the American Cancer Society on Sunday. The last week I’ve been working especially hard to create a situation where I can go on the attack in terms of overhauling the way I live. I just finished moving to a new place, and after the race in which I establish my working half-marathon time—a time I’ll aim to crush at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon—I’ll be able to plunge into my first Burning Runner experiment. (Ed. note: T.J. finished Sunday’s race in 1:51:04.) As I said in an earlier column, this is all about making a game of it, to test myself and see how far I can go. It’s not about deprivation and suffering, it’s about revitalization and change.

According to my sources, I need to understand it takes a good amount of time to break free of some of the negative food addictions that are holding me captive. It should take about 30 days. Is it worth 30 days of focused effort to free myself?

Brazier says to not worry about restricting how much I eat. “I don’t believe in portion control,” he says. “If you’re eating the right things you can eat as much as you’re hungry for.”

Here’s what I have in mind for Tuesday:

  • Replacing coffee with antioxidant rich green tea.
  • Hydrating throughout the day with water and an electrolyte supplement.
  • Drawing up my meals  from the following: fruits, vegetables, legumes, brown rice and other nutrient rich grains.

I’m going to keep it that simple for the first week of the 30-day period, building in time to overhaul the following: how I shop, my kitchen, how I cook and what I cook.

Click here to see this week’s Burning Runner Box Score, and here to view previous installments of this column.


T.J. Murphy is a contributing editor to Competitor and the Editorial Director of Triathlete and Inside Triathlon magazines. Previous installments of his Burning Runner column can be read here. He can be reached by e-mail at