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Pop Tarts and Donuts — why do ultra-runners love them?

by Larry Carroll

When it comes to nutrition, certain things seem inarguable. Eat your fruits and veggies, just like your mother used to insist. Avoid foods that are steeped in sugar, processed materials and high fructose corn syrup. But if such beliefs are so etched in stone, why are ultra-runners as likely to see their competitors eating like Gwyneth Paltrow as they are Homer Simpson?

“There are a TON of runners I’ve seen on social media, like Instagram and Twitter who post nothing but Pop-Tart pictures it seems,” marvels a reddit user in a forum on athlete nutrition . Echoes another: “I hired a running coach who is an ultra-marathon runner. He says he always consumes frosted strawberry pop tarts and a Dr. Pepper before a race. I didn’t know this was a thing!”

Pop Tarts and Donuts – why do ultra-runners love them?

At Ultra-Running Magazine, author/runner Cory Reese recently detailed his 2018 run of the “Donut Trail.” Covering 100 miles throughout rural Ohio, Reese hit twelve gourmet donut shops, stopping just long enough to satisfy his sweet tooth before heading back out on the trek. His wife and daughter met him every few miles to refill his water, serve as a guide — and keep extra donuts in the car for nighttime, when the donut shops he reached were closed.

“I ate a German chocolate cake donut. A cheesecake donut. A banana cream pie donut. A Fruity Pebbles donut,” he writes . “Excess glucose was clouding my vision. It didn’t take long before my bloodstream became 60% glazed frosting.”

Pop Tarts and Donuts — why do ultra-runners love them?

“I ate a German chocolate cake donut. A cheesecake donut. A banana cream pie donut. A Fruity Pebbles donut,” he writes . “Excess glucose was clouding my vision. It didn’t take long before my bloodstream became 60% glazed frosting.”

To someone outside the ultra-marathoning community, such behavior seems paradoxical at best, at worst simply downright insane. After all, there’s a reason why you don’t go to your local gym and see people on the treadmill scarfing down Twinkies, right? But when you’re on the inside of this frequently eccentric community and surrounded by such behavior, it makes a bit more sense.

“Ultra-runners will eat whatever their stomachs can handle before and during races,” explains another Reddit user on the nutrition thread. “The more calorie-dense, the better. A friend of mine loves it when the aid stations have Oreos and flat Coke – and they often do.”

Pop Tarts and Donuts — why do ultra-runners love them?

Indeed, some ultra-marathons aim to attract participants with promises of beer, cupcakes and other sugary treats — sometimes after the race, often during it. When someone is willing to put in so much work, it seems, they deserve a treat. It’s another edict instilled in us by mom while we were young.

Although much of the evidence is anecdotal, there certainly is enough to make you think there must be something to a get-fit-eating-fat diet. Amelia Boone is a 3-time World’s Toughest Mudder champion — and over on Twitter last year, she posted her “Definitive Pop-Tart rankings ,” listing Frosted Cherry, Vanilla Latte and Pumpkin Pie behind Cinnamon Roll, while pausing to pay respect to Blue Raspberry with an “RIP” designation.
In a Sports Illustrated interview , Boone explained her sugar-fueled fitness routine: “I will eat a Pop-Tart before every race. They’re easily digestible carbs. Some people use gels and goos and things like that [and this is no different]. That’s really what this is, a quick source of carbs that sits well in my stomach.”

Over on his “Married Runners” blog, Georgia-based athlete Joe Domaleski posts recipes for paleo meals and nutritious smoothies — and defends his trans-fat transgressions with an entry titled “I’m a Runner and I Love Donuts .”

“Life is full of contradictions, and is simply too short just to eat salads all of the time,” he writes. “A single donut is not as bad for you as many other processed food items. On the other hand, it’s hard to eat just one donut and that’s where folks get into trouble.”

Ultimately, it seems, training is about maintenance of both body and spirit — and mixing in some sugary carbs as a reward can be helpful to both.

“Donuts as health food? Well, I guess that depends on how you define health,” writes Domaleski. “Obviously you won’t find a lot of nutritional benefit from donuts, but nutrition isn’t the only component to health. How about mental health and cultivating a general sense of feeling good? Yup, donuts do that for me. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that upon that basis then, donuts can be a health food.”

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