Jeff Browning grew up running. He ran around the Missouri farm, doing chores. He ran to meet his friends at a creek a half-mile away. He ran to raid his grandparents’ freezer for ice cream.
“Satellite television wasn’t an option in rural America in the 1970s and 80s, and Atari had just come out,” says Browning, who played traditional sports like football, baseball and basketball in school. “A lot of running all the time, just being out in the country. If you wanted to do something, you went outside.”
He didn’t know it at the time, but the childhood running would build a base that Browning would develop into a mountain biker and then an ultra marathoner. Now, he is a competitive endurance athlete who is gearing up for a return to Western States, where he finished fourth last year.
Back in high school, Browning participated in track and ran 20-30 minutes a few days a week while attending the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo. But his passions were weight lifting then mountain biking around 1993. “I really embraced it,” he says, noting the Ozarks and lots of trails were near the university. “Me and my buddies all started doing the state parks, and then using gravel roads to connect parks and do longer rides.”
After graduating, Browning got married and moved to Denver. There, he continued mountain biking and did a little running, mostly with his dog. “I sort of dabbled in it, but had no idea what ultra marathons were.”
In 2000, he moved to Bend, Ore. “My first friend in town was a guy named Rod Bien, who is a fast runner in his own right and a Patagonia trail ambassador. He had told me about these things called ultra marathons and about Western States 100. That’s when ultras got on my radar. I was like, ‘How long does that take?’ I thought days.”
Discovering ultra marathons
As his interest perked, Browning watched a 2001 North Face documentary on Western States. He caught the itch to get into the race even though he had not run a marathon by that point.
“I just got hooked,” says Browning, who ran his first 50K outside of Portland that year. “I come from a mountain biking background. I liked trail running because it was so simple. There were no gear breakdowns, no chain to break, no gears. Nothing to think about, just grab a few gels and some water and go run in the woods. I was attracted to the simplicity of the sport.”
In the process of training and qualifying for the sport to get into Western States, he ran several 50Ks and a 50-miler (meeting the requirement at the time to get into the lottery). Back then, he had a 50 percent chance to get in his first year.
Browning knocked off about a half-dozen ultras, including Miowk 100K in early 2002, before lining up in Squaw that June. “I got really hooked on the community, how laid-back it was,” he says. “There are all kinds of different ages. It doesn’t matter if you are fast or slow. Everybody hangs out afterward and everybody drinks a beer and trades war stories. It was just a cool community.”
As he improved as a runner, he got serious about training and getting a few wins in 2005. “If I really focus my training, I might be able to do even better.”
In the time that Browning has been an ultra runner, he has noticed changes in the community. “It hasn’t lost its core yet,” he says, admitting he sometimes get asked for his autograph. “It’s a little more professional sport now with sponsors, sponsorship money and cash purses at some races. It’s become more competitive. And there are younger guys who are coming at it with race perspective, instead of community perspective.
“It’s evolved but it still has its heart. It’s still got a cool vibe.”
Strength training and mobility work
As an elite masters runner, Browning understands and advocates for what has worked for him When it comes to training, he quickly zeroes in on what has been a part of his life since junior high: lifting weights.
“Strength training is a big one for masters athletes,” says Browning, aka Bronco Billy. “We lose a pound of muscle a year after age 35. So if you are not doing something to replace it, you are getting fatter, even if you maintain the same body weight. If you are training for ultras but not strength training, you are cannibalizing muscle.”
He recommends a couple of days a week of strength training. He does one day of weights and one day of body weight and sometimes adds a third day. His routines include pullups, pushups, planks, bridges, core work, dumbbells and more.
For strength training, Browning doubles up hard run days with a 10-to 20-minute workout. “So, if I went an ran for an hour and 20 minutes, then I would do a 20-minute strength workout at home, and then I am done. Keep hard days hard and easy days easy.”
The second secret ingredient for successful masters athletes may come as a surprise. “The auxiliary stuff is the important stuff — one is strength and the other is mobility.”
Browning’s athletes are coached to do their mobility routine before bed. Specifically, yoga poses like downward dog, snake pose, pigeon pose, garland pose — “really working on stretching, opening things up, getting hips opened,” he explains.
“Being limber and mobile as you age is so important because as you know trail running isn’t just running down a trail. It’s not running straight ahead, it’s side movements, cuts — sometimes you kick a rock and go from a 9-minute pace to a 6-minute pace in a second, trying to keep yourself from face planting. We need to have full range of motion. As a masters athlete, if you want to have longevity and not be broken down, you have to keep on those things — mobility and strength.”
For Browning, his nearly nightly yoga and stretching routine is a way to not only improve his mobility but to create more time for family. He does his 10- to 15-minute routines while watching a movie at night, or getting ready for bed.
“If I had an hour, I would much rather go for a run or be on my bike than do an hour of yoga,” he says. “It just helps to calm you down. I have a yoga mat at the foot of my bed along with some foam rollers. I just double up — I love to multitask. As a husband and a father, you have to figure out how to multitask, That’s the thing about ultra marathons. You can’t cheat the training. You have to do the work.”
Cross-training for masters athletes
Next up is cross-training — note that Browning hasn’t mentioned actual running yet. Simply put, cycling “builds endurance without the pounding, which is great for a masters athlete.”
Cycling — indoors or outdoors — is his preference for cross-training. Browning runs six days a week so he often doubles up a run with a bike ride. For example, he will ride his bike to a trail, stash the bike, go for a run, and then return home on the bike.
“That extra cross-training helps because if you have a niggle, you can quickly go to the cross-training activity for my ‘two-day’ rule,” he says. “If my athletes have a niggle, they get on the bike for two days. On day three, if the niggle is fine, they run. If not, two more days on the bike.”
His approach to training pays off as Browning placed second at the Silver State 50 as a 50-mile training run on May 19, then jogged the day after and then biked the next day.
Browning also emphasizes the need for easy runs and rides as part of his training. He strives to keep a 90 cadence on the bike. “It’s important for runners to think about cadence on the bike, and not worry about pushing gears.”
When it comes to running, he does 80 to 85 percent of his running in Zone 1 or Zone 2 heart rate. “Easy running under the aerobic ceiling,” he recommends. “One or two workouts a week will be faster, 20-40 minute warmup, 20-40 minute workout in the middle whether that is 4 x 4 minutes at tempo pace or 10 by 2 minutes, sometimes hill repeats, then a cool down.”
The evolution of his diet
For about seven years in his 20s, Browning was a vegetarian. “I didn’t think I did very well on that diet, and my wife definitely did not,” he says. “I lost a bunch of muscle mass, even while lifting weights. I couldn’t handle getting soft and it told me that something was not quite right.”
In 2004, the Brownings shifted to a whole foods diet — clean meats, grass-fed meat, organic fruits and vegetables, whole grains — for about 12 years. Then when he hit his 40s, Browning noticed another trend — he started having trouble getting down to race weight and his energy was sapped. “I found that things weren’t just clicking.”
After a race in South America, where he drank some questionable water, Browning experienced health issues, including candida — a yeast overgrowth that can cause an infection. He endured seven uncomfortable candida flareups in 2015.
Browning continued to race amid the struggle. “I don’t know how many more years of racing I have left in me,” he remembers telling his wife.
Then he dug into the research on the candida diet, keying on the fact that yeast is fed by sugar. After a long week of research, he concluded the paleo diet would be the solution.
“We cut out grains. We cut out sugar. We were already pretty low sugar, but were eating spelt pasta and rice. We just cut all of that stuff out,” he explains. “We — the whole family — just went cold turkey. It was rough at first, but within a few days, my candida cleared up and went into remission.”
Lighter and stronger
Since that change 2 ½ years ago, he has had a couple of minor flareups — usually after a 100-mile race when is immune system is compromised and consumed additional carbs that week.
A candida diet is defined as one that is low-sugar, anti-inflammatory and promotes good gut health while eliminating the sugars that feed a candida overgrowth. The diet includes non-starchy vegetables, some low sugar fruits, non-glutinous grains, fermented foods and healthy proteins.
Browning focuses on clean meat, most vegetables, some fruits but has cut out potatoes. Notably, he has lost eight pounds and two inches off his waist, getting back to his high school weight. “My weight-to-strength ratio went up because of the diet. I feel great. My energy fluctuations during the day stopped.”
And the sugar cravings stopped. “I always thought I had a sweet tooth, but after this, I don’t crave sugar anymore,” he says. “For me personally, it was a new level of clean. I felt good. I recovered quickly. I stopped having the inflammation that I was having after races.”
After 100-milers before the diet, Browning would have to wear compression gear, had swollen ankles and knees, and experienced issues getting down stairs the days after the race. But since adapting the diet, “All of that went away,” he says, noting he reached out to Zach Bitter for advice on the diet. “Recovery was off the hook. That’s one thing that Zach had told me that recovery would blow my mind.”
'I couldn’t get over the difference in recovery'
Just a couple of months after the diet change, Browning finished the Hurt 100 around 3:30 on a Sunday morning. Later that afternoon and the following day, he was doing air squats “and my quads were just a little sore. I couldn’t get over the difference in recovery.”
When it comes to protein, he says it’s about the same as before “but after hard efforts, I up the protein. As an endurance athlete, you have a definite need for protein. You are cannibalizing muscle, breaking down muscle. You can go up in protein intake as compared to someone who runs 20 or 30 minutes a day.”
But, he emphasized, the quality of the protein is even more important. He encouraged the consumption of wild and grass-fed meat instead of corn- and wheat-fed meat. “Not all meat is created equal,” he says. “You have to know how it is raised and how it should be raised. Let’s quit trying to throw grain down everyone’s throats, making people sick and creating an obesity and heart disease epidemic.”
Beyond Western States, Browning’s current race itinerary includes Run Rabbit Run and Pinhoti 100, and possibly Hardrock; he is fifth on the wait list. He juggles a lot of commitments — racing, training, coaching, working — but strives to prioritize his duties as father and husband.
“If you’ve got family and life commitments, don’t sweat it,” he says. “If something derails your training one day, get back on the horse the next day. Accept it as a forced rest day — you probably need it. Go do some pushups and pullups and call it a day. People stress about how much they should be running. You don’t have to run mega mileage to finish ultras. But you have to be consistent and try to keep your family life happy. Don’t let it take away from family.”
Name: Jeff Browning (aka Bronco Billy)
Hometown: Carrollton, Missouri
Number of years running: Since I was old enough walk — have been ultra running for 18 years.
How many miles a week do you typically run: 50-80 depending on the training block
Point of pride: One DNF (rolled ankle) in well over 100 ultra finishes, including 30 100-milers
Favorite race distance: 100 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Bulletproof coffee or raw whole milk
Favorite piece of gear: Patagonia Duckbill Cap or Strider Pro Shorts
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Freedom by Rage Against the Machine
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Giddyup!
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• On Instagram and Twitter, @GoBroncoBilly