Nutrition is a critical component of any runner’s training. Calories from food are the gas that propels your body to a new distance or a new PR. But how do you know that you’re taking in the right amount?
More often than not, I hear from runners who are worried about overeating. Sugar cravings at night, too many glasses of wine at (virtual) happy hour, mindless snacking when you’re home all day – everyone experiences this in a different way, but the theme is similar. That feeling of being out-of-control can be extremely challenging to deal with! And it’s certainly true that it’s possible to overeat. This can happen for a variety of reasons, many of which are very understandable. Anything from an emotional response (like stress or grief) to a sudden reduction in training volume (for example, when your race got cancelled and you can’t run with your friends anymore!) can result in consuming more calories than your body is burning.
However, although runners are often preoccupied with the fear of overconsuming food, I tend to find that underfueling is much more common. This is usually because at some level, runners equate calories as the enemy. They’re happy to burn through them on a run, but then congratulate themselves for skipping a meal, cutting out a food group, ignoring a growling stomach at 8 pm, etc. Many people get into running because they want to lose weight, and I understand that motivation. But your body needs energy to perform, and that energy comes from your food! Chronic underfueling leads to injury, poor performance, and a plateau in weight loss, as your body adapts to receiving fewer calories.
I encourage the runners I work with to focus on body cues to help them determine whether their intake is adequate. Some cues you might not be eating enough include fatigue (particularly in the afternoon), poor sleep, headaches, GI distress, frequent injuries (like stress fractures), poor performance during workouts, or difficulty concentrating. You might also find that you feel constantly hungry throughout the day, or that you wake up starving every morning. That might mean you need to beef up your intake! Remember – the more training you do, the more energy your body needs.
This doesn’t mean you have carte blanche to eat whatever you want, whenever you want. Your overall dietary pattern should be supporting your goals, not getting in the way. We all know that overconsuming energy-dense, heavily processed foods can have negative health consequences, and is unlikely to further your goals. However, eating these foods occasionally is absolutely fine, and I encourage you not to punish yourself for those choices.
The most important thing is to be mindful about how your body uses different types of foods. For example, eating a steak and raw vegetables the night before a marathon is like asking for a one-way trip to the Port-a-Potty line. Eating a half-dozen donuts before the race will accomplish the same thing. Instead, choose a meal that makes sense in that context – low fiber, low fat, high carb, and adequate calories to help power you to that PR. When your overall diet consists of a wide variety of foods, including carbs, protein, and fat at every meal along with plenty of colorful fruits and veggies, you have the freedom to enjoy your favorite treats without stressing about the calorie content.
Listen to your body, and your body will let you know if you’re fueling appropriately. That’s a “diet” you can stick with for the long haul. And if you feel like you need more guidance when it comes to trusting your body, please shoot me an e-mail! I’d be happy to help.