What Eating Intuitively Looks Like as a Runner

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For decades, diets and nutritional plans put together by running coaches and sports dietitians have been the preferred method for many runners who want to make sure they are eating a balanced diet and getting in the proper amounts of macronutrients to fuel their workouts. Unfortunately, many runners become overly obsessed with the numbers: the number of calories they’re consuming, the number of calories they’re burning, the number on the scale, and how it all effects their race times.  

For this reason, a lot of athletes become caught up in diet culture, a term that refers to society’s emphasis on good foods versus bad foods, applauds restriction and sacrifice for the sake of losing weight, dropping body fat, and becoming thinner, and the belief that skinny is better even if it means unhealthy and weak. Runners especially feel a pressure to control and micro manage their food intake and their bodies because of the (false) belief that smaller bodies are “better” bodies for running and racing and getting faster.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a way to enjoy your running, enjoy your food, and not worry about any of this. And it’s called Intuitive Eating.

What is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive Eating is an approach to food, exercise, and one’s day to day lifestyle first introduced by dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. It is based upon ten basic principles, all of which encourage the person to eat what their body wants and is craving, and as much (or as little) of it as you desire without shame or guilt.

Intuitive Eating rejects diet mentality (the first principle) and encourages people to break away from a desire or focus on losing weight. This might not be as hard for runners who are not as focused on losing weight as they are just concerned about how the food they eat is affecting their running (unless you are a runner for the sole reason of losing weight; in which case, proponents of Intuitive Eating would encourage you to try accepting your body weight and focus on other positive benefits of running and exercise).

The second principle, honoring your hunger, means getting in touch with what your body is asking of you. If you have lived for years and years trying to control your hunger and refusing to eat what you are truly hungry for because of calorie counts, nutritional values, etc., then understanding what you are even hungry for might not be all that easy! That’s okay – learning Intuitive Eating is an ever-changing process. But as a runner, you need ALL macronutrients. You need plenty of carbohydrates to fill your energy tank. You need fats to protect your organs, grow your hair, and regulate hormones. You need protein to build muscle and help you recover after intense workouts. And if you don’t get these appropriate levels of macronutrients in, you can reach a level of true starvation and feel completely out of control around food because of such intense hunger.

If you are a runner who has not been eating enough, you probably know what this is like. But unfortunately, most choose to either deny themselves the food they need to satiate their hunger, or they do give in and eat but then think it was in excess and feel guilty and ashamed… which leads to restricting intake again and starting the vicious cycle all over again.

How to Incorporate Intuitive Eating as a Runner

So what is intuitive eating when you are a runner or a serious athlete? Well, science is at play here, first of all. If you are expending more calories, you are going to need more calories. And if you do not choose to take in those additional calories that you need, your body will start to shut down. Not only will you be excessively hungry, but over time, your body will start closing down biological functions it doesn’t deem as important because it is trying to sustain your life.

For this reason, many runners who are struggling with eating disorders or disordered eating habits may experience their hair falling out, brittle nails, poor circulation (especially in feet and hands) and, for women, a loss of the menstrual cycle. Runners need carbs. It does not have to look like heavy carb loading the night before a long run or stuffing yourself with pasta, breadsticks, or pancakes either. Oatmeal, sweet potatoes, quinoa, brown rice, and fruits are excellent sources of carbs that can easily be eaten in moderation – if you want it in small portions. (But if you don’t, the rules of intuitive eating say eat all that you are hungry for!)

Most people have been somewhat jaded by carbs, especially because diet culture has really poo-pooed the idea of white carbs, starches, etc. But you shouldn’t be afraid of them! Aim to get at least a serving of carbs at every meal or snack if you are running regularly. In fact, that is a good general rule of thumb for all macronutrient groups – try getting in sources of fats, carbs, and proteins at all meals and snacks. You are more likely to be properly fueled and feeling great without “hitting the wall”, and less likely to be ravenous and feeling out of control and completely chaotic around food.

The Takeaway

As a runner, it is hard not to want to control every aspect possible to help us meet our running goals. And there are certainly components to our training that we should be exercising control over as much as possible, like our workouts, maintaining a schedule and calendar that permits us to get everything done, and which races we sign up for. And while we should always be mindful eaters (i.e. tuning into our hunger, asking ourselves what our bodies are both craving and needing in order to keep us physically full, prepare us for our workouts and races, and that mentally satiate us) and make healthy choices based on our goals, we shouldn’t be restrictive or overly controlling eaters.

As a runner, introducing the concepts of intuitive eating into our lifestyles can free up so much mental capacity that was formerly spent worrying about every pasta dinner and post-run protein shake. We can use that mental energy on things much more important and worthwhile – and likely enjoy our running even more!

Sources

  1. Evelyn Tribole, Intuitive Eating, IE Main Page, Feb 04, 2018
  2. Christy Harrison, Food Psych #142: Breaking Free from Fatphobia & Gender Norms with Caleb Luna, Christy Harrison Podcast, Feb 05, 2018
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