Nip not-so-constructive eating habits in the bud this spring with a fresh approach to food.
The minute you sign up for an IRONMAN event, you’re no longer an “exerciser,” you’re an athlete. And whether you train eight, 10, or 18-plus hours a week, athletes ask a lot of their bodies. In the cycle of training and adapting, it’s imperative that you don’t lose sight of your body’s key nutritional needs: what it requires to support metabolism, reduce your risk for disease and assist in building a healthy body composition.
Many new athletes too often find themselves in a pattern of haphazard, mile-focused training and a coexisting “reward-food” style of eating (aka “I earned that cookie”). But before you progress any further with your training this year, consider any recent or ongoing habits that may be causing you to struggle with your performance, overall health or body composition goals.
We all know how easily food becomes a replacement for other things. Regardless of how much your legs burn in a workout, if you’re eating for comfort, out of anxiety, or simply because you have no idea how to properly time your meals with your training routine, something probably needs to change.
Here are some key strategies for constructive eating throughout your upcoming race season.
If you eat well most of the time you don’t have to worry about the rest of the time. It’s okay to chow down on chocolate chip pancakes with whipped cream as a treat after your hardest monthly bike ride or grab the occasional take-out pizza after a long run, but it’s important not to make these choices habitual. Routinely choosing such post-training “rewards” puts you in danger of missing out on key vitamins and minerals needed to support the metabolic processes required in training.
Remember that the most appropriate time in your day to properly fuel your body is around your workouts—to assist in energy support, recovery and repair. If you can’t help but associate a successful training session with a food-based reward, consider focusing on the body-benefiting nutrients instead of the “prize.” A recovery smoothie that’s properly timed with your training will do more for you than that late night burger run, for example.
Seek honest, positive feedback
As an athlete who expends a large amount of calories daily through training, it’s normal to be unsure about how much food you need to be satisfied and to meet your nutritional needs. By looking honestly at your current food choices, meal composition, your ability to snack wisely and any unhealthy eating patterns or restrictions, you will begin to improve your relationship with food. Consider seeking other sources of validation, such as working with a coach, registered dietitian or sports psychologist.
Don’t use food as punishment
Overtraining, burnout and injuries are not uncommon to the driven athlete. However, withholding food or letting yourself feel “unworthy” of indulging if you haven’t completed a workout as planned isn’t helpful, emotionally or physically. In addition, the psychological effects of being fearful of calories consumed, without hard-core expenditure, may cause a hormonal and metabolic imbalance. Instead of a black or white mentality – i.e., “a hard workout or no workout” – be gentle with yourself and remember there are many ways to maintain a healthy metabolism without going for a 100-mile ride or 90-minute run
It’s hard to make proper nutritional choices when you’re exhausted. There are times when a pizza and beer are the two best things to follow a glycogen-depleting workout and you should enjoy it to the full extent—while sharing stories about how much you earned it. Welcome those moments, but be aware of the times you’re not eating with intention and intuition. Once you establish a balanced, whole-food eating routine, try to use food to enhance celebratory occasions instead of using it to reward any and every routine performance gain.
Love your lifestyle
You do this sport because of the health benefits, but also because you love it. Look at your diet in a similar way: If your diet isn’t adequately supporting your training, leading to healthy body composition changes (reduced body fat and increased lean muscle) and performance gains and giving you a better overall outlook, you should probably re-think it. If you can stick to a rigorous training plan, you too can change your approach to food. Shake things up this season and watch your performance reach new levels.
Marni Sumbal (MS, RD, LD/N) is the owner of Trimarni Coaching and Nutrition, LLC and is a USAT Level-1 coach. She’s a five-time IRONMAN finisher (currently training for her sixth in Lake Placid), and enjoys spending time in her kitchen coming up with plant-based creations.