by Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD
Many runners feel pressure to have a perfect body, perfect diet, and ideally, perfect races. The stress-inducing trait of perfectionism often pushes runners to not only become stronger and faster, but also leaner and food-phobic. We have seen perfection play out with football phenom Tom Brady. While he is a poster child for the benefits of eating ”perfectly,” he also uses great mental strength to stay focused on his goals without getting side-tracked by comparisons.
Most of us are a bit more insecure than Tom and end up comparing ourselves to others. Take note: To compare is to despair! Please stop comparing your physique and your food choices to those of your teammates, friends, and family! Here are strategies to help you fret less and instead gain confidence.
She’s leaner than I am … He’s got bigger muscles than I do ... She’s prettier than I am …. He’s got a better 6-pack ab than I do. How often do you find yourself comparing your body to that of your teammates, friends, and social media influencers? If the answer is too often, just STOP IT! Your body is yours; it is good enough the way it is. You want to stop criticizing your body for being too fat, too slow, too short, too freckled—and instead be grateful for all the good things it does for you, like complete training runs and perhaps even marathons. Those “thunder thighs” contribute to your ability to be a strong, powerful, and successful runner. Thank them!
Few athletes have the “perfect body”; even the leanest runners complain about undesired bumps and bulges. Runners who whine about feeling fat are more likely feeling imperfect, inadequate, anxious, and/or out of control.
Recommendations: To achieve body acceptance, practice living on a fantasy island where you and your body are good enough—if not excellent—the way you are. If you wander off your island and start comparing yourself to others, you’ll undoubtedly end up despairing. Stay on your island!
When you look in the mirror, greet yourself with a welcoming smile and grateful words. With time, you will start to internalize that your body is indeed good enough the way it is. While you may never attain the perfect physique, you can still be grateful for all your body does for you.
Do you eat like a bird compared to other runners? Or maybe you feel self-conscious because you need to eat twice as much as your peers just to maintain your desired weight? At team meals/social gatherings, many runners monitor the quantity of food others are eating. Salads and small portions tend to get praised more than lumberjack servings. (I wish I had your discipline vs. You sure do eat a lot….) For runners recovering from restrictive, dysfunctional dieting, eating a sandwich, fruit, yogurt & pretzels for lunch may seem embarrassing— way too much food— when it’s really what is needed to properly fuel up for an after-school practice or after-work run.
When I educate my clients how many calories they “deserve” to eat, most runners are flabbergasted to learn that females commonly require 2,400+ calories to maintain weight; males may require 2,800+ calories. That’s 600-700 calories four times a day: breakfast, early lunch, second lunch/afternoon snack, and dinner.
Recommendation: Please don’t start counting calories; your body is your best calorie counter. Rather, listen to your innate hunger and fullness cues. Eat when hungry; stop when content. Pay attention to why you stop eating: Do you think you should? Is the food all gone? Or are you actually feeling content and comfortably fed?
I eat only healthy foods. … I avoid sugar like the plague … I won’t even taste the pies at Thanksgiving. In the world of “clean eating,” athletes feel pressure to choose the “right” foods. That translates into no sugar, salt, red meat, white flour, packaged foods, fat, and no fun foods. The E in Eating stands for Enjoyment; you want to be able to enjoy (in appropriate portions) the foods you truly want to eat!
Believe it or not, it’s OK to balance fun foods into an overall good diet. The goal is 85-90% nutrient-rich whole grains, fruits, veggies, lean proteins, and 10-15% fun foods. You need not eat the perfect diet to have an excellent diet.
You want to eat a foundation of about 1,500 calories from a variety of nutrient-dense foods to consume the vitamins, minerals, and protein required for an effective sports diet. Because your body needs at least 2,400-2,800 calories per day, you have space in your diet for both health-promoting food and fun food. While you want to enjoy more of the best foods and less of the rest, you can balance fun foods into your sports diet. That is, an apple is a healthy food; a diet of all apples is a very unhealthy, unbalanced diet.
Recommendation: If you find yourself being judgmental about food, the problem is unlikely the food, but rather your relationship with the food—and fears it will make you get fat or ruin your health. Eating out of the same pot as your pals is a very healthy thing to do! A few fun meals will not ruin your health forever.
Nutrition Supplement Comparisons
I often counsel runners who wonder if they can nourish their bodies with “real food” instead of taking supplements. As one athlete sheepishly asked, “I don’t take any vitamin pills. Should I? My running buddy takes a handful of them.” Let me reassure you that opting out of supplements is okay (and can save you bundles of money). If you eat wisely 85-90% of the time, you are likely getting the vitamins, minerals, and protein you need, with a few possible exceptions (iron, vitamin D) in some cases.
Recommendation: If you question the adequacy of your diet, consult with a registered dietitian (RD) who is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics (CSSD). Make an appointment today to learn how to choose food based on facts, not fears, so you can fret less and enjoy better quality of life.
Sports Nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes in Newton MA (617-795-1875). Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook is a popular resource, as is her online workshop and books. For more information visit www.NancyClarkRD.com.