Image from Food is for Fuel.com
I wrote about eating disorders recently because I was surprised at just how much of an issue it was for runners. There has been a lot of coverage due to the recent Eating Disorder Awareness Week campaign, and I have learned a lot of sobering things. One important thing was a comparison to drug addicts and alcoholics: whereas people dealing with those disorders need to work to avoid using them on a one-day-at-a-time basis, people with eating disorders need to cope with their problem while simultaneously having to use the object of their difficulty multiple times a day. The reason is simple – food is for fuel and is essential to life.
While how I started running – being a 375 pound guy who decided to start running and immediately kept it up 4-5 days a week – is not exactly standard, WHY I did it – to lose weight – is very common. In fact, it was the reason I picked up running again last year after 5 sporadic years. But as I frequently say, this time I went from being someone who ran for weight control to being an actual runner who was always training and pushing to run better, longer and faster. I eat better than ever, run faster and further than ever before, and as a result I am in the best shape of my life. Also, I eat LOADS of food, but I have completely rebalanced what I eat and when.
When your goal is simply weight loss and maintenance, exercise is often a ‘diet augmentation’ – in other words, you are not training, not really seeking to hit any exercise goals unrelated to weight loss, and very often heavy workouts are a part or excuse to a reward system based on … yep, food. And generally our ‘rewards’ are not proper recovery food, but instead ‘junk food’ we feel we have ‘earned’. I know that for many years my running allowed me to eat a pint of ice cream as part of lunch, have a bag of M&Ms in my desk, and so on.
What I never really thought about was the content of my diet – because I never stopped living in ‘weight loss mode’, so food was always both the enemy and the ultimate reward for me. In other words, I never saw food as simply ‘fuel for living’.
I am certainly not alone in that regard, as evidenced by the spiraling obesity statistics in our country. Rather than looking at food as fuel to be eaten in certain amounts at specific times for maximum effect, how do we use food?
- For pleasure
- For comfort
- As a painkiller when we’re sad, depressed, or hurt
- As a social tool
- As a sexual tool/toy
- A reward
- Just something to do when we’re bored
- As Gifts
Food is equated to health, it can become an obsession, and an addiction that can ruin lives. Our economy has many billion-dollar food-related industries that are constantly trying to sell us something quick, easy and highly profitable for the company that is really not great for our bodies. Through the years, it has become harder to know what is real and what is a ‘lab recreation’. We hear about how so many ‘multi-grain’ foods are actually highly processed grains reconstituted with added components and nutrients to meet labeling standards. We know that very often the cheapest foods are the least nutritious, as they are filled with chemicals that deliver taste and shelf-life without actually delivering the full nutrition of ‘real’ foods such as natural yogurts or fruit.
I have a great story of personal discovery about food from this past year. It was mid-August, and I was already under 200 lbs, having dropped more than 75 pounds in about four months. I was running 8-10 miles a day 5-6 days per week, most weeks easily exceeding 50 miles per week – and I really didn’t know that was a lot at the time. I had signed up for a half-marathon, but I really had no clue how to prepare my nutrition or anything about ‘tapering’. In fact, all I did the day before was to ‘take it easy’ with a 6 mile run the day before. But I had run 12 miles in a single go before and wasn’t overly worried about the distance – and I knew I would need something during the run, so I had bought a few Gu packets. I had a small breakfast a while before the run, but at that point all I was having was yogurt and fruit.
Boy was I ever in for a surprise! On race day, I forgot my GPS watch so had to go on feel, which I was still developing. As a result I went out fast – too fast. That pace was tough, but I kept it for the first half, and when I came to the turn-around point I had a Gu with water. Yes, water, because I didn’t want all of those extra calories, which was the same reason I only used one Gu packet. Soon enough I felt myself starting to slow down. I didn’t fight it too hard, as I knew I’d gone out too fast.
But later in the race I was getting exhausted, and by mile 11 I was seriously concerned that I couldn’t finish the race. I was afraid that if I stopped to walk I wouldn’t be able to start again, so I kept running. My joke is that I ran a 8 minute mile for the first half and an 11 minute mile for the last half to end up with my 9:24 overall pace. But how I felt crossing the finish line was no joke – I didn’t feel good. I had run out of fuel long before the end of the race, and my body felt like it was tearing itself apart to give me energy to keep going.
It has taken running a full marathon and another half to understand just how bad I felt, but it was not good. I didn’t want to be touched, had a hard time eating anything, felt muscles tightening, so I didn’t stop wandering around. Of course, I did my best to just shake it all off and get into the car to head home after a short time, my family still concerned at how I was feeling but assuming since it was my fastest pace yet that I was just spent.
Bottom line: I went to run a half-marathon in the midst of a restrictive diet that wasn’t balanced for my running needs, and neglected to remember to fuel up as part of my training plan. I learned a lot that weekend, and put it all into practice in later road races, long runs, and even running more than 22 miles over the course of this past weekend on my trip to Coronado with Hyundai. Now when I eat, I approach it from a totally different perspective: fueling heavily in the morning, sustaining mid-day and using more vegetables in my dinner fare.
I keep coming back to Setting Goals as a cornerstone: in my ‘New Years Resolutions’ article as well as several of these Monday Mile posts. And as I said, many people who exercise at a gym or pick up running (especially during the warmer months) have a goal of ‘weight loss’, but that is a bit vague, and it results in looking at food as the enemy to be minimized and avoided, rather than as an essential part of the REAL goal which is ‘healthier living’.
So by all means get out there and seek better fitness and health, but remember that food is the essential fuel that keeps our engine running. And the more you know about food, nutrition and how your body responds to foods, the better you will be able to make choices to help you meet your goals.