Hannah Irwin talks about the relationship between running and food, and what should be meant by a ‘healthy’ diet.
I am a runner myself and what I speak about purely comes from my own experiences and the challenges I have faced.
Food plays a massive role in all of our lives. It provides us with the fuel we need to live as well as the extra energy needed for training. It serves a practical purpose, but it is also a huge part of all of our social lives. Many of us enjoy meals out with friends, a post-race treat, or a café trip after parkrun on a Saturday morning.
An insufficient amount of food as well as an unhealthy, poor diet can significantly hinder your running performance. As they say, you can’t outrun a bad diet, but what does it really mean to have a ‘healthy’ diet?
What does a ‘healthy diet’ really mean?
As a child growing up, many of us, myself included, revelled off of the fact that we could eat what we wanted, when we wanted. We could get by with eating a packet of biscuits shortly before training and still run well.
Some people will still eat packets of biscuits and tons of junk food a day, purely because they believe they can run it off. However, as you get older you soon realise, if you want to run to the best of your ability and be healthy, you have to pay more attention to what food you put into your body. Our body is our engine and we have to fuel it properly.
A healthy diet can look slightly different for every person, depending on their likes and dislikes, what sits comfortably in their stomach, and their current state of health. In my eyes, a healthy diet is one that is well balanced and versatile. This means you are conscious to include a bit of every food group in your diet, plenty of fruit and vegetables, and you regularly change up what ingredients you use.
One of the most important aspects of a healthy relationship with food is not feeling the need to deny yourself anything, but also, not over indulging on ‘junk food’. If you fancy a bar of chocolate after dinner, let yourself have it.
If we allow ourselves to eat everything in moderation, we are less likely to have cravings that lead to binging and we are more likely to get all the essential nutrients we need from our diet. Eating in moderation also leads to one vital thing, a healthy relationship with food. It is this healthy relationship that I believe to be the key to a healthy diet.
One thing a healthy diet does not mean, is eating as little as possible. It is commonly misunderstood that the less you eat and the less you snack, the healthier you are. This could not be further from the truth, especially for athletes.
If you are exercising regularly and pushing your body to its limits, you need to provide your body with enough fuel to do so. The food we eat does not simply fuel your workout, but it also provides you with the energy needed for the recovery and repairing process. A lack of nutrition can hinder this recovery process and in turn increase your risk of injury. It can also lead to health complications further down the line.
False sense of time
Many people believe that in order to eat healthily you need to spend hours in the kitchen; hours you don’t have when you need to fit training in after work, sort the kids out and get to bed at a reasonable hour. However, eating a balanced and nutritious meal doesn’t have to take long, in fact, it can be very quick. If you make a few meals at a time all you have to do is reheat it later in the week.
Quick and healthy meals include things as simple as a stir-fry, lentil bolognese, vegetable curry, an omelette, or even chicken and homemade chips. Plus, healthy food is incredibly tasty.
How can your diet impact your running?
As runners, diet plays an important role in how we feel when we run, how we perform, and how we recover. Having a nutritious and balanced diet can benefit your running both mentally and physically.
If you are eating well, you are likely to feel fresher and less lethargic than you would if you were living off ready meals. The mental benefits will help you enjoy running more and allow you to push yourself with a stronger, more determined mindset. Running is there to help relieve us of stress not add to it, a well-fuelled body will help promote a clearer mind.
Not only will a good diet give you a stronger mindset, but it will also give your body the strength it needs to run at its best. This will help you feel physically better when running, which will add to the enjoyment factor. Food is fuel, not foe, therefore we should pride ourselves on sufficiently fuelling rather than fearing eating ‘too much’.
Something I unfortunately learnt the hard way and hope to educate others about, is that there is a fine line between having a healthy and unhealthy relationship with food, especially when in relation to running.
It is quite common for runners to possess slightly obsessive personality traits, I will openly admit I do. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can become extremely dangerous, particularly when food becomes the focus.
When focusing on your diet for the first time, it isn’t long before you recognise the positive effects small changes can have on your performance. Before long, most of the time without even realising, we can become obsessive over it. Soon enough you realise that by eating healthier, which more often than not is taken to mean eating less, you become faster.
This is NOT sustainable or healthy.
Yes, for the first 6 months your performance might improve but this is only likely be short lived and not without its complications. This positive effect eating less can initially have on your performance only reinforces your dangerous behaviour and causes you to believe, if you lose more weight, you might even become faster. Sadly, it doesn’t work like this.
Runners need to be strong and in order to be so, we need to eat enough food to be able to build muscle. By under fuelling, you will not only lose fat, but you will also lose muscle.
This developing obsessive behaviour then causes you to start looking for areas in your diet where you can eat less and less. This is purely fuelled by the misconception that if you lose more weight, you will become a better runner. As time goes by, whilst to the outsider you may appear to be eating ‘healthily’, for the amount of energy you are likely expending, you are significantly under fuelling.
Then reality hits. You no longer get faster; instead your weak body gets slower and slower. This is because your body isn’t receiving enough fuel to power what it is being asked to do.
Alongside the weakness of your body comes the weakness of your mind. This lack of nutrition starts to reduce your mental strength which affects your ability to run. You no longer possess the mental power required to get through an easy run let alone a tough session. Your determination and capacity to cope with physically demanding activities reduces to nothing. You may even stop your runs crying because the stress of it is all too much for your malnourished state to handle.
This happened to me and I ended up with stress fractures in the tibia of both my legs a few years down the line.
How to spot when obsession takes over?
When you start to adjust your diet, here are a few things that may signify you are taking it too far:
You are preoccupied with the thought of food.
Your next meal, whether you have just eaten your breakfast, are going to bed, or you’re even at a big event such as a party, is always on your mind. Whilst it is normal for food to be on our minds a lot, this preoccupation is more of a worry rather than you simply looking forward to eating. It prevents you from enjoying life.
Eating loses joy.
The joy that food once brought you may no longer exist, or not to the same care free extent it used to. You used to enjoy organising lunches, dinners or movie nights with your friends, but now the concept of not knowing what you will be eating plays on your mind and causes stress. Eating out no longer provides you with enjoyment.
Running becomes an excuse.
When eating less takes total control over your mindset, running becomes an excuse. Other runners may see through it, but to your friends outside of the sport, it appears to be a justified excuse. If you don’t want to eat or you don’t want to eat very much, running becomes the excuse. You say things like, ‘I can’t eat that because I have a run to do’ or ‘I’m a runner so I can’t eat that’.
This doesn’t have to happen
It is so important to enjoy food and establish a healthy relationship with it. Adopting a healthy diet doesn’t have to lead you down a dangerous path, but it is important to understand what it is you are trying to achieve.
Eating ‘healthily’ doesn’t necessarily mean eating less, it just means eating smarter and making better food choices. We need to fill our bodies with PLENTY of balanced goodness to help fuel our training.
Remember, eat everything in moderation.
This article was written by Hannah Irwin, a writer and international runner:
“I have been a passionate runner since I was six years old and I couldn’t imagine my life without the sport. My proudest achievements to date would have to be running for the England senior women’s team over 10K and cross country.
The year ahead is very uncertain so I am not currently sure of my goals, but I would like to remain injury free and get in some consistent training to prepare myself for when the race season does arrive. I would also love to wear the England vest again as soon as I can!”
Check out Hannah’s first article for Lonely Goat Running Club, ‘Why do we run and what unites us as runners?’, and keep an eye out for more articles by Hannah, coming soon.