Or do I?
The Holiday Season is upon us (YAY!) and food, drink and sweets are plentiful (YAY and EEK!). It is a time for family, joy, wonder and celebration; however, with all the food within arms reach, it also seems to be a time where friends and family alike put me in a separate category in life. Oftentimes when deciding whether I want to reach into the office candy bowl (curtesy of leftover Halloween candy) or have one of those office baked goods (thank you Holiday bakers!), I hear comments like “why even think about it? You run 100s of miles so you don’t have to worry.” Or “Go ahead, you are just going to run it off later. You would metabolize the whole cake.” And then there is my favorite, “I bet you lose a ton of weight training and racing.” These comments stick in my head long after those conversations have ended, especially as I have struggled significantly with body image in the past.
On one hand I do believe in eating the things you truly enjoy since deprivation is a slippery slope when talking eating habits. On the other, I am an athlete first who tries to eat like one as much as possible while also enjoying wine, cheese, and an occasional hamburger. So do I eat what I want? Yes…and no. As I’ve mentioned before I do not like limits or self-limiting, and my eating habits follow that trend…within reason. I eat what my body craves. Luckily for me, I tend to gravitate towards a well-balanced plate of proteins and vegetables with some grains. Like Oprah and her Weight Watchers commercials, “I LOVE BREAD!” and do not ever plan to cut it out of my life. I choose not to self-limit my eating, but I also try to focus on getting the right calories into my system and not just the right amount of calories.
Endurance Sports and Calorie Burn. Running, or any activity, for extended periods of time requires fuel and hydration. Without them athletes “bonk” from glycogen depletion. To train and race the way you desire (whether elite athlete or weekend warrior), you must consume enough good calories to keep from running out of energy. (NOTE: Bonking generally does not occur in shorter duration exercise, unless you are not taking care of yourself.) In a race, an ultrarunner can burn a significant amount of calories depending on distance and weight. Interestingly, the time it takes you to run the distance does not change your calorie burn; however, weight gain or loss will change the overall number of calories burned. According to the Runners’ World “calories burned calculator” I burned approximately 9,075 calories (90.75 calories per mile) in the 19 hours and 43 minutes of my 100 miler, which is at least triple that which I, as an active late 30s female, burn on a normal day.
You may be reading this and thinking, “she gets a free pass on what she eats with that type of calorie burn throughout and event or long run.” Well, we all know there are no free passes in life. Yes, I need to eat more than the average female, but I do not get carte blanche on all foods and portion sizes. There are no supersized meals for me. In fact, oftentimes after a long training run or race, I actually cannot eat. My stomach seems to shrink while all my energy goes towards keeping my muscular legs motoring down the road or trail, and the thought of food after can sometimes make me feel nauseous. This is NEVER good as it is really important to get some healthy proteins and fats into your body within the first 30-45 minutes post a workout. So while activity level is a large factor in determining metabolic burn rate (or eating what you want), there is also age, weight, and calorie consumption. Yup, that is correct. Without consuming enough calories I am at risk of placing my body in starvation mode and slowing down – POSSIBLY PERMANENTLY – my metabolism. I do NOT want that!!! Seriously, eventually I’m going to get old and I might want to get lazier but still eat all my favorite foods without turning into a ball.
Why do I not give myself a pass and just eat whatever I want, when I want? The #1 reason is because I am an athlete first, but also because there is some science involved in what our bodies can handle and break down while maintaining health, fitness, and activity level. God knows, as an Ultramarathoner and Ironman athlete, I learned those lessons early (stomach issues anyone?!?!?!).
Myth busting. So can I eat whatever I want? Well, as long as I do not have a food allergy I can technically eat whatever I want. The better question is “do I eat what I want?” or “does my body tell me what it needs?” The latter is my favorite question because the answer is 100% yes. I have learned to listen to my body. It tells me when I need caffeine (EVERY MORNING!), when I need more fat, and even when I need iron (when I crave steak or burgers).