Written by: Devon Kroesché, MS, RDN, LDN
I am the CSN Lead Dietitian at our Robinson office and the Director of Marketing. Last weekend, I ran in the Pittsburgh marathon. During my marathon training for my last race in November, the Philadelphia marathon, I implemented principles of intuitive eating (IE) into my training program. I want to share how I accomplished this training method and if it is possible and/or recommended for other athletes
First, you may be familiar with IE, but let’s define it. Intuitive eating is not just eating without tracking or following a meal plan, but rather it is a weight-neutral framework that focuses on internal cues (aka listening to your body) and learning how to respond to these cues without explicit “rules.” It focuses on nourishing your body properly rather than restricting it to the constraints of a certain diet or caloric intake. It is a practice that incorporates elements of mindfulness as well as what is sometimes referred to as “gentle nutrition” to determine your body’s energy needs.
You may be wondering if you should incorporate this way of living into your life. It is a powerful mindset that can help you achieve freedom surrounding food and nutrition. For example, just as having an understanding of your own unique energy needs and how to meet them is an essential skill for properly fueling as an athlete (or as a person in general), knowing how to tune in to your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues is absolutely critical skill in being a “healthy eater” long term. The reality is you are not always going to know the exact calories in what you’re eating, and energy needs estimates are just that, estimates. The best way to know if you’re meeting your specific energy needs is paying attention to your body: how it is performing, how are your energy levels, possibly looking at weight trends, etc. It can also be helpful for people who are trying to develop a better relationship with food, and for whom monitoring their intake closely is not helpful for them at this stage of their journey. They have been hyper-aware of their dietary intake and are trying to distance themselves from that mindset.
Can an athlete practice IE? Yes, but I wouldn’t necessarily dive head first into this. As a dietitian, I like to make sure my athletes have an in-depth understanding of their energy needs and how to meet them properly. First, I want to make sure my clients understood how much they need to eat (that might include knowing about calories or it might not, depending on the client and the level of appropriateness). Secondly, I want them to know their hydration needs, electrolyte needs, protein needs, carbohydrate needs, etc. I also want them to be able to tell me how they can effectively meet their needs through food. I want my athletes to be aware of where they can find the nutrients they need through food. For example, tell me good sources of carbs, protein, salt, and others for training and fueling. Personally, a bagel with peanut butter, a banana, and skim milk is an adequate breakfast for me.
Once an athlete has a good foundational knowledge of nutrition and they are confident they have been appropriately fueling, we can transition into a less-focused approach. They can move away from tracking or following a close plan, and start listening to their bodies while keeping some of those foundational principles front of mind. For example, maybe they deviate away from a PB bagel with a banana and skim milk and instead do overnight oats with fruit, nuts or seeds, and greek yogurt because they know it offers comparable benefits. It is IMPORTANT TO NOTE: we should be implementing intuitive eating throughout the entire process. I’ll share a story with you. I had an athlete whose energy levels felt better when he ate a lower carb lunch as long as he met his carbohydrate needs over the course of the day. The high carb lunch was making him feel sluggish in the afternoon, a fairly common phenomenon especially if you work a desk job. So we adjusted his plan accordingly to meet his energy needs.
You may also be wondering some of the limitations of IE as an athlete and that is valid. One thing that can occur with exercise is decreased appetite. Intense exercise results in increases in leptin sensitivity; leptin is a metabolic hormone that helps your body sense fullness. People who are very active tend to be highly leptin sensitive, meaning their body will sense they are full quite quickly and more effectively compared to more sedentary people, putting them at higher risk for undereating. Athletes have very high energy needs and sometimes their body’s cues might not be able to account for this increased need. You may need to time your nutrition in a specific way that might not be in line with your body’s natural cues. For example, you might need high amounts of quick-digesting carbs before a workout even if you are not necessarily hungry for that at the moment. Athletes that are aiming to be in an energy surplus (in order to gain strength or size) may not be able to eat enough if they rely on hunger/fullness cues alone. The same thinking applies to those who are trying to lean out for their sport. Although, IE is not applicable in this instance as it goes against the IE framework of being a weight-neutral approach to eating. Some athletes – like marathon runners – may have to undergo carb loading. Nobody is going to intuitively eat enough carbs for an optimized carb load. It often takes planning an intention and a registered dietitian can help you with this journey.
I want to share my journey of marathon training while practicing IE with you. At first, I wasn’t using an IE approach. I sat down and planned my training, calculated my energy needs, and cross referenced it with Andrew, founder of CSN. I realized I wasn’t eating enough and increased my intake which led to me performing better. Then, I tracked my food intake for a few weeks to make sure I was meeting my needs. I also paid attention to how my body reacted to this fueling. Was I getting gassed during runs? I also paid attention to my hydration, sleep, stress levels, and other aspects of recovery. Once I had a good idea of exactly how much I needed to eat throughout my day and my week, I stopped tracking my food. I prioritized eating around the same times, every 3 hours or so, and prioritized carbs at every meal. I made sure most of the time my plate was filled up with at least 50% carbohydrates, mostly from high quality sources like sweet potatoes, bananas, oats, beans, and whole grain breads.
I challenged my inner food police. As a dietitian, I tended to stray away from quick digesting carbohydrates and ultra-processed foods. During training I realized that these foods are okay in limited amounts, and actually quite convenient when it comes to things like carb loading. I bought my favorite breakfast cereal, fruity pebbles, and had a bowl every night before a long run to top off my glycogen stores. I also incorporated foods like poptarts, rice krispy treats, and gummy worms on runs as quick-digesting carbs. I would need some quick sugar anyway, and I figured why not get it from some of my favorite foods rather than relying on less appetizing energy gels (nothing against them of course). I recognized the limitations of my intuitive eating during my training, especially when it came to carb loading for my race or for a long run. I ate slightly past fullness, and ate more frequently than I would have done intuitively.
I learned training for an endurance event like a marathon IS possible without having to track everything you’re eating. In fact, leaning into your body’s natural cravings can even enhance your performance. Often, I craved salt several hours after a run. Scientifically, this made sense because of the salt lost from sweat. I incorporated a salty snack that both satisfied that craving and helped replenish my electrolytes in a way I enjoyed. Eating intuitively, made fueling more FUN. I got to enjoy foods I don’t usually eat as often and challenge my unconscious food rules and be more flexible with my diet. I was way more in touch with my body than I ever have been. I learned to push myself out of my comfort zone and proved to myself that I can do hard things. No matter how you plan to approach your training, you will have to iterate along the way. Be willing to be flexible. If you want to take this approach to fueling for your sport, WORK WITH A DIETITIAN by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Even if you yourself are a dietitian!