"As much we know that running is a very mental sport, being happy as a holistic person (outside of running) is tied very closely to how we perform. Sometimes, you just have to do what makes you the happiest person, so that you are the happiest and best version of yourself when you show up to practice and can put forth your very best effort. This is a huge lesson I learned throughout my struggles."
Jessica Stratton - Old Saybrook (CT) High School, Class of 2019
University of Delaware, sophomore
There are a lot of universals truths in running. But here's a very important one: Food is the key ingredient to energy and recovery in this sport. I know this can be a little bit of a heavy topic for some runners, but if you struggle at all with your relationship with food or just can't seem to escape a cycle of injuries, this may be a necessary read for you.
I will talk a little bit about my own journey with food, as well as offer some tips on mending your relationship with food and developing sustainable habits to fuel you to reach your potential.
The reality is that food and nutrition plays a large role in performance. A general concept that I've been told is to think of myself as a high performing vehicle who needs fuel. You should think of yourself the same way.
You need good, high quality fuel to drive the way you were built, and the way you want. But if you have fuel that burns too fast or fails to give you enough energy or power, you may not go as far. You might burn out quick. This ultimately means we need nutritious, high quality food in order to fuel ourselves to perform at the highest level.
Don't count calories, but have a general idea of how much you need to be eating to not just make up for, but surpass the amount of calories you are burning when you workout everyday. You most likely require a lot more food and calories than you realize to continue doing what you ask of your body at a high level.
However, with an unhealthy relationship with food or lack of knowledge on the importance of fueling can come issues. This concept can be severely misunderstood and abused. For me, my obsession with health turned into restricting and cutting out of foods, misunderstanding how much I needed to eat for what I was demanding of my body and thinking that eating as healthy as possible was the way to success. I thought I was doing it right.
But in reality, eating that way led me to rapidly lose weight, led me to lose of my period and it broke down my body because I did not have enough energy to sustain my training. What I needed was a balanced diet that consisted of nutritious and calorically dense meals -- but also having dessert when I wanted it, and not being afraid of foods because they weren't healthy enough.
I learned to eat what I WANTED.
In an effort to mend my relationship with food, these were the two most essential things I discovered. The first decision I made was to increase what I was eating. This can be daunting at first for an athlete who is trying to change their habits, but in my case I slowly started to expand my portions, including more healthy fats and carbs in my diet. I also ate an extra snack or two throughout the day. Those are great places to start. Sometimes you might feel scared that it's going to feel like SO much food, but I promise your body will adapt and in just a little bit of time you will start to need, and CRAVE, more food.
Secondly, what was even more important to my recovery was challenging myself to eat the things that I used to restrict. This meant eating different types of carbs like fresh loaves of bread and bagels instead of the most healthy types of bread that are low in calories. It meant learning to order french fries at a restaurant if that was what I wanted. It meant not saying 'no' to ice cream with my friends, or whenever I didn't want it because I knew it to be unhealthy.
Another couple of tips I have for runners who are looking to reach their potential and fuel their body to the best of their ability:
- Eat before you run. Fueling before you workout is essential so that your body is not pulling from empty energy stores and therefore relying on energy from somewhere else. This is how bone injuries could occur.
- Similarly, eat immediately after you run (or within 30 minutes). This is critical to immediately building back the energy you just used and helping your muscles and bones begin to recover as fast as possible.
- Eat what makes you happy. As much we know that running is a very mental sport, being happy as a holistic person (outside of running) is tied very closely to how we perform. Sometimes, you just have to do what makes you the happiest person, so that you are the happiest and best version of yourself when you show up to practice and can put forth your very best effort. This is a huge lesson I learned throughout my struggles.
- Don't count calories, but have a general idea of how much you need to be eating to not just make up for, but surpass the amount of calories you are burning when you workout everyday. You most likely require a lot more food and calories than you realize to continue doing what you ask of your body at a high level.
In conclusion, I would just like to stress how absolutely important it is to fuel your bodies. Not taking this seriously has resulted in some extremely serious injuries for me, and many others that I know. I remember being told some of these things before I was injured, but it wasn't until I lost running and was chronically injured for me to realize what all of this meant, and how serious it was.
Don't let it get that far for it to sink in. That is the one thing I would go back and tell every single runner who struggles with their relationship with food. It's not worth it. Make the change now. Don't wait until it's too late. And I'm not saying it's easy, because trust me, these changes took some hard work. But I now am sure that I have enough energy to perform and produce a period, and there is nothing more rewarding than that.
Jessica is a 2019 graduate of Old Saybrook (CT) High School and a sophomore at the University of Delaware. She was a multiple-time CIAC State Open and CIAC Class Class S Championship qualifier and placer, and held PRs of 2:22.78 in the 800m and 5:07.42 in the 1,600m. This is the beginning of a monthly series where Jessica writes about important and wide-ranging subjects involving young and developing runners.