Intuitive Eating for Athletes

By December 7, 2015Fitness, Fuel

Endurance athletes typically want to be fit and healthy, right? If you are against being fit and healthy, then you probably don’t want to be exercising 10-20+ hours every week. Sorry to burst your bubble.

So, if endurance athletes (runners, swimmers, cyclists, triathletes, cross country skiers, etc) want to be fit and healthy, then we probably care about what we put into our bodies. We probably understand that proper nutrition is a key component of our training program. We think of food as something that sustains, nourishes, and fuels us. Of course, there are some exceptions:

  1. Athletes who don’t really care about their performance…or is that just an excuse to eat poorly?
  2. Athletes who partake in endurance sport for the sole purpose of eating high volumes of calorically-dense foods
  3. Athletes who really do not think about food, and often “forget” to eat (what!?)
  4. Athletes with disordered eating behaviors

Most endurance athletes have access to nutritious foods everyday. I assume this because if you are participating in an endurance sport, and can afford to spend some leisure time training and some extra cash on your next race or piece of training equipment, then you are likely able to purchase an appropriate quantity and quality of food for yourself. I am not saying that all endurance athletes have plenty of spare cash to throw down on a $50 salad from the Whole Foods salad bar, but we can probably buy potatoes and carrots at the grocery store. What excuse do we have to not invest in our health and our training by fueling our bodies well?

Another commonality of endurance athletes is that we tend idolize leanness. The idea is that if one has a leaner body, he/she will be faster. This is true to a degree, so long as shedding excess bodyfat does not come at the cost of strength, health, or general well-being. Yet, competitive endurance athletes tend to put tremendous pressure on themselves to perform, and are at risk for developing disordered eating habits because of this tendency to obsess about leanness as a performance enhancer. Preoccupation with body weight and composition can lead to fear of food, food restriction, and clinical disorders such as anorexia nervosa. On the other end of the spectrum, an athlete’s self-induced restriction may lead to obsession with food, overeating (binging), then guilt, then more restriction–not a fun pattern. Disordered eating thoughts and habits do not work in the athlete’s favor, and can cause undesirable effects including decline in athletic performance. Extreme dietary restriction can lead to decreased immune function, delayed recovery from training, general fatigue, anxiety, and injury. Female athletes may develop symptoms of the Female Athlete Triad, including bone weakening and menstrual irregularity.

As a student of nutrition, I want to arm myself with the knowledge of where my food comes from, what each food is made of, why I need each nutrient, and how my body processes and uses these nutrients. I am fascinated by the human body, especially as it relates to nutrition and athletics. As an athlete, I value putting quality fuel into my body, but I also value being human. To me, being human means a lot more than just our physical eating and drinking and training. Being human is also mental, emotional, and spiritual. It involves relationships– with our families, with our friends, with our environment, with our creator, with ourselves, with our bodies, with our minds, and even with our food! I believe that we need to have balance when fueling our bodies merges with fueling our various relationships.

For example, if I am having tea with a friend, and she offers me a cookie, I do not have to shun her because her cookies are made with sugar and butter. I can eat a cookie if my body wants a cookie. But this poses a problem: how do I know what my body wants? Most of us have ignored our body’s natural cravings, hunger signals, and even satiety signals, for a long time. Instead of tuning into our bodies, we look to labels, scales, articles, Dr. Oz, and even our own made-up ideas, to determine what, when, and how much we should or shouldn’t eat. How did we manage to eat when we were kids, before we “learned” how to eat? I think that the real question we should ask ourselves is “how and when did we manage to unlearn our inborn eating patterns?” When did we let everyone else decide how many calories we should eat and what we should weigh? When did we even start caring about calories and weight at all? Weren’t we less anxious about food and our bodies when we were kids?


“We are all born instinctual eaters but it is the aging process, along with social and family influences, that diverts attention away from how our body feels when it is hungry. Babies cry when they are hungry. This is the body’s response to physical hunger. Somewhere throughout the developmental process, the ability to listen to the body’s instinctual eating cues are lost or forgotten…” –Bob Seebohar, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., C.S.C.S., Sports Nutrition For Young Athletes

I don’t think that healthy eating is as simple as “good food” vs. “bad food”. I also don’t think it’s as simple as eating X number and/or burning Y number of calories everyday. I think that our bodies are so complex that we can’t tell them what they need or how they should look. I think it’s time we go back to trusting our bodies like we did when we were kids–when we ate two bites of that hot dog because it smelled good and then put it down because we weren’t hungry anymore. I think it’s time to tune into our innate hunger and satiety signals.

What I’m NOT saying:

  • I’m NOT saying that Intuitive eating is easy: While listening to our bodies was easy when we were kids, it has probably been a long time since we really listened to our bodies. It takes a while to fully learn to trust our bodies again and to adapt to eating intuitively. There will be slip ups, but keep trusting!
  • I’m NOT saying that every athlete can eat every type of food: Some athletes have food allergies, intolerances, and diseases which make them unable to eat particular foods and remain healthy. These athletes can still practice intuitive eating with the foods that they can eat.
  • I’m NOT saying that we should eat junk food all of the time: Actually, if we are constantly craving junk food, it is more likely the result of feeling restricted. In order to really stop the cravings, we need to really stop restricting ourselves. Also, the more that we practice listening to our bodies, I believe that we eventually start to crave more wholesome foods!
  • I’m NOT saying that athletes should fully rely on perceived hunger and thirst signals during training and racing without regard to calorie/carbohydrate/fluid numbers: When training and competing for long hours, it is important to have a sports nutrition plan. However, in case the plan goes awry due to unforeseen issues, it is good to have the ability to know and understand your body’s signals.

Additional Intuitive Eating Resources:

One Comment

  • Daniel says:

    Hey there, I stumbled across this article and I lpve it. The way how you explained the importance of having a healthy reltionship with food is simple to understand yet impactful.

    All the best, Dan

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