I've written before about my struggles with working out and food (the hunger is real), and never is it more of a challenge than when I'm maintaining a pretty dedicated running routine. There's all kinds of research surrounding why you're just so damn hungry after a long or tough (or both) run, but mainly, it's that after all that work, your body just demands calories now. And your mind - mine, anyway - often translates that to "please eat whatever is closest and fastest."
One of my biggest challenges during training cycles is trying to curtail my snacking. But since I'm a morning workout person, and since I'm a hard workout person, I've struggled with being hungry all day. Sometimes I felt like a bottomless pit - sure, I just had four different granola bars, and I could definitely still eat my coworker's leftover pizza.
That perpetuates a negative cycle : eat too much, feel heavy, feel unconfident on my runs because I felt heavy, return to square one with the complicated relationship with food and eating I've had since high school. I had to work really hard in college to teach myself that it's okay to eat three meals a day, it's okay to have "bad" foods and it's definitely okay to need to eat more than you think is "normal for a girl." I still have issues with comments running through my head every time I eat ice cream or have a buttery slice of pie : do you really think you deserve this? This is going to make all of your pants too tight. Better run tomorrow.
You know, the usual. So while a good workout routine should, in theory, help you maintain a healthy dose of self confidence, my struggle to stay full, eat healthy, and not feel guilty for doing both always seemed to bring me down.
Now that I'm beginning to mix my running workouts up again - tempo runs, stride-outs and long runs all in the shuffle - and getting much better about cross-training (I promise, Mom! I really am this time!), I started to feel that hunger and its companion, the guilt, coming back along with it. But I've come so far in my recovery that I refused to feel anything except pride about what my body is able to accomplish. After getting into the swing of meal planning with my roommate, I decided to bite the bullet and purchase a copy of Run Fast, Eat Slow by Elyse Kopecky and Shalane Flanagan. (I got my copy at Summit to Soul on Barracks Row for my DC readers. You absolutely have to visit!)
I was super skeptical. I've bought cookbooks before, only to watch them pile up and catch dust. And I also wasn't sure that cooking their meals would "fix" my issues - bison meatballs and pasta sound good, but also sounds like a way for me to pace around feeling guilty about eating pasta. But many of my fit friends recommended it with ringing endorsements, and since there's no one I trust more than a badass lady who can kick my butt on a long run, I went for it.
You can read more about the book on its website, but here's a quick summary :
"FROM WORLD-CLASS MARATHONER AND 4-TIME OLYMPIAN Shalane Flanagan and chef Elyse Kopecky comes a whole foods, flavor-forward cookbook that proves food can be indulgent and nourishing at the same time. Finally here’s a cookbook for runners that shows fat is essential for flavor and performance and that counting calories, obsessing over protein, and restrictive dieting does more harm than good."
(Shalane Flanagan is a very worthy crush to have, by the way.)
So, I've started cooking from the book, and let me assure you - it makes all the difference. The first shopping trip, to get special flours, oils and supplies, was a little painful. But what I've noticed as I've eaten meals entirely from the cookbook's lineup has been completely worth it. If I eat a protein-heavy breakfast, with a dose of carbs if I've run that morning, I often find myself not needing lunch until 1 or 2 p.m.
As someone that used to heat up instant oatmeal and start thinking about lunch at 10 a.m., that is HUGE.
The rest of the meals are fresh, flavorful and don't taste at all like I'm sacrificing my love for cooking to try to keep my appetite in check. But the best part of all is that for every recipe, the authors explain why it's important and good for you to eat the ingredients in the dish. That, in turn, helps me to feel good about what I'm putting into my body, and relax a bit about calculating my calories in - calories out.
When things were at their worst, I'd restrict my meals heavily - eating really small portions of very low calorie foods in order to feel okay about eating at all. So now, it's really hard for me to give myself permission to eat full meals. Instead i do bites or snacks here and there because it’s easier for me mentally, but that’s actually worse for me physically!
Finding a cookbook that teaches me about the importance of the food I'm eating while I'm eating it makes a huge difference.
Some caveats : I'm not a nutritionist, or a doctor, or even really that knowledgable about diet and nutrition. I've admittedly had a tough relationship with food for most of my adult life. And a lot of that I handled through seeking help other than through a cookbook. And a lot of it I'm still working on.
But what I have gained in the last year is a healthy sense of appreciation for my own body. To go from writhing in pain on a hospital bed to completing a sub-2 hour half marathon in seven months is a journey I'm really fucking proud of. It's a journey I intend to expand upon, and I know that means I need to fuel my body properly, and not be afraid of food.
So screw what a girl "should eat" and screw calorie counting. I'm learning to focus on eating really good foods, and chill about the other stuff. And while I still can't buy ice cream for my house because I will eat an entire pint in one sitting (what's self control?), I'm finding that there is a lot of power in eating really good, really real food.
And yeah, a word of warning, I may give you a muffin only for you to find out there's a zucchini and a carrot grated into the batter. You're welcome.