As Spartans, we tend to be passionate about how we use our time. Many of us get up early, keep a rigorous training schedule, and sign up for as many races as we can. After all, most serious athletes have to develop some serious time management skills in order to balance training, work, events, rest, family, and fun. You’d think that if we understand the need for balance, we should have no trouble finding balance in our nutrition. Unfortunately, that’s not always true.
I’m a registered dietitian, and all too often I see people struggling with misconceptions about food and disordered eating — especially among Spartans. Here are some examples of the problems that I see.
1. The “I Exercise So I Can Eat Whatever I Want” Person
I once dated this guy when I was in the Navy. He taught me the basics of strength training, which were the foundation to my future success. But his workouts — although they were well thought-out and effective — were just a way for him to feel guilt-free about the excessive calories that he consumed throughout the rest of the day. Since this guy was able to balance his calorie intake with his calorie expenditure, he did not see unfavorable results.
So what? Why is this a problem? In this case, the food choices while undesirable did no immediate damage. You have to start worrying, though, when a person increases exercises to make up for excess calories eaten. This is sometimes known as exercise bulimia, and it can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise in which one is seen as the solution for the other.
The Spartan lifestyle is about being prepared for whatever comes our way, in mind, body, and spirit. This means that we provide our body with fuel — not just food — as a means of strength. In other words, we don’t train so that we can eat however we want. Instead, we eat so that we can train however we want.
Solution: Change the approach: Eat to train, don’t train to eat. The right foods equal better energy, better training, fewer burpees, and more victorious races.
2. The Under-Eater
The under-eater is often a person who has transitioned from a previously unhealthy lifestyle, started exercising, signed up for a race, and is now hooked (like the rest of us). The problem? Somewhere along their journey of losing weight and increasing activity, they created a calorie deficit.
Maybe they saw results initially, but they hit a plateau. The weight has stayed the same, they have a few more pounds they’d like to lose, but they don’t have the energy to push further in their workouts. Now, the caloric restriction that led to their previous success is not nearly enough to up the intensity. And, having struggled with excess weight before, the thought of increasing calories seems counter-intuitive.
As a result, the under-eater continues to restrict calories, continues to lack energy, and thus fails to reach their full potential. As a Spartan SGX Coach and a dietitian, I love asking people to “just trust me.” I ask them to give me three weeks (and preferably one race) to show them how increasing their intake of proper ratios of macronutrients (carbs, proteins, and fats) will not only give them more energy from day-to-day, but will make post-race, sub-par recovery a thing of the past.
Solution: Increase caloric intake.
3. The Great Macronutrient Debater
Carbs versus protein. Science continues to show us the benefits of both. And just like every Spartan at the starting line, the individual strengths of each is nothing to ignore.
However, some Spartans are louder than others. And some people’s opinions of the best fuel source ring louder, too.
If you have met this person, he or she is often quick to push their opinion of which macronutrient is most essential in everyday life, and which you should minimize. The problem with this is that focusing on one macronutrient usually means less room for another (in terms of calories). This disordered eating pattern can lead to a reduction of some vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that are only available in some foods, or may provide inadequate amino acids that can only come through certain food sources.
Without a proper understanding of macronutrients, an imbalance can lead to the eventual plateau or results, risk for injury, or a weakened immune system. Balance is key.
Is your nutrition balanced? Watch for these additional warning signs of disordered eating:
- A plateau in performance (decreased intensity of workouts, inability to improve run speed, shorter duration)
- Less interest in training
- Lack of appetite or excessive appetite
- Increased frequency of illness, longer illness duration
- More frequent injuries (stress fractures, poorly healing wounds)
- Excessive exercise following episodes of large caloric intake (as a means of “making up” for the intake)
Basic Guidelines for Healthy Eating (in Mind, Body, and Spirit)
If you find yourself experiencing these signs and symptoms, or you’re just looking to improve, keep these guidelines in mind:
1. Seek out nutrient-dense foods.
These help the body function well: Think colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.
2. Provide enough fuel for the work you’re doing.
This includes periods of rest as well as intense exercise. Excess and restriction both have negative results. A registered dietitian can outline your exact needs based on your training plan. If you don’t go that route, a Spartan SGX Coach can help guide you.
3. Avoid excess at all times — in eating and in exercise — and opt instead for balance (including alcohol)
You wouldn’t race back-to-back Spartan Ultras for 10 days straight. (Though you can try!) Your nutrition is no different. Moderation and balance lead to long-lasting success.
4. Eat mindfully.
Athletes have many goals in eating: fueling, refueling, carb loading, fasting. It all depends on the day of the week. With so many other factors causing us to eat, sometimes true hunger is not the deciding factor. Once in a while it helps to tap into our true hunger scale in order to reset our body.
Halfway through your meal, put down your fork and ask yourself where you are on the hunger scale. Take a minute to truly let your body signal you. From there, decide whether or not to pick that fork back up or get out the Tupperware.
5. Don’t draw unnecessary attention to your food choices.
We’ve all been around this person. Or perhaps you are this person. You’re seated in a restaurant around a table of friends placing orders. The waiter comes around to your buddy and she goes through the usual game of 20 questions before placing her order. After all, the body is a temple, right? Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, until she turns back to you all and feels the need to mention how she “can’t believe how unhealthy the menu choices are if you simply order as it is on the menu.” Adding insult to injury, she reminds you that your mixed drinks likely have over 500 calories alone.
OK, we get it, lady. Your day-to-day choices are important to you. You train hard, you play hard, and you want to make sure that what you eat doesn’t undo the time and effort. However, it’s important to remember that everyone is in a different stage of their journey.
Perhaps they went from eating out three times a week down to once a month. Or perhaps they enjoy an alcoholic beverage twice a year. Regardless of their choices, they don’t need to feel added guilt coming from a “friend.” If someone decides to ask you why you make the choices that you do, keep it positive and don’t put them down.