Trail Running Challenge Blog (Ethan Banks)

A Runner's Relationship With Food

One of the topics Coach K brings up in our weekly sessions is how I'm doing with food. As I understand it, body dysmorphia is common in athletes. As she is focused on not just physical performance but also mental health (they are intertwined, after all), she knows that food is a hot button issue for us.

My relationship with food is somewhat fraught. For instance, about two hours past having eaten a reasonably sized dinner, I feel hungry. Reflecting back on what I ate yesterday and today as well as today's calorie expenditure (~3,100 by the time I go to bed), feeling hunger makes sense. I am in a calorie deficit.

What's the right response in this case? On the one hand, there's nothing wrong with a little hunger now and then. I could wait until tomorrow to eat. In fact, this is how I dropped ~40 pounds over the course of several months. I'm familiar with what genuine hunger feels like as compared to feeling a little peckish.

However, there's a difference between where I am now vs. where I was when I was focused on weight loss. When losing weight was the main goal, the feeling of hunger I am currently experiencing was one the data points I used to know that I was sustaining a calorie deficit. That worked, as I steadily lost a small amount of weight week after week. While I was active outdoors, I wasn't training. A calorie deficit was fine.

Now I'm in a different place. I'm training my body for big efforts in the mountains. I've been mapping out lots of ~30 miles routes with ~15K of vert. I want to be fit enough to complete a route like that in 10-12 hours. To pull that off, I need to fuel my body. I have to grow muscle. I have to train. I have to recover. All of that requires (a reasonable amount of) quality food.

So the "on the other hand" response to being hungry right now--knowing I did a strength workout and a run today, and am doing another run tomorrow where I'd like to do more vert than I did today, and yet another run plus more strength work the day after that--is that I should eat. And I will, but as you can tell from this post, I have to think about it.

Here comes the "somewhat fraught" part.

I spent a lot of years as a fat guy working in IT at a desk all day. The most exercise I got was racking gear in data center. Not much. I actively disliked exercise, which is strange to reflect back on as I lived on a bicycle right through my teen years. Even when I realized how unhealthy I was as an IT guy and started hiking to improve my quality of life, I still carried a lot of weight. I fluctuated between about 220 and 240 pounds for several years, which put me at 30%+ body fat. The old joke of "I'm in shape. Round is a shape," applied to me.

These days, I still see the fat IT guy in the mirror. Not to put too fine a point on it, I have body dysmorphia. I still have a higher body fat percentage than I'd like. I don't look like a CrossFit athlete ready for their sponsor's photo shoot. But, I've lost 4 inches off my waist. I've replaced almost my entire wardrobe as I've needed to downsize from XL to L or even M. I've maintained my body weight between 190-195 pounds for months now. My belt buckle has stayed on the same holes. I can perform in the mountains like never before.

But I still see the fat IT guy. Subcutaneous fat covers my abs, which I can feel--I know they're there. I have minor love handles still. And in the mirror, those and other problems are pretty much all I can see.

That means food is on my mind a lot. I think about what I'm eating vs. how much my body requires on a given day all the time. I eat a lot of the same things because I know the macros, micros and calorie density well enough to know they're healthy. I might split a dessert at a restaurant with my SO once a month. I'll have a beer once a month (okay, maybe twice). Those small indulgences constitute a "cheat day" in my mind.

That is to say, the way I eat now vs. 230 pound me is quite different. I'm not on a diet. I just don't eat the way I used to. Eating conscientiously still requires discipline, though.

The body dysmorphia part of me sees the remaining fat deposits and argues that I might as well go back to the way I used to eat. Because hey, I'm not a calendar model yet. The old way was a lot more fun. I got to pursue craft beers I hadn't tried yet. I could have seconds if I wanted seconds. I'd always get the fries instead of the greens. And so on.

Thankfully, the logical part of my mind is able to tell the dysmorphic part of my mind to shut up. I'm aware I have body dysmorphia on some level. I also know that as my running miles grow and I'm spending more long days in the mountains (spring is coming, so I hear), the body fat I don't like will come off, because that's how that works. I also know that constant calorie deficits are going to be, on the whole, bad for my training.

That's my relationship with food. I'm not entirely sure it's healthy or that I've struck the right balance. I hope I'm on the right track. I feel like I am. I'm still more prone to overeating than undereating, although both are temptations depending on how I feel about myself on a given day.

If I have an injury-free summer season that's allowed me to do all the challenges I'm aiming for and still have more fat on me than I'd like, I'll revisit this topic and determine if I need to make more food changes.