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For hungry runners, it can be tough to sort out the signal from the noise and learn to hone in on what your body needs. Should you track specific nutrients? Should you be eating purely based on feel? The answer isn’t so simple.
Macronutrients, also called ‘macros’ are carbohydrates, fat and protein. These nutrients are the main building blocks and energy providers for the body. Not getting enough of a certain nutrient raises injury risk for runners, and can lead to energy deficiency and fatigue.
There are a number of digital food apps that track food, drink and exercise and allow you to set goals for macros. While some claim these tools to be helpful for accountability, too often, an innocent tool can become an unhealthy obsession. Anyone who’s ever experienced eating disorder ideation, or has even felt compelled to restrict food intake should steer clear of apps that might exacerbate underlying mental health issues. As a rule, these tools should be used with the goal of fueling more, and not restricting. They can be a valuable tool for tracking protein intake, for example, to make sure you’re getting enough throughout the day.
But, not all apps are created equal, and there are some issues with accuracy that bear consideration. Many people struggle with eyeballing their food portions, and unless you are breaking out the measuring cups or scale at every meal and snack (not recommended), or have a Rain Man-like ability to divine the protein content of a sandwich, you will most likely be off on the amounts of food you are entering. In addition, in a study published in ArXiv comparing four popular food-tracking tools, each tool gave a different nutritional output measurement for the same food items, suggesting that the tools are inconsistent and unpredictable in nature.
While these food journaling apps do have specific nutrient inconsistencies, they can be used as a starting point to evaluate specific dietary habits and meal composition patterns. By paying close attention to patterns in your diet, (for instance, not eating enough protein at breakfast, and not enough complex carbs at lunch) you can get some valuable insight into nutritional tweaks that would better support your training.
On the other side of the coin, we have intuitive eating. Intuitive eating doesn’t impose guidelines on what should or should not be eaten, but rather, encourages listening to the body to make choices on when and what to eat. Mastering intuitive eating requires being able to decipher physical hunger from emotional hunger and makes peace with all food, rather than calling certain foods good or bad.
As humans with busy schedules, many of us have lost touch with listening to our bodies. Harmful messaging around diet can discourage tuning into those important cues. If you’re using caffeine or filling up on water to suppress hunger, you’re missing out on a valuable message. Hunger, fullness, cravings and signs of nutrient deficiencies are often ignored until they become a problem. Developing an intuitive eating skillset can help the body, but also the mind. Intuitive eating seeks to un-learn a lot of the harmful messaging associated with diet culture, particularly when it comes to restricting what you can or should eat, and when. The goal is to silence your inner food police and allow yourself to eat what you want, when you want, according to how you feel. In giving yourself permission to eat foods previously deemed “bad”, many people experience reduced cravings and stress around food. Intuitive eating encourages keeping health in mind while making food choices, but being less rigid and dismantling harmful or moralizing rules around eating.
While intuitive eating has many benefits, as runners, it can sometimes be difficult to just rely on the bodies’ cues for our eating and meet nutrition needs. For instance, post-run, many lose their appetite (due to hormonal changes) and don’t feel like eating for hours or even for the rest of the day. They may not gain their hunger back the next day either, causing them to dig a hole nutritionally that they might not be able to crawl out of in the future.
So what’s best? For physical and mental health, a combination of the two!
Using food journaling or an app initially as a learning tool to pick up on where your nutrition can be improved throughout the day to support your training is a good starting place. Then, honing in on developing awareness around physical hunger and fullness cues, as well as listening to the body for signs that it might be deficient in something can be worked into your daily routine.
Do you have a question for our RDN? Send your trail-running-nutrition quandaries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kylee Van Horn is a licensed Sports Registered Dietitian and competitive trail runner.