Intuitive eating for athletes

Intuitive eating isn’t for athletes… or is it?

I rode my bike up Trail Ridge Road this weekend and it was epic. Known as of the most scenic drives in North America, it starts 8,000’ feet and keeps climbing until you’re above 12,000’. The grade is gentle enough not to kill you but hard enough to challenge you, and the views live up to the hype. 

I climbed for nearly two and a half hours straight and I felt strong the entire time — thanks largely to my nutrition strategy. 

Wait, aren’t you an intuitive eater? I thought you just ate whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted it? There’s a strategy involved? 

(That part in italics is me telling you what I think you’re probably thinking. My husband hates when I tell him what he’s thinking but I’m going out on a limb and trusting that you won’t mind.)

White woman holding road bike overhead. Wall of snow in background
Yes thats a very tall wall of freshly-ish plowed snow

Yes, there’s a strategy

Sure, intuitive eating is eating what, when, and how much you want at the moment — but it also involves planning ahead, especially for athletes. Intuitive eating invites you to honor both what you want in the present and what will serve you in the future, based not on how it could affect your weight but on how it will impact the way you feel. 

In my two-plus decades as an endurance athlete, I’ve literally never craved a sports nutrition gel during a long ride, run, or hike. But I know from experience that when I can get one in every 30 minutes (along with calories from a sports drink), my energy level is higher and more stable for a longer period of time. 

All the years I spent trying to get away with eating as little as possible meant I struggled to keep up with my training partners and blamed myself — not for underfueling but for being too slow and too big. 

The truth was, I went into most of those workouts underfueled and came out of them too depleted to make the food choices that would serve my recovery needs. (Read: I’d come home ravenous, eat a too-small dinner, and then eat random foods out the pantry because I’d “earned” them, promise myself I’d “get back on track” tomorrow, rinse, repeat.)

Sound familiar? 

Where to begin

Here’s something you can try right now to get out of this cycle. I do it myself, and I teach it to my intuitive eating coaching clients, too. 

Experiment with eating when you’re not hungry and see how you feel. I know, diet culture has told us it’s a mortal sin to eat for any reason other than hunger, so if this feels challenging, I get it. But if you’re fueling for performance, hunger cues aren’t the be all end all. (If you don’t believe me, believe all the experts I interviewed and the research I did for this SELF article!)

If it’s not too triggering, keep a journal so you can identify any patterns that emerge. (I don’t mean tracking everything you eat, rather what you eat immediately before/during/after a workout.)  

This might look like: 

  • Having a small breakfast before a workout even if you’re not hungry first thing in the morning
  • Taking in some calories during any workout that lasts beyond 60 minutes. 
  • Eating a carb-rich snack an hour before your post-work gym session 

The goal isn’t to biohack your body to perfection or to nail your nutrition. 

The goal is simply to collect data. Think of yourself as a scientist, making observations from a neutral place without judgment. You’re not checking the number on the scale, your calories, or your macros. You’re just looking at how nutrition timing influences your energy levels during, your hunger sensations, and your eating habits. 

That’s it. That’s the whole assignment. Let me know how it goes if you try it. 

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