For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
Most triathletes would agree that you can’t achieve a performance breakthrough without giving significant attention to your eating behaviors and food choices. Making smart dietary choices—sometimes sacrifices—will help you realize your full athletic potential.
But how do you know if your commitment to racing and training goals is steering your relationship with food in an unhealthy direction? Here are three red flags and how you should address them.
A passion for clean eating has turned into an obsession
Telltale signs: Recently, for non-clinical reasons, you have eliminated food sources or groups titled dairy, sugar, grains, gluten, refined foods, carbs or just “un-natural” in an effort to eat more “clean.” Because you are so passionate about food, much of your time is spent researching, planning, preparing and measuring food and ingredients, and you may even be isolating yourself from others.
Why it’s unhealthy: Certainly your idea of good and bad foods comes from a performance-oriented place and not because you’re seeking out a summer-ready body. However, your diet may be too restrictive and extreme. Eating should enhance your life and should never cause isolation, anxiety or guilt. As an athlete, you need a lot of calories from a varied diet.
Fix the issue: It’s OK to have good intentions with diet changes, as you want to better understand what foods work best for your body in motion, but extreme dietary shifts in eating patterns are one of the most common signs that you may benefit from working with a sports-specific dietitian, who can help you create a well-balanced, performance-focused diet. Improvements in any area of life require attention and perhaps some degree of obsession, but when your thoughts and habits are all-consuming and have taken over your life, it’s time to re-evaluate your relationship with food.
You are blindly chasing a body image
Telltale signs: You feel the pressure to be lean because society views lean athletes as strong, fast and powerful. On race day, you compare your body to someone leaner and automatically assume she/he is faster than you.
Why it’s unhealthy: Even if an athlete appears fit on the outside, it doesn’t mean she/he is healthy. Simply shedding body fat is not a given to improved performance nor to optimal health. If you are seeking body composition changes for performance, your approach should not be through a very severe, restrictive style of eating. Under-fueled athletes are at risk for nutrient deficiencies (e.g., anemia), low energy, chronic fatigue, hormonal imbalances, amenorrhea (females), trouble sleeping, low bone density (osteopenia), mood swings, injuries and burnout.
Fix the issue: Your methods for weight loss should never be counterproductive to your initial goal of performing better with your strong and healthy body. The best feature of your well-
fueled body is what you can do with your amazing body. When it comes to modifying your diet in order to change body composition for performance gains, every nutritional change should move you closer to your performance goals without compromising energy or your overall health.
You live by strict rules
Telltale signs: Perhaps you have found yourself prescribing to a current diet fad, so you follow the strict rules that promise to help you achieve your ideal body. Or maybe you have created your own diet that makes you feel guilty and remorseful when you break a given “rule.”
Why it’s unhealthy: If you are a performance-driven athlete who thrives off structure, guidelines, control and a time frame, keep in mind that rigid, rule-based eating does not take into account your personal needs, your performance goals, your periodized training plan, your lifestyle and your health goals.
Fix the issue: Athletes who have a healthy relationship with food know how to eat intuitively. They listen to their own hunger and energy cues. Foods are consumed with a purpose and eating is a pleasurable experience. A diverse selection of food delivers more nutrients to support your immune system and combats training stress on the body. It also prevents burnout from eating the same things all the time and helps you avoid intense food cravings.
The best way to improve your performance as an athlete is to improve your relationship with your body. You may find that when you begin to recognize the good in your athlete-in-training body, you begin to free yourself from food guilt, restriction, perfection and rules and eat in a way that moves you closer to your health and performance goals.