[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
When I started seeing my fourth therapist and my dietitian, I was also stepping into the wild and unknown world of ultrarunning. I love the mountains. I love the clean mountain air, the unpredictable weather, the smell of sage, the dirt that accumulates on my ankles, the thin air and the long, difficult climbs. I love reaching the peak, the runner's high, and bombing downhill. I love the trails that are treacherous and the trails that are smooth. I love the undeniable feeling of getting better at navigating terrain, the incremental increase in fitness, the heart thumping madness of it all.
My dietitian was adamant that I needed to eat more. Specifically, more protein. “In the week after one of these big races,” she told me, “you’ll need more protein than normal. Up to 150 grams a day." And after my first 100K, I discovered she was right. The day after the race, all I wanted was chicken. I was craving pure protein, so I went to the grocery, bought a rotisserie chicken, and devoured it all within a couple days. I was ravenous, and I told her so, “I can’t stop eating,” I said. “I’m just always, always hungry.”
“That’s good,” she emphasized. “Your body just did something amazing. You taxed it, and now you need to recover with good food and some rest.” And then she said something simple and profound, “You need to eat big to do big things.”
You need to eat big to do big things. I hadn’t quite thought of it that way. By the time I started seeing her, I wasn’t purging anymore. I wasn’t starving myself. My eating disorder was quiet, but it was still there, and I credit my dietitian's expertise with helping get over the last big hurdle, which was feeling guilty about eating food.
She was teaching me to eat intuitively, but she was also shedding light on the reality of my energy expenditure. One 10-mile run could burn 800 calories. That’s a big meal, on top of what I needed just to survive. Plus, she helped me understand how much better my body would perform if I gave it the right fuel, and I noticed a giant increase in not only my endurance, but my strength once I started fueling my body correctly.
Prior to seeing her, I would go for a 14-mile run and feel completely drained. Now, I can run double that and feel fine, and it’s not because my training is more sophisticated. I credit a large increase in gains to correctly fueling my body, giving my body carbs before and during a long effort, with a bit of fat and protein mixed in. Giving my body protein after a hard effort, to help my muscles repair. Timing my fluid intake, my salt intake, and sometimes, tracking my calories to ensure I’ve eaten enough. Emphasizing healthy food over unhealthy food but making room for both.
I want to be able to do cool things with my body. I don’t care so much about how my body looks, but I do care that it functions correctly and performs at a high level. I do care that I’m healthy and happy and strong.
After one of our sessions, she gave me a note card that said, “Eat big to do big things,” and I taped it to the bottom of my computer screen. If there is anything athletes everywhere, especially young athletes in sports that emphasize size, need to hear, it’s that they need to eat big to do big things, too.
I thought about my high school days, when I would eat nothing but an apple before a long track meet where I ran the mile, 2-mile, and 800. I was in such an incredible energy deficit that it’s astounding I was able to perform the way I did. But I do remember not feeling well. I do remember being tired and miserable. I do remember stomach pains and gastrointestinal distress. I do remember keeping to myself as my friends and teammates laughed and mingled. I was too tired to mingle, because I was hungry.
Eating big has freed up my mind for other things. I have the energy and mental fortitude to be creative. I can maintain relationships and really be there for people when they need me. I can read books and not find myself distracted by hunger pains. I can smile and laugh; train hard and love hard; live boldly and freely because I’m embracing every inch of myself and every moment of this weird and wild life.
Eat big. Do big things. And love every minute of it.
P.S. Read up on how much protein athletes should consume here, read about endurance athlete Amelia Boone and her experience with an eating disorder here, or watch this video from REI about what to eat on a long trail run.