10/26/15

How's your off-season relationship with food?


The off-season weight debate is a serious topic of conversation at the end of the racing season. Year after year, athletes, dietitians, nutrition experts personal trainers and coaches continue to justify the reasons for intentional (or unintentional) weight gain at the conclusion of the racing season, which is then often followed by the dietary rules and methods of intentional weight loss/maintenance in the early phases of the training season.

Yet rarely, if ever, do we hear about the importance of having a healthy relationship with food and how your relationship with food throughout the entire season affects overall health, sport nutrition choices/methods and daily dietary choices. 

If anything, all athletes should FIRST learn how to have a healthy relationship with food prior to even discussing methods of improving sport nutrition, body composition or overall health.

Before talking about how to improve your relationship with food during the off-season, I would like to discuss two main reasons as to why I feel athletes struggle with their relationship with food (which consequently starts or follows an unhealthy relationship with body image). 


THE START OF YOUR SEASON

It was not even a year ago when social media was flooded with athletes who were gushing over their new amazing "lifestyle" by eliminating gluten and dairy (without a clinical reason for doing so), going Paleo or Whole30 or starting a new training/fueling/diet regime in order to burn more fat and to become more metabolically efficient. I wouldn't be surprised that in less than two months, it will all happen again.
It wasn't too much later in the racing season (but more so this summer) when social media became rather quite as many athletes we no longer enjoying their diet as they felt unhealthy or less fit (as in, performance was not improving or declining). Additionally, many female athletes were experiencing health issues relating to their metabolism, bone and thyroid health.
In other words - the diet was no longer working, helping or maintainable. 

It is very unfortunate how these annual, New Year food trends destroy an athletes' relationship with food. Sure, it may look very tempting (and necessary) to jump-on a diet train when the start of your training plan falls soon after the holiday season as a previously very flexible "off season" workout routine, coupled with splurges and indulges, can leave you ancy for a quick fix.

And to make things easier, much of the world (non-athletes) are thinking just like you in that a drastic change combined with extreme determination is the best way to start the year. Because of this, there is information, a plan and even products to support your dietary/body composition endeavors which is why so many athletes follow a diet plan sometime in the off-season.

But as we all know, these extreme eating habits have the potential to completely disrupt any opportunity of you creating or maintaining a healthy relationship with food during your season and are not beneficial for your performance - so why see them as an option?

If you have a past history with trying diet fads or following extreme diets or eliminating food, you constantly experience great fear of certain foods, food groups or nutrients, worry about eating the wrong things at the wrong times, associate guilt with your eating, feel like no matter how much you workout and reduce calories you can't lose weight or feel like you are constantly unhappy with your body, the off-season may leave you in a very vulnerable position to be a sucker for diet fads/trends at the start of your season.

In the off-season, when training volume/intensity is reduced and you can live a much less stressful and busy lifestyle, this is a great time to develop a healthy relationship with food and to begin to love your amazing body. You can focus on yourself without having to focus on a race but it is important that you do not focus on what other people are doing. 

Would you believe me when I said that there a lot of athletes who eat gluten, drink milk, eat before workouts, use sport nutrition, drink on a schedule (and not to thirst) while working out and not only perform well but maintain a very healthy body composition throughout the season?
It wouldn't be hard for you to find theses athletes too as they do exist - lots of them - and this includes many professional athletes!

I know it sounds crazy (as the nutrition experts don't want you to believe it) but dieting and restrictive eating have no place in an athletes diet (or vocabulary).  
Every athlete must customize a diet and fueling regime that works for individual goals. 

In summary, starting the off-season or New Year by following a mass marketed diet or restrictive eating plan in an effort to lose weight, jump-start a healthier lifestyle or to improve fitness, will only increase the risk that you may have an unhealthy relationship with food during your training and racing season - when food is no longer just viewed as nourishment but also for fuel. 

If you currently have an ongoing struggle (or fear) with food, please avoid any and all diet plans in your off-season as they are simply an easy means so that you can control underlying issues. They do not fix the your food problems, they only exacerbate the issues.
It is time to get to the root of the problem which is likely your current relationship with food and your body as an athlete. 


THE END OF YOUR SEASON

Did you experience an injury at some point during your training prep leading up to your last race?
Did you finish your season burnt out or with a subpar performance at your last race?
Did you feel you reached a race weight that left you unhealthy and improperly nourished?
Did you struggle with your weight throughout the season and still feel as if your body composition is a limiter in your overall health and/or training/racing?
OR
Did you feel comfortable with your body image at the end of the season?
Regardless of your body composition, did you experience a great result at your end of the season race?
Did you feel strong, healthy and fit throughout your season and feel like your composition has not be a limiter all season?

Depending on how you answered the above questions, this will directly affect your relationship with food in the off-season. Because weight is not a simple topic that can be "fixed" with a simple method or strategy for the masses, it is important to ask yourself how the last few months of training/racing or your last race performance may be affecting your current "off-season" relationship with food.

There is a great association between body image, performance and dietary choices in the off season but as we all know, this is not limited to the months when we are not gearing up for a race.
Athletes are constantly bashing and criticizing their body for being the reason for injuries, poor performances and not reaching expectations or goals and this needs to stop.

 It is very important that athletes and "experts" are sensitive to this fact when it comes to chiming-in on the "off-season" weight and diet conversation as an athlete who was injured during the season, has a poor performance at his/her last race, struggles with his/her body image or has struggled with his/her weight all season is going to have a very different relationship with his/her body at the start of the off-season compared to an athlete who had a great training/racing season, feels healthy or in the best shape ever.
Because of this, body image concerns may drive eating choices/behaviors as some athletes will indulge responsibly whereas others will restrict food.

Depending on how you finished your season, it is very important that you take the time to recognize what your body has allowed you to do and to give your body some credit.
Next, identify what's driving your dietary choices in the off-season? Are you allowing your current body image/composition or lack of a training routine from helping you make smart food choices?
 Certainly, it is important that no matter your body composition or performance at the end of the season, you have the power to develop a healthy relationship  with food in the off-season and you always focus on eating for health.
No matter your off-season weight/body composition goals, all foods in your diet should make you feel good when you eat and after you eat.

Next up - I will discuss a few simple steps on how you can improve your relationship with food in the off-season.