Mindful eating part IV: Body image

In sports like running and triathlons, there will always be a focus on body composition and for many athletes, a desire to be leaner.
Specific to running economy, speed and aerobic capabilities, leanness in athletes, as it relates to performance improvements, is a topic that will never go away.

There's nothing wrong with athletes seeking weight loss, a decrease in body fat or an increase in lean muscle mass. This could be for aesthetics and self-esteem, to experience and improvement in performance and/or for overall health. 

Every year, I see my body composition change as I prepare for my peak races. But my race weight is unintentional as it is simply the weight on my body that I bring to race day. 
And I don't know that number because I don't weigh myself. 

I have never been against the idea of athletes changing body composition, especially if it improves overall health but there are many ways to improve performance and not always is weight loss the catalyst for performance improvements.

Health is always my number one goal when I work with athletes on nutrition or coaching. So when it comes to performance improvements, related to body composition, my strategy for changing an athlete's body composition involves no extreme strategy except to to make sure that my athletes eat a healthy diet and support their metabolic demands with proper nutrition before, during and after workouts.

Body composition changes can be a direct result of fueling your body properly before, during and after workouts, staying consistent with your training plan, getting good sleep and eating a healthy, balanced diet to support metabolic/energy demands throughout my season.  A change in body composition does not have to require extreme approaches unless you call eating before a workout, fueling during a workout, recovering after a workout and eating a healthy diet throughout the day, extreme.

In my opinion, intentional weight loss strategy like don't eat these foods, don't eat more than this many carbohydrates, fast before workouts or consume less than this many calories during long workouts are unhealthy for athletes. I believe that weight/body changes can occur naturally as a result of making sure that athletes properly fuel and nourish their body at all times.
And guess what, with this approach performance improvements happen naturally as well.
Athletes are driven. 
They are hard working, a bit stubborn at times and they love consistency.
They strive for improvements and they are willing to make sacrifices and investments in order to experience progress.

When a hard working, driven, disciplined and focused athlete is training for an event, it is normal that body composition will be on the mind of an athlete. Because you see and feel our body, often wrapped tight in spandex, with every aerobic and anaerobic effort, it is normal to assume that a change in body weight and/or body composition may make you feel better when you workout and may improve your training which may improve your race day performances. 

However, athletic performance can not be predicted by a certain weight, body composition or change in weight or body composition. Many times, athletes try to change body weight/composition and performance and/or health declines.

It is important to understand that body composition or weight changes may not be ideal for every athlete and above all, the strategies that athletes employ to change body composition may increase the risk for eating disorder thoughts and behaviors.

For age-group and professional athletes, the very same qualities that help athletes improve fitness in order to be prepared for race day may resemble the traits of athletes who are at risk for an eating disorder.

Athletes are already known to demonstrate extreme behaviors to improve performance so it wouldn't be a stretch to assume that many athletes see extreme eating behaviors as "normal".

without the ability to eat mindfully or to maintain a healthy relationship with food, an athlete who seeks body composition changes may have the tendency to restrict too much, with the intention to lose weight quickly and can ultimately carry restrictive or obsessive eating habits throughout the entire training and racing season.

Do you have a healthy relationship with food?

Eating disorders are a serious concern when it comes to athletes as a body that is malnourished or deprived in key nutrients, energy or fluids will not perform well and will certain struggle to remain in good health. You may feel that you are not at risk for an eating disorder but instead, you are following the advice of a professional who is helping you lose weight or change body composition in a "healthy" way in order to improve performance.

Let's consider the basic strategies to improve performance:
-Follow a smart, periodized training plan
-Eat a healthy diet to keep the body in good health
-Fuel for workouts appropriately
-Hydrate the body appropriately 
-Get good sleep
-Stay consistent with training
-Strength train and work on mobility
-Focus on individual development. 

With the most basic strategies, athletes can improve performance and ultimately may experience a positive change in body composition as an unintentional side effect. If body composition changes do not happen, the athlete should not stress as performance gains will likely still occur as you will be racing with a healthy and strong, well trained body. 

Although many great athletes understand and execute these basic strategies and let body changes be a side effect of smart training and fueling, some athletes desire a more extreme approach to eating and training. For the later, it is typical that these athletes have yet to master a healthy relationship with food and may have body image issues.  Using sport nutrition, eating around workouts, planning meals and snacks - many  athletes don't even consider the basics as they want to jump to a more severe, hard core and sexy approach. 

Let's now consider some current eating trends among triathletes:
-Fasting workouts
-Skipping meals/snacks to save calories
-Avoiding carbohydrates around workouts
-Avoiding certain foods termed "bad" like dairy, legumes, nuts and grains
-Low carb diets
-High fat diets
-Intentional dehydration
-Calorie deprivation during workouts

Hmmmm. Those habits sure resemble the habits of dieters who seek rapid weight loss results:
-Skipping meals and snacks
-Avoiding certain foods
-Abiding by an off-limit food list
-Intentional dehydration
-Using energy drinks, energy pills or laxatives
-Extreme calorie deprivation

Let's now explore some of the primary symptoms of eating disorders:
-Intense fear of being fat
-Resistance to maintain a healthy weight
-Inability to recognize (or feel good) in a comfortable at a healthy weight
-Loss of menstrual cycle in women, cardiovascular and hormonal issues in men and women
-Distorted body image
-Feeling out of control with eating behaviors
-Lack of control around food
-Feeling ashamed by eating behaviors
-Extreme concern with body weight/image
-Obsession with calorie counting, weight control and food intake

Now I want you to imagine what happens when you take an athlete who wants to improve performance or/and change body composition, who has yet to master a healthy relationship with food, has never learned how to eat mindfully and has poor body image thoughts and now this athlete consults a professional to help improve performance and/or change body composition and that athlete.

And the professional says "I want you to workout on an empty stomach, don't consume carbohydrates during the workout, only eat x-calories per day, cut back on carbs and avoid these foods. And by following these rules you will lose weight, performance will improve and you will be healthier than ever."
These extreme habits are not helping the athlete tackle his/her primary eating/body issues but only adding fuel to the fire to make unhealthy eating and body image issues even worse. 

Because many athletes seek body composition or weight changes at some point in their athletic career, I can't stress it enough that athletes must focus on their relationship with food before even considering to change body composition.

This entire blog series on mindful eating is dedicating to the athlete who struggles with body image and feels great anxiety, concern or struggles when it comes to food.

I promise that you can reach performance and/or body composition goals with a better relationship with food and your body. And you don't have to follow extreme eating habits.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to change your body composition and not every athlete takes extreme approaches to eating, fueling and training. 

But since we live in a diet-centric culture, you must learn how to eat in a mindful way by not seeing food as good or bad but as nourishment and for fuel.

If you are an athlete who has taken an extreme approach to changing body composition or to improve performance this past year (or for many years in the past), it is time to learn how to eat mindfully.

Consult a professional if you can not do it on your own so that you can make 2016 amazingly great by improving your body image and creating a great, healthy, feel-good relationship with food.

When you master mindful eating you may learn that your entire drive for changing body composition really came from your unhealthy relationship with food or your body image struggles were causing an unhealthy relationship with food.

It is only when you master a healthy relationship with food that you will have a healthier perspective on your body and you will perform better.

It is my hope that through mindful eating and a great relationship with food and your body, that you will experience amazing performance and health improvements and you will stop putting so much energy into changing your body but instead, enjoying what your body can do in training and on race day.