Coach Tip Tuesday: Exercise is Not a Punishment for What You Ate
This time of year is a complicated one for athletes. One season is either finished or is wrapping up, but most folks aren’t training “in earnest” for goals that they’ve set in the upcoming year yet. As a result, things can feel fairly nebulous as November transitions into December. Assessing how the past year went from a training and racing perspective so you can plan authentic goals for the coming season is a valuable use of time around this time of year. When planning for those upcoming goals, it’s also important to incorporate buffers into your training. And as you navigate the holidays, it’s very important to remember this:
Exercise is not a punishment for what you ate.
You Do Not Need to Earn Your Food
I hear it so often this time of year: Athletes tell me that they need to “earn” their food, and that they especially need to earn their holiday food. I’m here to tell you firmly that you do not need to do that and that you shouldn’t tell yourself that you need to do this.
Food is a basic human need. It is NOT a prize or a reward. Read that again: You need food to live. Do not gamify something that is critical for your survival. Don’t treat yourself like we humans treat Labrador Retrievers or seals when they exhibit the behaviors we desire. Do not attach words or meanings such as “good” or “bad” to certain foods or to yourself when you consume certain foods. Both food and you are neutral; you are neither inherently good or bad, and food is the same. Engaging in these patterns of thinking is a surefire way to establish and maintain a very unhealthy relationship with food, which will snowball into a complicated and unhealthy relationship with exercise.
If you go into a workout thinking that the workout “balances” or “cancels” out what you’ve eaten or are going to eat later in the day, you’ve already established an unhealthy relationship with both food and exercise. Not only is this an inaccurate representation of what food and exercise does, it’s also damaging to your emotional and mental health.
What you’re actually doing is experiencing feelings of guilt about your food right from the start, and you are (consciously or subconsciously) overcorrecting your food behaviors and choices with exercise. This line of thinking can cause you to miss out on valuable and joyful experiences; if you’re thinking the primary reason for your workout is its relationship to your food choices, you are not seeing it for all of the other wonderful things it can bring into your life.
Know Your Why
Most of us have probably seen the memes and the cutesy t-shirts that say things like “X number of miles = X number of tacos” or “Will Run for Beer” or “Swim Bike Run Cupcakes”. But the truth of the matter is that your “why” for being an endurance athlete is likely much more than just a food item.
As I’ve talked about many times over the years, knowing your why is a critical component to longevity and joy in endurance sports. For 99% of you reading this, exercise is not your full-time job; it is what you do with your leisure time and it is therefore something you are doing for recreation and fun. Therefore, your overall experience of your training is supposed to be fun, not a punishment for other behaviors you’re engaging in or other choices you’re making in your life.
If you find yourself saying things like “It felt good to earn my Christmas cookies with this workout,” then I gently encourage you to revisit your why. Are you really running or exercising for Christmas cookies (or some other food), or is there something more important behind your movement routine? If you can’t establish a clear why (or a clear why beyond what exercise does for your relationship with food), then you may want to do some hard work and ask yourself exactly why you’re doing what you’re doing.
I encourage all athletes to engage with endurance sports for authentic reasons, which can include (but are not limited to):
The joy of the activity itself
Spending time with friends
Spending time with family
Socialization/feeling included in a group
Mental health benefits such as improved mood
If the activity you are doing doesn’t elicit any of these feelings, then you may want to consider finding a different activity or form of exercise that does make you feel at least one of these things. My observation over my 15+ years as an endurance athlete and 10+ years as a coach has been that people are more likely to consistently engage with the activities that feel like play to them and/or bring them joy. There is no single “right” thing you should be doing; the right thing you should be doing is what brings you joy and what enables you to be consistent.
Embody the Behaviors You Want to Teach
We become who we are surrounded by, both in good ways and in bad ways. This means that the people you surround yourself with will have a high chance of absorbing the behaviors and thoughts they observe you engaging in and then emulating them themselves…and vice versa. This means that if you have a family, your family members will do what you do…whether what you do is healthy or unhealthy.
Do you want to teach your spouse that food is a treat? That they shouldn’t eat unless they “punish” their body with physical activity? Do you want your children to think that they need to earn the right to eat? Would you say either of these things out loud to your spouse, children, parents, or friends? As I’ve talked about before, if you wouldn’t say something out loud to someone else, you should not say it to yourself. You should treat yourself with the same respect, dignity, and kindness that you would treat someone else with.
The Bottom Line
It is possible to enjoy exercise without thinking about food. Similarly, it is possible to enjoy food without thinking about exercise. We should seek to have healthy relationships with both so we aren’t robbing ourselves of joy by imposing feelings of guilt on ourselves unnecessarily. The shame, guilt and stress we can impose on ourselves about food and exercise can actually cause more harm to us than the lack of exercise or the food itself does.
Food is something that every single human needs to survive. Both during the holidays and throughout the rest of the year, we should be aware of the internal (and external) dialogues we engage with when it comes to both food and exercise. If we find ourselves effectively pitting exercise and food against each other, we should seek to change that narrative to one that acknowledges the truth that food is fuel and is something we can nourish our bodies with, and that exercise is not a punishment for something we ate or are about to eat.
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.