“You Can Eat Whatever You Want!” – A Runner’s Perspective

English: Pancakes, eggs, sausage, and bacon.
What some may consider the perfect post-run breakfast. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most people think runners love food. I would actually argue that most people love food. But when it comes to a runner’s diet, there’s a cliche that comes to mind:  pasta the night before races, bagels at the finish line, and beer and burgers after races. And while we’re at it, let’s throw in the post-long run breakfast – anything from a tall stack of pancakes to a full farmer’s breakfast with bacon and eggs. And that may work out just fine for some!

Runners and non-runners alike associate lots and lots of exercise, i.e. running, with lots and lots of food.  There’s even a section in Runner’s World devoted to food. The writers of the magazine have nutritionists write articles about what to eat, and suddenly many runners think they can play that role, too.  And it’s true, you probably can’t hang out with a runner for more than two or three hours without her either eating something voraciously or complaining about her voracious hunger. It seems like everyone, from our families and friends to our coaches, to our running friends are always talking about food.  I can’t count the number of times my mom has made up the excuse for my going up for seconds at a family function as a result of ‘being a runner.’

But what if I was just hungry?  And really, why do other people feel this great need to comment on my eating habits?

As someone who has struggled with what to eat and how much to eat, and has finally found a (sort of) happy medium, the line “You’re a runner! You can eat whatever you want!” still gets to me. It’s a bothersome cliche. Because while yes, I can eat whatever I want, why is being a runner the criteria for being able to eat whatever I want? And who is anyone to give me that permission besides myself?

I’ve always hated hearing that because I might run an average of six miles a day that I need 4, 000 calories or something. I know my body, and being a petite person with IBS and a weak stomach, there’s no way that I could put down that much food in one day! And why shouldn’t I hate hearing something like that when I already know the answer? It’s an outsider telling me what to eat and how I should eat it, down to an exact number. As if they know better than I do!

It’s not just non-runners, either. Runners love to tell each other how much they should be eating. One night at dinner, one of my teammates applauded when another of my teammates brought back an ice cream sundae because she was ‘indulging herself’ and she could eat that, because she was a runner. I’m human, I want applause and acceptance from my teammates, and I felt terrible because it seemed like I was doing something wrong by not getting one too, even though I didn’t want one.  But later after dinner, the whole situation got me thinking, can’t a non-runner eat an ice cream sundae too? Who gave us, the runners, some special superpower to be the only people who can eat dessert or beer or bagels? Why do we continue to feel like we are all-knowing about food when many of us have never taken a real nutrition class in our lives? I know a decent amount about nutrition from  reading magazines and high school health class, but not enough to put me in a position to be telling someone else, runner or not, what she should or should not be eating. Perhaps I am over-generalizing, but during my short running career, I’ve heard these things over and over again and I’m getting sick of them. They’re all over the internet in running blogs and they’re in every magazine about health and fitness, and at some point it just becomes overkill.

A mug of golden beer with a white froth; again...
Runners and beer – forever connected.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just because we participate in an endurance sport does not give us permission to make decisions about food for other people. There are some runners who are very sensitive about what they eat and really don’t need to hear it from other people. I also am very firm in my opinion that everyone knows her own body, and if she doesn’t, she should talk to her doctor. Your doctor can provide tremendous insight about how to properly fuel your body, especially if you find your workouts have been a bit lackluster recently. A doctor may perform tests to see what you’re missing, and then it’s your responsibility to make those changes to your diet. And this goes for runners of all abilities, not just elites or those training for races. That being said, if you are worried about one of your friends eating too much or too little (showing signs of disordered eating), do not hesitate to talk to them about it, but remain open and non-judgmental, just like you should be while eating with anyone.

So, the next time you’re eating with someone who tells you that being a runner gives you license to have whatever you want, eat the way you want to. The way that makes you feel good. You know your body better; if your stomach is growling, you’re the only one who knows it! If you want a beer, pick up that beer. If you want a big steak salad, chomp on those greens. There’s no need to feel like you have to eat something just because you’re a runner. Don’t forget to honor your body and your mind — you deserve it.

Former collegiate coffee-fueled distance runner who loves track workouts.

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  1. When I was editing this post it really spoke to my own insecurities about food and eating. I have anxiety any time other people call attention to food I’m eating, and freak out pretty hard when people try to take pictures while I’m eating. Even just having an empty plate in a photo bugs me!

    I know that’s borderline crazy behavior, but it caused me to totally understand where you’re coming from when you’re turned off by people commenting on your eating habits. I really thought I was alone there, though! It’s a relief to hear that someone else is bothered by other people offering their opinions on diet. Don’t they have better things to worry about than what I’m eating?

  2. I am with you ladies. It is a little weird when people feel the need to point it out. One thing that drives me nuts is when people assume I eat all organic, and “good for you” food. Nope, I eat when I am hungry and what I want with a bit of mindfulness. I am aware I need vegetables, and I take the time to get them into my mouth, but I also like Taco Bell. I hate when people assume I only eat salad, lean meat, and avocados! People like to tell me they ‘can’t believe I eat that” when they see me eating something considered “bad’.

  3. Yeah, it’s kind of a sad commentary on our culture actually. People exercise only to look good or to be able to eat more food and still look good or to be able to eat rich delicious food and still look good. For so many people, exercise is all about how it makes your body look and not anything else. We “suffer” through it so that we may indulge later. We love to eat pancakes so much we’ll torture ourselves for 2 hours sweating our asses off. Or to Becki’s point, we’re a bunch of freaky monks who endure hours of torture running and then continue to torture ourselves by eating nothing but bran and vegetables (both of which I like, but I also like lots and lots of other stuff!) It’s hard for so many people to understand that people might actually enjoy running and training and that it’s purpose has nothing to do with what we want to or actually eat. And with that I am heading to the Y to burn off as many calories as possible in preparation for Thanksgiving.


  4. My family is all about food – so getting seconds is a natural thing! I think I’d be so mad if someone tried to explain why I ate seconds (or thirds)! I’m really self-conscious of what I eat – and actually have to eat really healthy 90% of the time because of my indulgent days. It drives me nuts when people act like it all comes easy to me – what they don’t know is that it took a ton of work to lose weight and I’m fighting a losing battle to keep it off!