In Defense of the Food Diary for Runners

Snackin' and Trackin'
Snackin’ and Trackin’

I should preface this article by saying it really infuriates me when people assume running is only a means to get a number on the scale or a size on a pair of jeans. It’s an understatement to say that running is so much more than that. Unfortunately, though, it often seems that women’s running magazines and websites, in both their articles and advertising, seem to assume looking hot is our prime motivation.

That aside, to some extent our weight is tied to our physical health, and the way we look is often tied to our mental well-being. As anyone who started running as an adult can attest, running changes us. The changes can range from weight-loss to muscle-gain, a smaller bra to a stronger sense of self, from overcoming depression to something as simple as a watch tan-line.

Running has also helped me feel more present and aware in all aspects of my life. That’s why, two months after my big PR marathon, following a training segment that included the highest mileage and toughest workouts I’ve ever taken on, with the calendar edging closer to fall, I noticed that my clothes fit differently, that I was chafing in new places, and that my weight was creeping up despite running over fifty miles most weeks. I grudgingly admitted to myself that I let my mindfulness about eating slide, and I decided the time had come to force myself to think about my eating habits. It was time to keep a food diary.

Why keep a food diary if you don’t care about losing weight?

Coming from a background of disordered eating, specifically not eating enough and over-controlling, this is a sensitive area for me, and I know that I am playing with fire a little when I open my diet to this level of scrutiny. However, what keeping a food diary forces me to do that I find helpful, is to be utterly conscious about the food and drink I put into my body. I first began logging my food intake about a year ago, when my mileage was at an all-time high and I wanted to make sure I was getting enough of all my nutrients and balancing my foods right. It’s been many months since I stopped doing it, but lately, with such a busy and unpredictable summer schedule, I found myself eating on the go or while standing and doing something else. I noticed that I am thirsty all the time too, so clearly I wasn’t being mindful about hydration, either.

Eat All The Things
Sometimes it’s okay to just eat all the things.

How long should you keep a food diary?

Keeping a food diary does not have to be a forever thing. I find giving myself a time-limit, usually four to six weeks, once per year, is enough to keep me on track to fueling myself sufficiently and healthfully. It is enough time to recognize and change my habits, mostly by forcing me to consciously consider what I am eating and drinking. I know it’s time for me to quit when I feel like I might get crazy about it or when I feel like I’m back on track.

What tools are available for keeping a food diary?

While some might find a notebook and pen sufficient for logging what you eat and drink, and this can be a perfectly functional way of doing it, I opted for something a little more high-tech. On the advice of a friend, I downloaded and used an app called MyFitnessPal. The free version allows me to set a goal for weight (maintaining as well as gaining are both options in addition to losing), is user-friendly, and is easy to add the foods I eat and then see how my diet breaks down into nutrient content. It saves the foods I eat and allows me to add in recipes for home-made stuff, a feature I love. I also have access to foods that have been verified for their calorie and nutrient content that other users have input. Additionally, users can link the app with their Strava, Garmin Connect, FitBit and many other exercise-tracking apps so runs will automatically be figured into the daily calorie and nutrient goals. [No, MyFitnessPal had nothing to do with this post! I just like it.]

But there are many other apps, websites, etc. to help you keep track of your nutrition. It’s not so much the tool that matters, but developing mindfulness about eating and the awareness of what your body’s needs are and whether you’re meeting them.

What have I learned from keeping track of what I eat and drink?

My portion-estimation was pretty far off.

By being forced to actually measure out an amount of food to accurately(-ish) figure out the calories is a good visual reminder of what an actual portion looks like, and makes me realize how much my seconds or thirds were adding up over the months.

How much snacking I was actually doing.

Because putting food into the app (or writing it down) takes time, and because you see how many calories are in this stuff and how many you have left in a day to hit your goal, I find I am more reluctant and mindful about eating those pretzels with a ton of hummus, or a couple handfuls of trail mix. Before keeping the food diary, I assumed these things were healthy, which I, in turn, used as a justification to eat boatloads of the stuff. Having to log it also makes me stop before I finish my kids’ pizza or sandwich crusts. The little things really do add up day after day.

strawberry mojitoThose drinks were adding up.

It’s summer, meaning endless barbeques and get-togethers on the beach or deck, as well as vacations. All of which means another opportunity to have a hard cider or three, a margarita or two, or a glass of wine that turns into the whole bottle as I lounge with friends around the fire pit. Again, by having to log the amount I’m drinking, I not only see the number of drinks I’m having, but again, how much the calories and sugar add up.

Treats become common-place very easily.

I am all for treats, but one of the things that makes a treat special is the fact that it doesn’t happen all the time. Running a lot can sometimes give you the false impression that you earned the treat. But if we earn a treat after every run, it’s no longer a treat. Plus, the treats take up a lot of space in our bellies or in our daily calorie count, but provides very few of the nutrients we need to perform and recover.

I need to think ahead to better plan meals to hit all my nutrition needs for performance and recovery.

I’m sure we’ve all been there: you get into the house after a long run or tough workout, and rather than take the time to make a balanced, nutritious post-run meal, you grab a slice or two of leftover pepperoni pizza and several cookies, or a piece of leftover birthday cake, or whatever happens to be in the fridge. Often, what looks really delicious to me after a run is refined-carb-heavy and nutrient-light. If you gorge on that type of food following a heavy workout, your body might feel hungry much sooner than if you eat a well-balanced meal complete with protein and whole grains. Nutrient-dense foods also give your body what it needs to recover better, faster.

*A caveat for those who count calories: I do not hold the “calories burned” estimation from any type of exercise app or equipment as gospel. My watch says one thing, Strava says something else, my calorie tracker app says another, my treadmill disagrees with them all. My purpose in keeping a food diary isn’t to track my diet to the decimal, but rather to ballpark whether I’m meeting my body’s needs and to maintain mindfulness around eating rather than mindlessly smashing pb&j crusts and the leftover Goldfish crackers.

Do you track your eating? Why or why not?

I'm an elementary P.E. teacher with a long-term, ongoing marathon addiction.The next big goal? Keeping up my BQ streak while aiming for a 3:10! I write about the not-so-glamorous side of running and fitting in serious training with a family while staying sane(ish).

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  1. I loved this article – I was reading it and say YES throughout. I also track using My Fitness Pal and get annoyed at the perception that it’s for weight loss. The app does a great job at displaying key information, like macro breakdown, sugars, etc. I haven’t tried other apps, but I think tracking is useful for any athlete.

    The one area that is a bit grey for me is the day of a long run. I will have a massive calorie deficit and try not to use that always as an opportunity to eat junk.

  2. I don’t personally track my diet, but I am studying portion size perception as part of my thesis work right now. “My portion-estimation was pretty far off,” is definitely consistent with the general population (and even dietitians!). It takes a LOT of practice working with food to get good at it. I wish more people knew how tough it is to “eyeball” portion sizes!

  3. I don’t, for the reason you mentioned (struggling with past disordered eating and feel like I’m playing with fire). BUT i try to be mindful about what eat when I feel like I’m not recovering well from runs or when my clothes get too tight. You seem like you have a really balanced approach to it.

    Unrelated: your eyelashes are gorgeous and I am super jealous!

  4. I don’t, ED in my past and while it hasn’t surface in 20ish years, I feel like it lives in the back of my head. It’s pushed it’s way up now that I’m training for my first full and that can be scary. I know my body is going to need more and this is so hard to admit and makes me feel silly, but it scares me a little. I’m afraid to think to much about what I need. But the thing is, I need to think about it because I’ve never fueled pre/during long runs and I know I’m going to need to. The good thing is, I eat in a pretty healthy way – plant based, whole foods – and I think that’s what’s going to save me. Wow, sorry for going off on a tangent…..

      1. The app tracker might help you out then: having something tell you that you need more protein/fat/calories/fiber/whatever after it figures in your workout is actually helpful, I’ve found. Plus, I see trends in my diet/nutrients over time. It seems like I am always low on protein– knowing this, I make different snack choices (cheese stick instead of pretzels) and add in more eggs/meat than I normally do. *Thanks! 🙂

        1. Oh, that’s a really good point! I’m sure I’m not properly refueling and it would be great to be able to see this more objectively.

  5. I have been using MFP off and on for about 4 years. It helped me finally lose the last 25 lbs of pregnancy weight after it had held on tight for over a year. Since then I’ve been on and off with the app. I tend to go back to using it when I see my weight starting to creep up from its usual baseline. I stop using it when I’ve brought my weight back down to baseline or I feel myself getting too intense with it. Also with an ED background, I have to be really careful with food tracking. I have let the app get the best of me on a few different occasions. For this last marathon training cycle, I had gained about 10 lbs prior to training, and it was really helpful to get me back on track. I focused on getting enough calories and enough macronutrients to keep me well-nourished and the result was healthy weight loss and feeling good on runs. I’m MUCH happier when I’m focused on getting enough of the right calories (and enough treats), rather than trying to deprive myself. 🙂

  6. I’ve done this at times, too, when I felt like I was in a food rut eating the same things all the time. I don’t ever track calories or macronutrients though. Somehow writing it all down motivated me to make different choices for more variety.

  7. I’m starting to think I need to! I think of myself as generally being able to eat quite intuitively and to my body’s needs – eg I stop at or before fullness, get cravings for vegetables when I’ve had too much refined carbs and vice versa. But I got on the scale at the doctor’s recently to find myself five pounds BELOW racing weight, to my alarm. (I’m training like usual and eating like normal, except perhaps for fewer midnight snacks as my son starts to randomly sleep through the night more.) I *feel* fine and am still getting my period, but would like to stop this in its tracks…so a food diary might be a good baseline to see what nutrients I need more of.

  8. Great thoughts! I too suffered (suffer?) from disordered eating. I am always wary of analyzing my food intake as I easily start to overanalyze and that is where the danger zone lies. I did notice my habits weren’t very good recently and I wasn’t getting the nutrients I needed. I didn’t write it all down, but I did take much closer look at what I was eating and made sure to include vegetables, protein, and complex carbs at every meal. Mostly I realized I wasn’t getting enough protein, my previous meals had contained almost none! A slight change to my diet and now I am not tired at 2 pm! I’m also recovering from my runs better. Paying attention for just a few weeks has really paid off.