It’s Sam’s mince pie: hands off
’Tis once again the season of
festive excess, and while I remain highly committed to becoming the best runner I can be, I will be gobbling mince pies and knocking back mulled wine with the best of them. And the worst. Non-running friends and acquaintances often express surprise when they see me eating cake or having a glass (or two) of wine. It’s as if they assume that because I’m a runner, it means I steer clear of ‘vices’ such as alcohol, butter icing and sugar.
Little do they know just how often the words ‘run’ and ‘cake’ turn up in the same sentence when runners are talking. And the fact that there are cake-themed races (such as the Cakeathon), running clubs (Cake Run) and blogs (Runs for Cake) stands testament to the duo’s longstanding symbiotic relationship. For many runners, the ability to eat cake – or, far more importantly – enjoy eating cake or other calorie-laden treats without worrying too much about their waistline – is part of the reward for putting in the long miles.
When it comes to weight loss, you often hear mention of the ‘calories in, calories out’ equation: keeping both sides balanced is the key to success. However, many people who are trying to lose weight focus only on the ‘calories in’ side, trying to shed excess pounds simply by eating less, rather than by moving more. Not only is such an approach far less fun, it can also backfire: a 2012 study found that attempting to deny your sweet tooth can lead to increased desire for the forbidden food – and subsequent unseemly and guilt-filled gorging.
We runners, on the other hand – wise old hands at carb-loading and postrun refuelling – have a crystal clear understanding of what ‘calories in, calories out’ means. We get that upping our training miles puts us into a calorie deficit, which we must address in order to keep weight and energy levels stable. And conversely, we know that a few days languishing on the sofa watching Christmas specials with a box of chocolates builds up a debt that needs to be repaid, in sweat.
But there’s no doubt that the relationship between running and food goes beyond a simple equation. While many of us feel that we have ‘earned’ the right to treat ourselves rather more than our sedentary counterparts, we have to be mindful not to fritter away our gains through overindulgence, be it of food or booze (another word that you’ll find is used remarkably often in conjunction with running). It’s an unfair truth that we nearly always overestimate how much energy we’ve burned through exercise, and underestimate how much we’ve consumed in much-deserved postrun meals. And calories aside, there’s our health to consider, too.
A study published earlier this year had many a runner raising a jubilant glass. It found that regular physical activity (three hours a week) could offset the detrimental effects of drinking alcohol in excess of the recommended limits. The study shows the importance of regular exercise, even in the absence of other healthy habits – though the researchers rightly warn that it isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. My interpretation is that while healthy habits are always valuable, they can’t cancel out bad ones.
But that doesn’t mean you can never stray, or that you should feel guilty for doing so. I’m mindful that after a run, a glass of sparkling water and a quinoa and chicken salad is a far better refuelling choice than a slice of coffee-and-walnut cake and a beer. But I run for many reasons. Maintaining a healthy body is certainly one, but so are happiness, fun, challenge and escape. Likewise, I eat and drink for many reasons – for pleasure, comfort and social connection as much as to refill the tank. I do not want to reduce my eating to a mere matter of ‘calories in’, nor my running to nothing more than a means of achieving ‘calories out’.
So, if we happen to meet at a festive gathering this Christmas, expect a fight over that last slice of chocolate log. Come Boxing Day, I’ll be lacing up my trainers to balance the books. And I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy paying off my sticky, sugary debt as much as I will creating it. Happy Christmas.
Lore Murphy’s SAM MURPHY