I’m a serious runner, and I spend most of my time researching and writing about running and nutrition. But that doesn’t mean I’m good at applying everything I learn to my own training or diet. So, when I went into this month of tracking my food intake using MyFitnessPal, I knew it was going to be a tough proposition. I would have to face some cold, hard facts, and I’d have to be brutally honest about what I was really eating. My overall goal: To see what happened to my running — both emotionally and mentally, plus my overall fitness and body composition — when I was tracking my food intake.
It was a tall order since the month was full of travel — 15 days on the road, to be precise. But trips like that are where my nutrition and fitness take a nosedive, so I hoped some logging would help keep me a bit more honest … and less inclined to order dessert (or eat a chocolate bar in bed). I’m not going to lie: For a non-tracker like me, it was a tough process. But after getting through the first week, it got easier.
Here are seven tips based on my experience to help you avoid some of the mistakes I made along the way
1. GET SET UP IN ADVANCE
From my journal the first day: “Well, this is annoying. Killed some time this morning setting up (Read: sending myself my lapsed passwords) my MyFitnessPal account. Looking through the saved meals on MFP — ahem, a can of Mountain Dew and peanut butter and jelly sandwich — it’s clear that it’s been awhile since I last logged.” Adding in meals also takes a while, but since we’re pretty consistent in our eating, it doesn’t end up being a huge issue. If you’re planning to start logging, I really recommend taking some time the night before to log in, get set up, maybe add a few staple foods that you always eat. Those little things take time.
2. DON’T BEAT YOURSELF UP
Whether you forgot to log a meal or you had to log a cheat meal, don’t feel bad. Honestly, this was actually a huge blockage for me throughout the entire month. Every time I had to log an extra cookie or glass of wine, I got super judgmental about myself. But you need to be able to step back and look at the food log objectively if it’s going to do you any good. The first few times this happened, I caught myself mentally flogging myself. I added extra workouts; I basically went a little too far in the other direction. I didn’t start logging to feel bad, though: I started logging to see what my days of food actually look like, and once I could separate the subjective “ugh, why did I have that second margarita” from “Margarita: 2,” it became a lot easier to be honest and not get upset while writing things down.
3. USE THIS AS A TIME TO RETHINK FOOD
On that note, though, this gave me a chance to rethink my food. If I felt embarrassed logging it in an app that no one else — not even a coach — could see, why was I eating it? I’ve found that when I do start writing down what I eat, whether it’s in an app or notebook, my habits clean up naturally because, while it’s easy to grab a spoon and dig into that ice cream when no one is around, logging makes you accountable … to yourself. And I was none-to-impressed with my post-run potato chips.
4. PRE-PLAN NIGHTS OUT
Meal plan? Heck yes. During the first ‘family dinner’ we had with friends, I had no idea how to log everything. It was super annoying trying to account for fries and a drink while out at a bar on a date night. So after a couple of “I give up!” moments, I decided I would try a new tactic: Before we went out, I would ‘pre-log’ my food. This was helpful in two ways: 1) It set a precedent for what I was going to order or how much I was going to eat. That salad was already logged, so I had to order it! 2) It was a gentle cutoff for things like the bread basket, or when it came time to decide on a wine refill or not — it’s easier to skip the second pour versus having to update the app!
5. DON’T LET A BAD DAY DERAIL YOU
There was a travel day where I didn’t log anything — I just spent the day in airports and in cars and was generally overwhelmed. The next morning, I ate breakfast, glanced at my phone, and listlessly tossed it back in my bag. Big mistake. The worst thing you can do when you skip recording a meal is to skip the next one. That off-the-grid meal turned into three days of not recording, and it was hard to get back on the wagon. Taking a break from recording is fine, but do it as a conscious decision, not as the result of missing one day and going off the tracks.
6. TAKE STOCK
The best part about this month of logging was it presented a great way to identify the times of the day when I was having issues — ahem, after stressful work moments — and spot things like the fact that the less I worked out, the worse my food choices were. Seeing those links was huge for me! I also could see that on days my protein intake was low, my runs were a little crappier and felt a lot more sluggish. When I was fatigued and having a bad morning workout, it was often linked to having that second glass of wine. Having those correlations in front of me in black-and-white made it harder to deny that a cookie habit was hurting me. It’s a lot easier to rationalize without solid data, and this made me see what habits I needed to change.
7. … AND THEN DIAL IT BACK
At the end of 30 days, I realized I’m not cut out to be a full-time meal logger. I know a lot of athletes who are much happier when they do this all the time, but for me, it felt like I was spying on myself. Some people take pleasure in recording that info. I’d rather spend my spare moments reflecting on my run and my day in a more traditional journal, making minor notes about food. But I did learn that this was an invaluable tool for getting me back on track when my nutrition or my running takes a nosedive. Next time I’m starting to feel like running is hard, and like I’d rather hang up my shoes and binge-watch Netflix, I know it’s time to boot up MyFitnessPal and see what’s going on with my body.
GEAR UP FOR YOUR NEXT RUN