Alli Harvey: The power of eating for performance

Alli Harvey

You know what truly makes me an American? It's not that I was born on American soil. It isn't the pledge of allegiance I intoned every morning at 7:20 a.m. with a blaring school loudspeaker growing up. It's not a sense of civic duty, although I do -- truly, I do -- have that.

No: what makes me an American, and I mean truly a citizen of the United States of America, is that I really, really enjoy power eating.

The concept of power eating may as well be the embossing on my passport, the light blue border on my social security card. Power eating takes the concept of power -- what American doesn't love it? -- and eating -- a wonderful competitive sport, as American as baseball -- and puts them together.

I go for it particularly after a long run. Does the run prior to the power eat undercut the American-ness of it, because it's not just eating for the sake of eating? No. Let me explain why.

Power eating is a calorie fest of not caring about calories. If you think about it, running is the same as telling the world that you are so provided for, so well fed and nourished, that you actually have calories to burn.

Think of the fat on your side as money in the bank. You're welcome.

I've always strived to be the kind of woman who doesn't care about her weight (155? I think?). I want to be that gal who routinely forgets her age (check. I will always be 25). I am not writing this from the perspective of a skinny runner either, so let me dispel that notion right up front. I do not have a magical metabolism. I am not the muscled, sports-bra wearing gal that you see in the REI catalog.

But I will say this: I love to run. So I should be skinny, right?


The thing about running, or any kind of endurance sport, is that when you've done a physically demanding activity over a long period of time -- swimming, skiing, hiking, climbing -- your body demands food.

It took a long time for me to find my own name for this urgent, overwhelming need to eat after a big workout. Other runners have their own terms for it, Matthew Inman of the comic "The Oatmeal" describes his post-run meal as "the feeding." Runner's World calls it nutrition.

As you know, I came to understand it as power eating.

So what's the best thing to power eat after a big day? On the one hand, there's the obvious: beer with a side of a burger and fries. On the other hand, there's the opposite obvious: cucumber-infused water with a side of baby carrots.

While my sympathies lie more with the burger and fries, I tend to go for something in between an all-out glut-fest and austerity. I want to power eat, but I also don't want to make bad decisions that I will regret later. This is a tragic adult feeling, more than anything it tells me that I am, in fact, no longer 25 years old. To run and feel my best, I need to eat good food.

If I've taken a long morning run, I make pancakes. I put almonds, cinnamon and apples on top as they're cooking. The secret to my favorite smoothie? A frozen banana and peanut butter. If I'm feeling particularly proud and magically flush with cash, I power eat on sushi. It's an incredible frenzy of chopsticks, maki and green tea.

See the trend? Carbs, which everyone still seems so afraid of, are what you need after a run. Some protein is important too. Even fat -- the demonized, scary building block -- is good if it comes from the right source (like salmon).

The downfall of many people getting into endurance sports is that they see a caloric deficit glittering like the promise of so many pounds shed in front of them. Instead of focusing on "performance" (buzzword, sorry!), they have a goal of weight loss. This, of course, informs what they eat and how hard they work. It's much more difficult to run hard on a diet of celery and carrot crudites than it is, say, oatmeal.

You need good food to be present, alert and able to enjoy a hard workout -- to get to that spot where you are full of endorphins and looking around you, happy to be out and active. Sometimes, when you're training a lot, that means no weight loss. It usually does mean your pants fit better, because as you've read about a billion times in every fitness magazine or article, you build muscle. And I think if you're really doing it right, it means you start feeling so good about yourself that numbers on a scale are reduced to just that -- numbers. Between your feet. Who cares?

If you're training for a race, as many of us are this season, or if you're just planning on going out for long hauls up hills, as many of us also are as days get longer -- eat well. Instead of counting every calorie that exists there, go for a bigger picture. Fuel yourself up so you can get out there and play.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.


Daily News correspondent