Real Talk: I think Sport Specific Orthorexia is a thing

I developed a habit of buying potato chips at the coffee shop where I’d spend most of my afternoons working in Monterey, California. At the time, I was training for my third Marine Corps Marathon. For some illogical reason, we had decided to try a month of not eating tortilla chips, so, naturally, some other chip took its place. The cravings were strong, and I was on a high volume training plan (for me), and damn if I wasn’t going to just enjoy a bag of potato chips (almost) every day.

I paid special attention to sports nutrition during that training cycle. I was coming off of a Spring marathon that was kind of a joke (to me), and a transition year of life that brought with it many changes and a few extra glasses of Prosecco. I was ready to hunker down, I thought, and put my energy into training for this cycle. I was ready to heed my own sports nutrition knowledge, and turn that into a marathon PR and another BQ.

Then I started craving chocolate chip cookies and almost every other baked good in that coffee shop. I had no trouble getting through a small-child-sized bag of kettle corn from the weekly farmer’s market. In hindsight, it’s crystal clear to me that I was under-fueling my training efforts. But my period was normal for those many months, and my training was going well, so I paid no mind to much else.

My runs felt GREAT for a while, until they didn’t.

On my second-to-last LONG run, I had a set of mile repeats at goal race pace. I couldn’t hit them. TBH, I could barely survive them. What felt doable and strong a few weeks before felt like a death march on that final hard effort. And felt like the same death march again the next weekend, during my first taper run. And in the race, when I could barely slog through DC in my shorts and tank top on a warm October marathon day.

In hindsight, I see all the problems with my sports nutrition efforts.

I wasn’t counting calories or macros or anything else (been there, done that), but I was meticulous. I was trying to be disciplined, putting more stock in my training goals than what my body was telling me.

Sports nutrition can result in a lot of food rules.

There’s your ideal 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio for recovery fuel, time windows for pre- and post-run meals, added-sugar fears, and percentages of each macronutrient we “should” be getting. Sports nutrition can take us really far, maybe a little faster. But if we take sports nutrition itself too far, it will only set us back. It can become a disordered relationship with food.

Sound familiar? Join Kelly Jones RD CSSD and me for Fit Fueling: Mindful and Intuitive Eating for Active Women. A 4-week virtual course you can register for here!

I hear a lot of clients say they “eat better” when they’re running, training, or in a pattern of exercising.

In my past, I encouraged people to throw themselves into that cycle of “eat well, exercise often”, believing that one “healthy habit” fuels another. I noticed how often people would change their eating patterns based on their exercise routine, and vice versa, and thought Voila! We have the solution to all problems! Make time for exercise, and it makes “healthy eating” easier–eat a little “healthier” and you’ll feel motivated to exercise!

And while that may be true, to some extent, it’s not always the end of the story.

A disordered relationship with food may develop from these “healthy eating” and training habits.

It starts with good intentions–eat well to run well, of course. (Some may add “to manage weight,” too.) And while that cycle begins to spin itself, people feel GREAT. And because they feel great, it’s too easy to ignore the food rules and food fears that develop. The fear of too much added sugar that could influence their heart rate, or fatty fried foods that could ruin their long run, or the social glass of wine/beer that could harm their hydration efforts. Those become situations layered with anxiety–do I maintain normalcy, or stick to my sports nutrition for my training?!

Sports nutrition can become its own kind of eating disorder.

Sport specific orthorexia

Sport Specific Orthorexia: An unhealthy fixation on healthy eating with a goal to enhance sport performance.

For example: Meal times become rigid, because of a training schedule. Snacks are determined by the percentage of carbs, protein, and fats that are needed (or allowed) at that moment. And eats are perfectly balanced with a complex starch, lean protein, and unsaturated fat. There is minimal, if any, room allowed for added sugars. Dairy might be your enemy, with the exception of a whey protein powder supplement for recovery.

Fear of messing up this routine, therefore messing up your training goals, creeps in. I get it—we can only control so much in training. We can’t control the race (or performance) day, and that both annoys and scares some athletes (at all levels). We can control how much and how often we train, and how we fuel those workouts, though. So that becomes a source of comfort. It also becomes a source of pride—a way to put stock in the system, and build confidence in your efforts.

I’m not declaring that no one should dedicate themselves to a training plan or to fueling it well. But there’s a fine line between “fueling well” and a fixation on, or obsession over, the effort to do so. Just like there’s a fine line between an interest in honoring gentle nutrition with dietary patterns, and obsessively eating “healthy” to the point of impairing health (e.g. Orthorexia).

Mindful and intuitive eating practices have a place in sports.

We need to stop fueling the cycle of disordered eating patterns that may develop from such an intense focus on sport-specific nutrition. We need to be able to trust ourselves, and respect our bodies, outside of sports.

Research tells us that eating disorders are rampant in competitive sports, especially with a focus on endurance or body image, but less is known, or studied, in the everyday exerciser who is trying to reach some personal goals.

We need to be aware of how food rules and dietary fears develop, because I think they spiral into a sport specific Orthorexia quickly. And no one can train—or live—well with an eating disorder voice poking at them every day.

Fit fueling course registration

I created the Fit Fueling course with fellow sports RD Kelly Jones because we need people to know all of the above. And that it’s possible to train well, meet goals, and not stay beholden to a list of sports nutrition rules all day, every day. There are times when sports nutrition practices are important, and times when mindful and intuitive eating practices can take over, and keep us sane, well-fueled, and healthier.

This course is for people training or not training. Running or not running. Curious about sports nutrition, or curious about mindful and intuitive eating, or both! We talk more about the course, what drove us to create it, and why we’re set on combining these two areas of nutrition on episode 40 of RD Real Talk.

Register to join us from any location, any time, for the next round. 

If any of this sounds familiar, strikes a chord—or maybe a match–chime in! Leave a comment below or send me your thoughts (coaching@heathercaplan dot com). I’m exploring this concept and digging into it with my clients and my work with Kelly.

Of note: I see this largely with hobby athletes, as most of my work is done in with active adults who train for personal satisfaction, not professional growth. But I also think there’s reason to caution an unhealthy fixation on sports nutrition in collegiate and professional athletes, as well. 


  1. November 19, 2017

    I can totally see that in the last marathon I trained for. I would eat breakfast–a carefully selected breakfast to help me “recover” from running in the morning, and I would be starving 2 hours later. But I would totally ignore that because I had already eaten my meticulously planned breakfast.

    I’ve actually taken a step back from training to try to regain a sense of normalcy with eating and exercise.

    • November 19, 2017

      Ah, yes, we talk a lot about how easy/common it is to ignore hunger cues while training (or otherwise) in the course. I hope the space you’ve given yourself to get back to “normalcy” (for you) has been helpful! 🙂

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