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Permission to Eat Carbs

By Verity Ockenden - Professional On Athlete and Project RED-S Ambassador

I'm sitting outside a small Catalan patisserie in the French Pyrenees, breathing in what many an athlete likes to call "skinny air" and devouring a deliciously buttery apple-stuffed pastry alongside a frothy cappuccino. I'm as serious as I have ever been about my running career.

I'm not here for a holiday, I'm here to become the best runner I can be in readiness for the summer's Commonwealth Games, European and World Championships. I am also well aware that the nutritional value of my late afternoon snack could be better, but I couldn't care less. I value the enjoyment it gives me far more highly. I know that permitting myself the things that I enjoy without needing any justification for them allows me to give more of myself to the other things that I love: running, writing, enjoying good company.

I feel fortunate to know this and to be able to remind myself of it firmly when feelings of doubt or guilt ever creep in to spoil the party. Personally, I wouldn't say that I have ever suffered from disordered eating. I have however dipped my toe in its waters and scalded myself enough to recognise the dangers. This is precisely the problem; our relationship with food contains such a vast ocean of possibilities for how we engage with it, that sometimes the smallest of changes in our behaviour surrounding it can go un-noticed, can cumulate and before we know it we are out of our depth.

It is unbelievably easy to let the smallest, supposedly harmless comments affect the choices you make and even easier to let what you see on television or on social media sway your perceptions. As a naive eighteen year old, I remember my mother accompanying me to Siena for the first time to help me settle into my apartment as an Erasmus student. We marvelled at newfound gelato flavours daily and mused about my future. Would I end up a restauranteur, an author, a sommelier, or an athlete? I told her in semi-seriousness that I could never become a professional distance runner, because I wouldn't be capable of sacrificing ice-cream. I honestly believed it was a pre-requisite for the job description, and yet here I am today having signed a contract withOn Running in December and still eating ice-cream whenever I can get my hands on the stuff.

We laugh about it now but there were so many moments along the way in which it could all have gone so pear-shaped. Unable to run due to injury, I put on a few pounds during my first six months there, and when I finally returned to training I was frustrated by the slow process of finding fitness. I looked for shortcuts and when somebody suggested doing my morning runs before breakfast, a suggestion that I knew meant they thought I could do with losing some weight, I not only began doing so but I became so fixated on losing weight as the answer that I also began restricting my carbohydrate intake.

Already returning home from my early morning runs dizzy and shaky, I ignored these obvious signs that I was unhealthily under-fuelling. I pinned a poster of Scottish 800m Olympian, Lynsey Sharp, up next to my mirror alongside a set of dietary rules for each day. Two slices of brown bread at breakfast, and no other carbs for the rest of the day. As you can well imagine, I lost weight fast… but I didn't get fast. I looked the part (which was still nothing like Lynsey whose height and limb length I was never going to achieve by starving myself), but I was incapable of actually playing the part. Come race days I'd line up and chase the personal best I thought I'd earned but that PB never came. It wasn't until the season finished that I gave up and relaxed, heading to Sicily to spend two weeks staying with my housemate Marta's family. There, I forgot about all of my rules and Marta's family stuffed me with so many delicious regional delicacies that I couldn't help but begin enjoying my appetite for food again.

Luckily I learned my lesson before any lasting effects were made on my body. As my career developed however, I was increasingly exposed to physical scrutiny by all and sundry. I learned to steadfastly ignore any impertinent comments related to my size and shape and diet, but of course there were still times and always will be, when the odd snipe struck a nerve. I'd find myself questioning my capabilities and the correlations made with my choices in the kitchen. There were times when I was shamed for eating as big a portion as the boys, or for shovelling Ben & Jerry's straight out of the tub on occasion and so I'd abstain from getting the cookie I wanted in the cafe with friends, and then regret it for the rest of the day. Thinking about that feeling of regret, I think it stems from the same feeling of regret that I experience when I don't give one hundred percent effort in a race. It's the knowledge that I didn't throw myself into the moment and live it fully. I didn't taste life.

Needless to say, my best performances have come with the healthy maturation of my body as I embrace my thirties - thanks to the wisdom I've acquired over the years. I was lucky enough to absorb a lot of valuable information about food from my parents throughout my childhood.

Every spring with my Mother was spent raising her flock of sheep, watching wet-skinned lambs fend off pneumonia in the biting cold, surviving their first few hours in the world thanks to the layer of brown fat they carried at birth, then supplemented by the rich colostrum of their mother's first milk - naturally engineered to provide the kind of energy required for survival. I'd watch them grow, and the greediest always became the strongest. Summers with my Father were passed cooking Indian curries on his stall at music festivals. There, I learned of herbs and spices - each one boasting a multitude of natural health benefits, each one hitting a different note if prepared in a certain way, and I felt for myself the resultant glow of such varied combinations. In the long years that passed between my stint as an NCAA student-athlete and securing a professional contract, I worked all the hours I could as a sous-chef in order to support myself. It was a tiring way to earn a living and I would often leave the kitchen dehydrated and footsore, but again, I gleaned so much valuable knowledge and applied it to my own cooking at home. My head chef was Thai and taught me how to make the most delicious and nourishing of bone broths chock-full of healing collagen, energising noodles, anti-inflammatory turmeric, garlic, lemongrass and chillies. I worked with Ecuadorian, Columbian, Irish and Italian chefs and learned so much from each of them, enriching my own diet with new ideas every shift that I worked. Since then, I've stuck religiously to the belief that eating well to fuel my body to be at its best never means excluding foods from my life, it means including as much variety as possible.

As a testament to this, my career has continued to blossom and the social aspect of enjoying food has not been lost on me either. I've noticed that my best workouts and best races come when I am relaxed and happy, and I am often at my most relaxed and happiest after a pizza with friends, when I am allowing myself enjoyment on every level. I am lucky that in Tuscany where I now live and train, this attitude is a fundamental part of Italian culture.

My coach there taught me how to make a 'proper' pasta all gricia, and if that isn't the greatest "permission to eat carbs" moment I've ever experienced, I don't know what is. It was one of those classic Italian moments of conviviality in which an impromptu dinner just "happened" without any prior warning. All prior plans were disregarded as I was marched to the shops to be shown exactly which type of pecorino to buy and then given a masterclass in the preparation of this deceptively simple dish in the comfort of my very own kitchen. I feel extremely fortunate to have a coach who not only strives for athletic excellence alongside me with acute attention to detail, but who also shares a passion for seriously good food. There is joy to be found in every aspect of it and a liberating demand for your undivided attention that forces you to forget all other worldly concerns other than the precise moment at which to bail your pasta from its bubbling pot. I also find this very same joy in throwing myself so completely into a gruelling training set or a do-or-die type race scenario that nothing else exists but that moment in time. I know that in order to do that, there must be equilibrium elsewhere. I balance my passion for running out with my passion for pasta, after all, they do say...

"Eat pasta, run fasta"