For athletes, food is fuel.

Athletes are constantly advised when to eat, what to eat and how much to eat. They’re told what to eat before, during and after practice. Food is a critical part of an athlete’s performance and recovery.

But that system is forcing women to change their bodies to fit a thinner archetype, turning food from friend to foe.

Over 25.5% of female collegiate athletes reported symptoms of maladaptive eating during their careers in 2009, and that number is rising. Yet some athletes want to remind people that food is still fuel.

For Michigan track and field seniors Kayla Windemuller and Samantha Saenz and sophomore Katelynn Hart, food in running has been something that they’ve learned to adapt their relationships with during their running careers. They’ve chosen to share their lesson through Instagram accounts that embrace a less restrictive athletic dietary regimen.

“I had perceptions of what I should be eating and now I think every kind of food can fit into a runner’s diet,” Hart said.

Saenz and Windemuller are both distance runners who started their Instagram accounts during the COVID-19 pandemic. They were baking and cooking up a storm in that extra time and wanted to share their creations and their recipes with the world.  

Hart, another distance runner, started her account when she was living on her own for the first time and begun cooking for herself.

“I found it fun to be creative in the kitchen and cook for my friends,” Hart said.

Their innocent venture turned into a pivotal lesson on nutrition and its importance.

Hart, Windemuller and Saenz all wanted to use their platforms to better educate people on the importance of food in athletics.

“I used to cut ice cream during the season, and now I have it almost every night,” Windemuller said. “It’s important for other people to realize every food has a place.”

Women’s nutrition and dieting has always been a controversial topic in the running community.

In 2019, Mary Cain, a Nike track and field star, exposed how Nike and coach Alberto Salazar were starving female athletes and urged them to become thinner and thinner. Cain herself was pressured into doping and developed an eating disorder.

95% of eating disorder cases come from women and 90% come from people under the age of 25.

“Especially (for) women there is a lot of talk and stress about fitting the ideal body type, and being a runner adds another layer of that,” Hart said.

Added Saenz” “It’s a big topic of conversation for women’s sports because of how much our bodies change.”

Saenz praised having teammates who help each other though those body changes and alleviate the pressure, while Windemuller had a more personal experience to tell.

When she was in high school at Holland Christian, she was small in stature. She hadn’t grown up yet and people noticed.

“People would make comments to my coaches.” Windemuller said. “They would say things like, ‘Oh she looks really fit.’ ”

Around this time, she found her passion for running and started eating healthier to improve her times. However, as she entered her collegiate career, she faced a lot of injuries and realized that what she ate impacted her injuries and performance. Eating and nutrition helped her grow into the sport.

Now, those same people were commenting on how strong she looked.

“It should be less focused on what I look like and more so that I’m running the fastest that I ever have in my whole life,” Windemuller said. “It’s about how I’m feeling, how I’m running and how I’m training.”

Regardless of their flexible diets, they proved they could still perform.

Windemuller ran four career best times this year during the indoor season – in the 800-meter, mile, 3000 and 5000 — and had five top-10 finishes during the cross-country season.

Saenz ran four career bests as well — 800, mile and the 3000 twice — and placed fifth at the Michigan Open in the five kilometers race.

Hart had five top 10 finishes during the cross-country season including winning the Michigan Open individual title in the five kilometers.

The trio use their platforms to show more than just salads, but cookies, cinnamon rolls and banana bread. Together they’re helping to combat the rigid structure of nutrition in women’s sports and emphasizing that you can still eat dessert and break record times.