Are you eating enough for training and racing?

If you’re back in full training swing, you need to make sure you’re taking in enough fuel says Renee McGregor. Here she explains how to spot the warning signs of under-fuelling

Make sure you are eating enough to fuel your training. Credit: Peggy Greb, USDA ARS [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While training hard is necessary for progression, it’s also important to ensure sufficient rest and recovery. Similarly, it can be difficult to detect if we’re getting sufficient amounts of energy to meet our day-to-day on top of our demands. In general terms, when you listen to your body, and fuel as required for your chosen activity and intensity, equilibrium will be maintained.

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However, in some cases, the energy demands of training can be a challenge to meet. For some this’ll result in weight loss, which may or may not be wanted and which needs to be addressed accordingly.

Yet there are occasions when weight stays stable but available energy is low, when energy intake isn’t sufficient to meet daily requirements, whether this is due to a conscious decision to restrict nutritional intake (disequilibrium is sometimes due to an eating disorder) or simply an inability to meet the demands of training.

When energy availability is low, the body will preserve energy by deeming the reproductive system not essential and shutting down the production of sex hormones. In females this is easy to detect as it presents itself as a missed period. It’s much harder to detect in males but does occur. In both cases this isn’t an ideal situation and needs to be addressed.

If ignored, this lack of energy availability and cessation in the production of sex hormones can lead to significant decreases in bone density and overall bone health. In the female athlete, missing three consecutive periods can have potentially negative effects on bone health, and can take as much as six months to reverse the damage.

Similarly, if body-fat levels drop too low in athletes, this will also have a negative effect on bone density. In female athletes, dropping to a body fat of 12% or below will once again suppress sex hormones and cease menstruation. In male athletes, a body fat level of 6% or below will have a negative effect on bone health and, in both cases, can predispose the individual involved to an increased risk of fractures.

Another variable to consider is a low-carb intake; more and more individuals involved in endurance are turning to a ketogenic diet – a very low carbohydrate diet where intakes of carbohydrate are no more than 50g a day. The theory is that in a carb-depleted state, the body has to use fat as its chosen fuel for all demands, including exercise. This then regulates the use of fat as fuel, potentially making you a more efficient athlete.

The low-carb debate: good or bad for athletes?

Yet this is a very new area of research and there are no studies looking at the long-term effects of extreme diets on health. My own observations in the clinic tell me that this isn’t a sustainable practice and, while it may be useful to a degree, caution needs to be taken. We know that low-carb diets will affect oestrogen production and this is a reason female athletes, even if they’re of a normal weight and body fat, won’t menstruate.

The real danger is when these symptoms – in addition to fatigue, an inability to rest and an anxiety around correcting energy intake – are ignored. This suggests that a more rooted problem may be at the heart of the issue and can be hard to accept, especially when we’re constantly bombarded with messages that encourage us to work harder – ‘Just Do It!’ ‘No Pain No Gain’.

Motivational? For those of us who struggle with a sense of self, these slogans can become punishing mantras, setting up a negative and destructive cycle – when will success occur? When will you be good enough?

A striking aspect of working in the field of eating disorders is the lack of compassion for one’s own body, the inability to be kind to oneself. Instead, sticking to extreme behaviours, restricting energy intake and pushing the body physically will push it to breaking point. This is the stark reality of an eating disorder – enough is never good enough. No matter what the number on the scale or how well you perform, you can always go further. Or can you?

Meeting your nutritional needs, allowing time for adequate rest and recovery, and being an acceptable weight are all essential for optimal performance and health. If you’re worried about anyone who you feel may be tipping the balance towards an extreme behaviour, it’s important to help them address this so that they can get the help and support they need.

Follow the below tips to ensure optimal performance and health

Make sure you include sufficient nutrient-dense carbohydrate to support your training and encourage normal hormonal function.

Build up your bone density by including 3-4 servings of dairy a day.

If you’re worried about your bone health, then also consider a vitamin D supplement.

Make sure you get a good variety of nutrients on a daily basis to ensure you’re meeting all your macro and micro nutrient requirements.

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Found this useful? Try:

How to prioritise your nutrition to your triathlon training

Gluten-free? How to get the fuelling for triathlons right

Protein: how much do you need?