If you are training hard for a spring race, you are probably following a training plan that includes weekly mileage, pacing targets, and varying workouts such as intervals, tempo runs and fartleks. Many runners are VERY disciplined when it comes to “getting in the miles.” However, how many are incorporating sufficient nutrition into the plan?
Even if you are already at a healthy weight (not running for weight loss), it is very important to take nutrition into consideration, and specifically: are you eating enough of the right foods to fuel your run?
This comes down to a question of Energy Availability (EA). Simply put, EA is energy from food minus energy expended during exercise. Calories are consumed to fuel our bodies with the energy needed to get through the day. You get your calories from carbohydrates, fats, and protein. If you are running 30, 40 or more miles per week, it goes without saying that you need more calories than the average person your age.
With current technology (Garmin, FitBit, MyFitnessPal, etc.), we can get a pretty good snapshot of how many calories we eat and how many we burn through exercise. But it’s a little more complicated than that. People with low EA have been shown to lose more than 40% of weight from muscle, so body composition must also be taken into consideration. Furthermore, your metabolism, which is how your body processes food and turns nutrients into chemicals needed for everyday body functions, is unique to you. No set formula will tell you exactly what you need to stay healthy. We can get close, with certain testing, but the real key is knowing your body and listening to its signals.
While some athletes are famished after a hard workout, others experience decreased appetite, so eating based on hunger alone may not be sufficient. Fuel your body every 3-4 hours with a balanced diet, meaning your right balance of protein, carbs, fat, vitamins, minerals and water. It is not just about how much you eat, but also what you eat, when you eat, and in what combinations.
All that said, runners are particularly at risk of low EA, which can cause a slew of problems greater than just not making a goal time. Signs of low energy availability include chronic fatigue, anemia, recurring infections & illness, loss of strength, stress fractures & injury, no performance gains despite vigorous training, depression, irritability, and gastrointestinal distress.
Don’t let it get to that point! If you are already struggling with these symptoms, seek the advice of a certified nutritional health educator or sports dietitian and ask to have your Energy Availability checked.
Melissa Seuster, MA, CHES, is a Certified Nutritional Health Educator for Total Nutrition Technology and an RRCA-certified running coach. She can be reached at Melissa@tntgetfit.com or 704-957-9341.