March 23 2018
As you ramp up your training, follow this guide to make sure you don’t under- or overeat, as both can affect your performance.
The new year often brings a plethora of health- and fitness-related goals, as many people are determined to change or improve their current diets or fitness routines. For runners, whether it’s graduating from a 5K to a 10K, a half marathon to a full marathon or making the commitment to sign up for an ultra, it’s important to realize the training and nutritional changes these distances require.
For endurance athletes, the gut reaction is often to first find a proper training plan; in the excitement that follows, many forget to think about how their food choices and nutrition need to change, too. When you increase your training (whether by pumping up the intensity or quantitatively adding miles), it’s important to adjust your nutrition in tandem. A common challenge many runners experience when adjusting their training plans is the double-edged sword of undereating and/or overtraining.
The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It’s important to be aware of some of these warning signs that your training and nutrition aren’t lining up.
When you’re not fueling enough or you’re overdoing it on your training, you are sacrificing your performance. Your body won’t recover as quickly and your times may become slower. You’ll feel fatigued earlier into your workouts and you may have trouble hitting previous splits and times.
Surprisingly, though you may feel tired beyond the point of exhaustion, insomnia and poor sleep quality is a common symptom of overtraining. When the body is stressed, it releases stress hormones, like cortisol, that throw our bodies out of whack. Poor sleep will further affect the body’s ability to recover and perform, creating a vicious cycle.
When our bodies aren’t receiving adequate energy (calories), they’ll selectively decide where to put their current energy, which is first and foremost geared toward keeping the heart pumping and the brain functioning for survival. Without enough calories to generate heat, our body temperature regulation falls to the wayside. Therefore, feeling cold all the time could be a sign that you’re not eating enough, as this 2013 study shows.
Similarly, you may see changes in your skin and hair when your body isn’t getting enough energy. Dry skin and hair loss are common symptoms of undereating.
While there may be medical reasons for this (always check with your medical practitioner), irregular periods or lack of a period, known as amenorrhea, is usually a red flag. The Female Athlete Triad, characterized by low energy availability, functional hypothalamic amenorrhea and osteoporosis, is a condition most commonly observed among female athletes participating in endurance sports. This loss of menstruation, typically caused by an energy deficiency that alters hormones involved in menstrual function, can eventually lead to low bone mineral density and/or osteoporosis, so this is important to address.
To prevent many of these symptoms, make sure you’re fueling adequately with carbohydrates before runs and refueling with balanced meals and snacks after long runs and workouts. If you’re looking for specific macronutrient ratios personalized for you and your training, consider seeing a registered dietitian who can help you design a plan.
Sarah Schlichter is a registered dietitian and marathon runner based in Charlotte, N.C. She works as a nutrition consultant and in private practice, where she writes the blog, Bucket List Tummy, sharing nutrition posts, healthy recipes, running tips and everything on her bucket list.