Are you eating enough?

This morning we discussed a super article from Training Peaks on our coaches corner; the article is titled: Are you eating enough .

And here is the link to the coaches corner podcast:

To prepare for the show I wrote down my list of what I notice in athletes that are not eating sufficient on a daily basis to match their training demands; this is to add to the super advice given in the article all of which I agree with.

  1. Body weight.
    Spend a week or two tracking your morning body weight to gain insight into whether there are large fluctuations up or down. This will give you an idea of the consistency of your nutrition in: energy expenditure out balance and also your hydration success. Large fluctuations are something that I would explore more with my athletes. Then you want to take the actual training into account, for example large volume weekends may see a slight drop, followed by a return to the norm on recovery day. A large and continued drop however is not ideal. Take your numbers also in the context of your body weight goals; prudent weight loss or gain of 1-2 pounds per week is recommended.

    In a nutshell, start to note the patters in your body weight day-to-day and week-to-week in the context of your training and also take this into context with how you are feeling. Women can expect monthly fluctuations and so it is recommended to get to know your patterns. I feel a slight gain before menstruation is normal and not to be worried about.  

    Be mindful about being weight obsessed; this exercise is to help you learn a little more indirectly about how well you are matching energy and carbohydrate intake to energy demands of your training. It is not a fixed science and so must be interpreted in the context of your training, performance and health markers. 

  2. Freshness in training
    If you are getting your nutrition right, in quality, quantity, timing and macro balance then you should feel good in most training sessions (some are just suckers no matter what we do!).

    High intensity or high power or speed type work (IE hill repeats, low cadence work, tempo work, sprint intervals, threshold and VO2 max work) will suffer the most due to under eating and under fuelling. This is because both the body and mind are not being fuelled to complete the work to high standard; furthermore diminishing the gains that you will make. These sessions require a stable supply of blood glucose.

    Endurance sessions move to the training type of choice when you have a tendency to chronically under eat; an extreme example of this is patients suffering with anorexia have the mental strength (and some body fat) to do slow training for hours and hours but will be incapable of high intensity work. To use a less extreme example of us normal athletes, you are more likely to push through the endurance sessions than the high intensity sessions; to a point!

    Another tell-tale sign of under eating is in your long steady aerobic rides and runs; you will run into trouble with low blood glucose levels (aka bonking), poor focus and concentration, and may even increase your chances of an accident or doing something stupid.

    I have fallen guilty to this where at the end of a long ride in Austria I had a bad fall off my bike while dreaming of what I was going to eat after the ride. If I wasn’t starving hungry I would not have been thinking about food but maintaining a better focus on the road and its large gutter! Instead, nope, I fell in dramatic style giving a nearby driver a nice rise in blood pressure. I was fine, lesson learned. I was in one piece for my first triathlon. Here are some happy pics from training days that I did manage to stay on my bike! PS Zell am See 70.3 is amazing.

  3. Recovery quality.
    Training Peaks is a great tool to use to make notes about your recovery. Watch the trends; persistent comments about feeling sub par or performance decrements should be explored by your support system of coach and nutritional therapist.
    Eating to meet the needs of your body for all its daily functions will translate into super energy in training.

    For most training you should be fuelling before, and recovering after. How is a long debate so please refer to other articles or even better arrange a consultation to make sure that you are nailing your nutrition onto your training sessions.

  4. Health – absence of illness and injury niggles.
    It is not just your training that you are eating for! You eat to sustain optimal health and homeostasis in your body. Under-eating will lead to a whole host of issues, more common ones being sub optimal thyroid function (low fT3, fT4, raised TSH, raised rT3), sex hormones (e.g. low/ low normal testosterone, low/ low normal oestrogen, low DHEA), decreased bone density, increased incidence of injuries, poor immune system function and increased rates of illness, coughs colds and allergies, and for some increased rate of gastrointestinal issues. Many athletes will also note persistent low body temperature and difficulty training in the cold.

    Health – that’s my boy racing his way to 3rd AG 40-44 athlete ironman WC 70.3 South Africa
  5. Optimal numbers in blood tests.
    Some tell-tale signs of under-eating (in addition to those mentioned above) are suppressed white cell count, neutrophils and leukocytes, elevated AST, ALT, GGT, CK, and maybe even CRP. These don’t define under-eating but are a pattern that prompts me to explore diet, health, training performance and recovery quality. Cortisol may also be raised and DHEA depressed.

    Athletes hate when I ask for them to get bloods drawn!)
  6. Mood.
    Low mood and motivation, depression, poor focus and concentration, crankiness, reactivity etc all tend to show up when not eating enough.

    Also we will see more binge eating, late night eating, waking at night hungry and the slow progression into a poor relationship with food or even disordered eating if not caught early.

    Please tell me you aren’t too young to remember Bridget Jones!!
  7. Pattern of using nutrition as an excuse for poor competition performance.
    This can be a warning sign that you are potentially under-eating on races and possibly chronically under-doing your nutrition. Nutrition is the 4th triathlon discipline remember!!

    Don’t crash and burn

  8.  The final question is are you not eating enough CALORIES or are you specifically not eating sufficient CARBOHYDRATES to match your training?

    Often poor energy and training performance may be due to insufficient carbohydrate intake rather than low calories specifically. The answer then is to change your macro proportions rather than raise your calories. I see many athletes over eating calories on a keto or LCHF diet and then struggling with poor training performance, health issues and funnily enough issues with being over-weight! Their bodies are hungry for carbohydrate training fuel for the higher intensity and longer duration sessions!

As a close to these few pointers, remember that body weight and body fat % are a complex thing in relation to calories. Our metabolism is slippery; and the best thing that we can do is eat sufficiently and appropriately to support health and performance rather than blame our weight on a poor metabolism!

Although I do recommend getting to know your body and calorific needs I do not recommend obsessively tracking numbers day in and day out. That said it is a good exercise to do this on occasion using a good diet and fitness tracking app, and to use this as a guide while you work on the important bits of eating for health and focusing on food quality, balance, and timing, etc. The things that we work on in the clinic!


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