Recently, one of my sports nutrition clients reached out for a follow up appointment to review her diet. Her main complaint was that her energy levels were low and she was having some gut issues, primarily bloating. She’s an avid runner slowly rebuilding her base mileage, planning to eventually run a marathon this fall. Knowing that her training load was increasing, her first inclination was that her current nutrition plan wasn’t working and she needed to make some changes. Her signs were pretty clear that she needed to change her diet, but what are some signs that you may have questioning if your current eating plan is working for you? Excessive snacking or bingeing. Undereating at breakfast and lunch are common patterns I see from my athletes due to lack of time to eat or trying to reduce calories to avoid weight gain. This pattern of eating always fails leaving you more hungry making up for the lack of food you didn’t eat earlier. Avoiding hunger cues, training fasted, and skipping meals can lead to excessive eating or bingeing. Instead, listen to your hunger cues and focus on eating three meals daily including protein, fat and carbs more evenly throughout the day to better balance eating. Remember, you need additional energy throughout the day as training increases, so don’t go longer than 3-4 hours between meals or snacks to resolve feeling hungry all of the time. Energy levels are low during training. Fueling around training is so important to help maintain energy during exercise and for recovery so you can adapt to training. Not eating enough carbs before and after training increases stress hormone, cortisol, impacting your ability to train harder. Additionally, if you don’t include healthy fat and protein throughout the day, this can impact muscle recovery and increase inflammatory markers, impacting your running performance. In addition, if your diet lacks key vitamins and minerals, such as iron and B12, this can impact how oxygen gets to your working muscles, negatively impacting energy levels and overall running performance. It’s recommended to check your iron levels, including ferritin and transferrin saturation percentage, if you suffer from low energy or follow a vegan/vegetarian diet to make sure you don’t have low iron or iron deficiency anemia. Following only a “clean” diet. Don’t get me wrong, eating healthy is great, but avoiding food groups or certain foods because they are not considered “clean” can negatively impact your relationship with food and leave you feeling guilty or anxious around eating. This type of eating pattern is called “orthorexia”, which can lower your immune health and slow running paces, if you try to follow a strict diet while training and in-season to achieve a certain body size or shape. Instead, eat all types of foods, including those with added sugars and fats in moderation to avoid being overly restrictive. You feel moody or irritable all of the time. These signs could be caused by a number of reasons, over-training, not sleeping well, hormone changes, but diet could also be a cause. Feeling moody or irritable could be signs that you’re not eating enough as your training volume increases. I can relate to this one. During the last 6 weeks of marathon training, hunger kicks in leaving me feeling more irritable if I don’t eat regularly every 3 hours. Knowing this from previous training cycles, I plan ahead adding in snacks between meals to stave off hunger and to stabilize my mood. If you feel like diet is not the culprit, then consider decrease your training volume for a week to allow your body recover. You’re having gut issues. As you increase your training load you may be adding more nutrition during your runs, like gels, chews or bars, leading to gut issues. But if you are experiencing bloating, constipation, or gas on a daily basis you need to identify if your daily diet is the reason. Eating enough dietary fiber from whole grains, fruits and vegetables is important to promote good gut bacteria and to prevent constipation, but eating too much can also back fire, leaving you feeling bloated and distended. The right balance of fiber is key, especially around training. Avoid eating a high fiber meal 1-3 hours before a training run to alleviate gut issues, as well as start out your training session well-hydrated to prevent dehydration during long runs. In addition, test out sports nutrition products during your long runs and speed workouts to determine if any are causing gut problems. The Bottom Line If you’re like my client and are experiencing any of these signs, start making small realistic diet changes to see what works and what doesn’t. Remember, as your training load increases, the amount of food you eat needs to increase as well. Timing your nutrition around training, including eating three solid meals daily with added snacks if hungry, are effective sports nutrition strategies to prevent common nutrition issues runners may experience.
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