Picture this: Your training block is going seemingly well. You’re able to handle more miles, and things are feeling more effortless . . . until they aren’t. It’s as if you hit a wall. Your sleep is hit-or-miss, and you have an insatiable hunger that just won’t disappear. Maybe this has happened in the past but you shrugged it off as too much training volume too quickly. The thought of nutrition’s role hasn’t even crossed your mind.
Too often we think we’re doing all the right things with our nutrition choices, but over and over we keep running into the same health and performance challenges. Why?
Many runners jump to the conclusion that it must be the training, their age, or even that their body’s genetics has something wrong with it. Or maybe they think they need a million supplements and then everything will be in working order. They end up doing what billions of others do in this situation. They restrict more foods, fuel less, and buy hundreds of dollars of supplements, only to be caught in the same exact cycle six months later.
But here’s the thing. Three things, actually:
- Your body is not broken.
- You don’t need the hottest new supplement.
- You do not need to restrict food.
What you really need to do is evaluate whether your current nutrition plan is actually working, pinpoint the problem areas, and start making real changes that will improve the plan to help you in the long-term.
So how do you know if your current nutrition plan isn’t working for you in the first place? Here are five major signs:
1. You’re hungry all the time.
Ghrelin, or the “hunger” hormone, rages when you don’t put enough or the right types of fuel in the body. Leptin, the “fullness” hormone, does the opposite, signaling that the body may have had enough.
Being able to not only recognize but respond appropriately to hunger and fullness is a skill that many runners have not developed. To help, evaluate your frequency of eating, composition of your meals, and portion sizes of meals. If you are skipping meals and doing fasted training all of the time, starting with a solid three meals throughout the day can help. Every meal should contain a protein, fat, carbohydrate, and fruit and/or vegetable.
Without some of these components, you are missing key building blocks for muscles, cells, and hormones. Your blood sugar can become imbalanced, leading to more hunger pangs. And finally, just because you have all the components of a meal doesn’t mean you are eating enough to support your body’s needs. This is where responding to hunger cues can be helpful. If your body is hungry, don’t intentionally starve it!
2. You’re more tired than normal during training.
Let’s face it, sometimes being tired is part of training and adapting to it. But if you are abnormally tired all of the time, especially when you are trying to get your training in, it could signify a problem.
You see, the body needs specific nutrients to recover, adapt, and perform. Without enough building blocks, a runner can end up with LEA and RED-s (1). For instance, without carbohydrates, your hormone production, cortisol levels and ability to run at a higher percentage of your VO2max to hit those faster paces can all be impacted. Fats also support healthy hormones, and protein helps with the muscle and cellular repair process.
A lack of key vitamins and minerals like iron and B12 can hinder your body’s ability to make red blood cells and carry oxygen to your working muscles. If you find that you are more tired than normal, it might be a good idea to get blood levels checked for iron and B12 status, as well as consideration of a hormone panel. From there, you can make a better plan to improve your nutrition and supplementation protocol.
3. You’re scared to eat certain foods.
Eating should not be anxiety inducing. Food is nourishing. It is also social. Too often, restrictive diets and eating paradigms can elicit fear of certain foods, due to their extreme prescriptions. Low carbohydrate diets, “clean eating,” even calorie counting itself can have this effect. By the time someone recognizes they fear food, it is often too late in the game. The person has already conditioned their mind to continue with fear around foods, even if it seems irrational from the outside.
Unfortunately, there are not always easy fixes to this problem. A successful approach may require guided food challenges with a therapist or dietitian to help reduce anxiety and overcome fears. Please don’t take this lightly and get help if you feel like this is something you can relate to.
4. You feel irritable or your mood is erratic.
Mood swings and irritability, if occasional, might be normal, but if you find yourself constantly snapping or up and down, your diet could be a contributing factor. Estrogen levels are associated with regulation of mood, and low levels of male and female sex hormones have been shown to be correlated with higher rates of depression (2). To get hormones back in check may require a process of increased intake of nutrition and decreased training volume to allow for the body to reset, heal, and rebuild.
5. You often feel out of control around food.
How many times have you or someone you know said: “I can’t keep that in the house because it makes me feel out of control and I’ll eat it all”? If this sounds familiar, it could be a result of putting unnecessary restrictions on yourself. Infrequency of eating and restrictions with food have been shown to increase incidences of binge eating episodes (3).
When you normalize food as food and remove stigmas and restrictions, it essentially allows the brain to relax and not elicit a stress response to increase the incidences of binges around certain foods.
The Bottom Line:
If any of these scenarios sound like you, it may be time to take a little closer look at your nutrition patterns and beliefs around food and fueling, to see if they align with what will support your long term health and performance goals. If they’re not, it may be time to find something a little bit more sustainable and less restrictive. In the end, you’ll be thankful you did.
Kylee Van Horn is a licensed Sports Registered Dietitian and competitive trail runner.
1 Mountjoy M, Sundgot-Borgen JK, Burke LM, Ackerman KE, Blauwet C, Constantini N, Lebrun C, Lundy B, Melin AK, Meyer NL, Sherman RT, Tenforde AS, Klungland Torstveit M, Budgett R. IOC consensus statement on relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S): 2018 update. Br J Sports Med. 2018 Jun;52(11):687-697. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2018-099193. PMID: 29773536.
2) Wharton W, Gleason CE, Olson SR, Carlsson CM, Asthana S. Neurobiological Underpinnings of the Estrogen – Mood Relationship. Curr Psychiatry Rev. 2012 Aug 1;8(3):247-256. doi: 10.2174/157340012800792957.
3) Mathes WF, Brownley KA, Mo X, Bulik CM. The biology of binge eating. Appetite. 2009 Jun;52(3):545-553. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2009.03.005. Epub 2009 Mar 20.