Fuel Properly for Your Training Goals
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Ask any medical expert about the keys to living a longer, healthier life, and you’ll usually get the same answers: Eat a nutritious diet and exercise regularly to maintain a healthy weight.
These simple tenets can prolong life and delay many chronic medical conditions.
While this advice rings true for virtually everyone, there is a caveat.
You must take in enough energy to meet the demands of your exercise or training regimen. Stephen Henry, DO, MS, CAQSM, a physician at the University of Miami Sports Medicine Institute, says it’s a common problem — one that he sees frequently among his athletes.
“The biggest struggle I see is people that only have one or two meals and only take in around 1,200 calories, and then they try to do something that requires 3,000 calories,” says Dr. Henry. “We try to educate our patients about the importance of getting enough energy in terms of carbohydrates and other nutrients to stay healthy while they train.”
What are the symptoms of inadequate nutrition?
The first symptoms he typically sees are a lack of energy and fatigue. Athletes will feel like they don’t have enough power to complete their workout. Another sign is darker urine, a symptom of dehydration.
Over time, Dr. Henry says that these symptoms can grow more severe and even lead to long-term performance problems or injuries.
“In an energy-deficient state, your energy expenditure far outmatches your energy stores,” he says. “Once that happens, your body tries to give you more energy by burning through fat and muscle. That will manifest as decreased performance and muscle injury, among other problems.”
What is Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S)?
According to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, this situation can ultimately result in a condition known as relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S). This condition was previously known as the female athlete triad because it commonly affects women with three symptoms: lack of energy, low bone density, and menstrual dysfunction. However, experts now know that the condition can cause more symptoms and can impact men as well.
Dr. Henry says that when improper nutrition leads to RED-S, he will begin to see more severe problems among his athletes.
“Due to the low bone density, this may manifest as a long-distance runner who has lower leg pain, or possibly even a stress fracture,” he says. “If there is enough of a deficiency, the athlete may even experience mental issues such as impaired judgment, irritability, and problems with concentration.”
Fortunately, these problems can be prevented.
Learn about nutrition and how to fuel properly before and after your workouts. The American Council on Exercise says a good rule of thumb is to eat 3 to 4 hours before your workout and consume a meal with 3 to 4 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight and 15 to 20 grams of protein.
Sipping water throughout the day and during your workout is also critical to good health and injury prevention.
In addition, the National Academy of Sports Medicine says that nutrition is also critical after your workout. Though individual needs will vary from person to person, they say that a carbohydrate-rich snack within 30 minutes of your training will refill your muscles’ glycogen stores. And a rich source of protein within an hour of exercise is also crucial to helping your muscle repair and rebuild themselves.
Ultimately, the right nutrition strategy for your training requires an individualized approach, so Dr. Henry recommends consulting with a nutritionist or a sports medicine specialist. This specialist can help you calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and determine the proper fuel you need based on your training.
In addition, Dr. Henry recommends eating as many whole foods as possible, such as leafy greens, and lean protein sources such as fish, chicken, and plant-based foods. With a balanced plate, he says that most athletes can avoid using supplements to address potential deficiencies.
However, he says athletes should be aware of possible deficiencies. These can include iron deficiency among vegetarian athletes or vitamin D deficiency among athletes with darker skin.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but athletes can fuel their training needs by eating a balanced diet and working closely with a trusted health care provider,” he says. “I also recommend using a fitness tracking app to track the calories and nutrients you take during each meal or snack.”
Wyatt Myers is a contributor for UHealth’s news service.