Are you eating enough, not too much, and eating on time? Surveys suggest that most athletes do NOT consume sufficient energy to support needs. They have a tendency to supply needed energy AFTER it is needed mainly because they are poor planners with many work, home and sport commitments or they are restricting their intake to achieve too fast a rate of weight loss leading to disordered eating patterns. Training on too few calories can lead to chronic fatigue, poor immune function, loss of muscle mass and decreased performance.
Practice makes perfect
Your digestive system (as well as your muscles) needs some training to be able to keep you well fueled during your training sessions (and competition). If you want to be able to eat and drink comfortably during your marathon (or longer) event, you need to be practicing that in training. Exercising hard while eating and drinking are not things that your body would normally prefer to do at the same time – but just like skating fast, eating is a learned skill that requires the same amount of practice and attention to detail. If you plan on consuming 200-300 calories an hour and 1 litre of fluid (for example) during your race you need to practice consuming both of these in your training. Don't skimp on fluid or calories during training!
So why do so many of us train on too few calories (and fluids)?
All it takes is getting dropped by the pack when the pace picks up or on a hill climb during training and it's easy to start thinking that “if I just lost a couple of pounds I would be able to stay with the pack". The problem with trying to diet while training is that the lack of calories and specific nutrients (especially carbohydrates) wreaks havoc on your muscles and immune system and makes you prone to injury (you will read more on that in Week 5 – keeping injury free with carbs). Taking in far fewer calories than what your body requires may result in the body attacking it's own tissues, resulting in a a weakened muscular and immune system. Training, building muscle and following a sound diet are the best way to lose weight because it comes off slowly.
How much do you need to eat?
Track your intake for three days – don’t change anything. If you are able to answer yes to the following questions then you are likely eating enough:
* Can you train without undue fatigue? (i.e. you can train well throughout each training session)
* Do you have a fast recovery between training sessions? (i.e. you are energized for each training session)
* Are you maintaining your body composition (i.e. not losing muscle mass or gaining body fat)
* Do you have optimal biological functioning (e.g. regular menstrual periods for women, able to sleep well, concentrate on the tasks at hand, etc)
* Is there an absence of health & performance issues?
If you answered NO to any of these questions then there are changes you can make to your eating patterns, food choices and timing of food intake to improve your health, your ability to train well and achieve peak performance in your sport.