Fueling Beyond the Long Run: Eating Enough During Training

Spring and summer races are fast approaching, and in preparation for those races, runners are out logging hundreds of miles on the roads and trails. As the mileage increases and runners hit the peak weeks of their training, nutrition becomes increasingly important. Despite this, many endurance athletes may not be eating enough calories to support that training and can end up disrupting their training. Being able to recognize some of the common signs of underfueling and how to improve nutrition can help runners get the most out of their training, and meet their performance goals this race season!

Eating Enough

If a runner is underfueling, they might feel fatigued (that “dead legs” feeling) during or after runs,  not able to hit their goal paces, have a hard time recovering after runs, experience unintended weight loss, and may have a higher risk of injuries. Some runners may feel hungry all day, or find themselves thinking about food or thinking about certain foods (craving carbohydrate or protein-rich foods) all day long.

There can be more going on than just not eating enough if a runner is feeling fatigued/tired all the time or if they have an inability to hit their training paces (for instance, iron deficiency could be at play), so runners should always contact their physician if they are experiencing ongoing fatigue, injuries, or illness during trraining.  Additionally, chronically low energy intake (or low energy availability – when exercise energy expenditure is higher than calorie intake) can affect overall health, including bone heath, hormone and reproductive function, immune dysfunction, and injury risk.

There are a few common ways runners may be (intentionally or unintentionally) under fueling for their mileage. They may be:

  • Not aware of their energy needs with an increase in mileage, and not changing portion sizes or meal timing to accommodate those calories
  • Unintentionally not eating enough by trying to eat healthy during training
  • Experiencing a decrease in appetite from an increase in mileage or from intense workouts
  • Intentionally reducing portion sizes/snacks to lose weight during training

Runners need plenty of fuel during training – a runner logging 50 miles a week is burning, on average, 80-100 calories per mile (over 500 extra calories per day) on top of what they usually eat to maintain their weight. To meet those needs, runners can add extra pre- and post-workout recovery fuel, long run fuel and hydration products, and larger portions at meals or extra snacks during the day. Runners who just don’t have much of an appetite on running days can try eating smaller portions, more frequently (4 smaller meals instead of 3 large meals), adding extra mini-meal snacks, or sipping on their calories in the form of meal smoothies. While weight loss isn’t impossible during training, it is not recommended if training for a performance/time goal is the main goal. Logging all those miles requires plenty of calories (energy) to train, build muscle, and recover, and without enough calories to support those activities, training may suffer.

To avoid the consequences of under fueling, there are a few nutrition habits you can adopt to get the most out of training and reach your running goals this season:

  • Don’t skimp on the meals surrounding training runs, especially post-workout recovery. Refuel with carbohydrates and protein ASAP after your run.
  • Practice race-day nutrition by practicing pre-long-run fueling on long run days.
  • Fuel on the run for runs over 90 minutes – take along carbohydrates and fluids.
  • Eat when you’re hungry – don’t ignore hunger just because you usually don’t have a snack/meal at that time when you’re not in training.
  • Practice meal prep or packing meals early on in the training cycle – you’ll be in a routine to choose healthy, balanced meals later in training when you have less time to prepare meals and snacks.
  • Carbohydrates are important, but remember to include protein, healthy fats, and colorful fruits and vegetables at meals to help make meals more balanced and satisfying.
  • Fuel your body with mostly nutrient-dense foods, but don’t forget to make room for those “fun foods” some of the time. Even elite runners enjoy their favorite treats during training- one meal, snack, or day of eating isn’t going to derail training or cause a nutrient deficiency.

If you have a new distance goal, want to set a personal record this year, experience stomach distress or fatigue on runs, or have any nutrition questions, working with a sports dietitian can help you dial in your nutrition and create a plan to help you meet your training and performance goals.