Fall is traditionally a time for many to be preparing for the final race of their season. Marathons, triathlons, and half-marathons are generally abundant at this time of year. In 2020, we might instead be participating in a virtual race or perhaps we are taking the season off from racing completely. Either way, adequate fueling is always essential, and can be particularly tricky for athletes who are now running, cycling, lifting or partaking in virtual fitness classes without their usual periodized training and racing season.
While athletes are often aware of their increased needs for fueling to support training demands (in addition to the need for normal life!), unfortunately it can still be a struggle for many. Low energy availability results when the body does not have enough fuel to support both activity and normal body functions. Activity includes both purposeful exercise and normal daily activities (walking the dog, cleaning, etc). The cause might be due to increased training without realizing your increased fueling demands, or purposefully reducing intake to control weight or achieve weight loss. Low energy availability is not uncommon, and can result in RED-S, which is an all-encompassing term for many of the effects that stem from low energy availability.
What is RED-S?
RED-S stands for Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, and is a term that was introduced by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2014. You can think of RED-S as a way to explain the array of adverse outcomes that results from chronic underfueling. If you are already familiar with the term Female Athlete Triad, RED-S has evolved from that term to encompass all genders and widen the array of symptoms one might experience as a result of low energy availability (LEA).
So what’s the big deal about RED-S?
Over time, low energy availability and RED-S will not only negatively impact your performance but will also increase your rate of injury and illness. Inadequate nutritional intake can negatively affect every system in your body leading to a wide range of symptoms including constipation, low quality sleep, mood changes, heightened anxiety, and more. Low ferritin and iron levels are also common and negatively affect energy and oxygenation of your blood cells. In addition, chronic underfueling can even lead to infertility and osteoporosis. Low energy availability is common across many sports and genders, but is more likely to go unnoticed in men.
Warning Signs of RED-S:
- Frequent stress fractures
- Disturbance or complete loss of menstrual cycle (amenorrhea)
- Impaired judgement and/or decreased concentration
- Decreased performance and quality of training
- Feeling cold, even on warmer days
- Disordered eating patterns
- Extreme weight loss or frequent dehydration
Remember you do not need to have all of these above signs or to fully understand what RED-S means to experience the negative outcomes that result from underfueling. Another important note is that weight and body-fat % are not the only indicators of under-fueling. We have seen many athletes who maintain a steady body weight but still experience adverse outcomes of low energy availability. To this point, athletes generally have higher metabolic rates and higher energy needs than less active individuals. If we suspect low energy availability, Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) testing -which measures oxygen consumption, is able to determine the rate at which your body consumes energy at rest. A low RMR might indicate poor fueling and system dysfunction. We do offer RMR testing at Nutrition Energy, however testing is on hold currently due to COVID-19. We hope to get this up and running again soon.
What is disordered eating exactly?
Many of us are familiar with the term disordered eating, but it bears mentioning that disordered eating patterns can take on many forms and vary widely between and among individuals.
Disordered Eating Patterns May Include Any/All of the Following:
- Fasting or skipping meals to lower your overall caloric intake or “manage” your weight
- Using exercise to compensate when you believe you have “overeaten” or over exercising/obsessive exercising
- Not taking adequate rest days due to fear of weight gain
- Feeling tired, dizzy, and/or weak frequently after a workout or training session
- Anxiety around food or obsession with healthy foods (orthorexia)
- Reducing the amount you eat drastically on recovery or non-training days
- Frequent negative self-talk involving food and body image
- “I can only eat a cookie if I run an extra mile today”
- “If I lost a few pounds I would be able to run faster”
● Much of the “athlete mentality” is centered around the struggles and pain that are associated with achieving our goals. This mentality of hard work, perseverance, sacrifice, focus, and drive is part of what allows us to be at the top of our game. But, this mentality should not be tied to food, hunger, and nutritional intake. We can and should enjoy eating a wide variety of nourishing and delicious foods while training hard and adequately fueling our bodies; the food itself shouldn’t be hard work!
● Optimal weight and fueling for overall health and performance looks different on everyone, try not to compare yourself to others. Only you, (possibly with the guidance of a dietitian), can adequately determine the amount of fuel that is required for your activity and daily life.
● Educating athletes, parents, coaches, and ourselves on how to recognize these warning signs and patterns will help us maintain our health, wellness, and performance long-term.
● Both low energy availability and disordered eating patterns are treatable and require the desire to get better as well as a strong support system including a physician, therapist and dietitian all well versed in treating eating disorders + coaches, friends, family as able.
Looking for more resources on low energy availability, RED-S, and disordered eating?
Nutrition Energy strives to be a safe and educational environment for all; including individuals looking for help in treating their eating disorder and those looking to support loved ones in their recovery. We have recently created a space focusing on proper fueling techniques and building healthier relationships with our bodies. Come join in on the conversation on our new Instagram, @nutritionenergy_fuels. We are excited to begin this journey with you!