That sounds like a question your Grandma might ask you at Thanksgiving dinner. As silly as the question seems, it’s something many runners should take serious thought in answering. The culture of running often preaches lowering your body weight and “training light”. The act of running can also be an appetite suppressant meaning it takes extra work to meet your nutritional needs. You need to be consuming enough to meet the demands of your daily life as well as your training
It’s important for us to understand how much fuel we truly need to meet our exercise and life demands. It would make sense that intuitively we would automatically do this. This doesn’t always happen with runners. When you increase your training or decrease your energy intake, you run the risk of developing low energy availability.
How much is enough?
When it comes to nutrition I defer to the experts, and that’s not me. My go-to nutrition resource is dietitian Becca McConville. Becca’s advice is everyone needs to be taking in at least 1800-2200 calories a day just to make it through life. That’s a baseline for even sedentary individuals to strive for. If you are a runner or endurance athlete that number has to get bigger! As we add training to that number she recommends adding 100 calories per day per 10 miles of running. The equation looks something like this.
The goal here is that we meet our energy needs. Energy availability is the energy remaining for bodily processes after the energy cost of exercise. It looks something like this 👇
If we aren’t meeting that number we run the risk of having low energy availability (LEA). LEA can wreak havoc on your hormone function, your bone health, and the overall function of your body. LEA is also an independent risk factor for all running-related injuries. Not meeting our energy demands puts us at risk of getting hurt! It can literally put you on the sidelines and in the doctor’s office.
It’s bad for your performance, bad for your health, and unfortunately very common in the running world.
So how do you know if you are eating enough??
What gets measured gets managed
Literally, pull out a pen and paper or your notes app and write down everything you ate in a day. Get a good estimate of how much you actually eat. Then compare that to how much you do above that baseline of 1800-2200 calories. Is enough fuel getting into your engine? The goal is not to be absolutely frozen by the numbers, but to acknowledge the actual situation.
Zooming in on some specifics
We need to make sure we have met the foundational element first: calorie intake. Runners often mistakingly focus on something specific like their protein intake or a specific supplement without establishing an appropriate base of calories. This is similar to the running zooming in on the specific splits of their mile repeats when they really need to run a lot more. Once we know we are eating enough, there are a few specific nutrients runners should regularly consume. This table highlights a few.
What do you leave off your plate?
Your approach to nutrition is uniquely personal. Family traditions, offhanded comments by teammates, and questionable content from social media influencers impact the how, what, when, and why we eat. It’s perfectly acceptable for someone to leave a specific food or food group off their plate for ethical or medical reasons. But…as the types of food we eat get smaller in number, runners need to pay even more attention to their food strategy. If you don’t eat meat, you’ll likely need to pay more attention to getting enough iron in your diet. If you don’t consume dairy, finding other sources of calcium and vitamin D can be crucial to keeping your bones strong. When you eliminate food options, it requires you to pay MORE attention to both the amount and types of food you consume.
Figure out where you are and if you need help getting those numbers in a better spot.
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