Athletes with a high training load will consequently have a high energy budget. Your ‘energy budget’ is the amount of energy you need to fulfil your training and recovery needs, as well as to maintain optimal physiological function and support any gains in mass associated with that training. Naturally, your energy budget will be higher when training load is high, and lower for rest days. In simple terms, the more you train the more you need to eat.
Endurance runners tend to fit this category, as do any endurance athletes for that matter. Those with a high lean body mass such as heavyweight rowers and sprinters would also have high energy requirements. But it is not just high-end athletes with rigorous training schedules who risk falling short of their energy demands. Active people with a busy, ‘on-the-go’ lifestyle (and I’m going to generalise here, but assume that would be most running Mums), need to be careful that they are simply eating enough, particularly on days when training load is high.
Perhaps you’ve experienced this yourself. Have you ever been moody (‘hangry’) or overly tired on days when you train hard? It’s quite possible that you just aren’t eating enough. Do you recover slowly from sessions, or struggle to put in the effort during a session? These too, are signs that your energy demands are not being met. It’s important to pick up on these more immediate ‘symptoms’ of inadequate energy, as the long term effects can be severe, including poor bone health, recurrent stress fractures, low immunity, hormone imbalance, reproductive dysfunction and chronic fatigue.
Below are some top tips for those with a high energy budget:
- Don’t skimp on a healthy diet.
There is a common misconception that if you train hard you can eat what you want. Although having a high training load is not an excuse to follow a poor diet, full of high-sugar, high-fat foods. Active people have at the same, if not greater requirements for vitamins and minerals as any other person, so should eat a core diet rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, fish and lean meats and dairy (or alternatives if certain food groups are limited). So skimping on your vegetables to have that sugar-coated donut is not the way to go.
- Eat regular meals.
It is very unlikely you’ll even get close to your energy budget if you only eat at main meals. Aim to eat around six times per day, e.g. 3 main meals & 3 snacks. Being prepared and planning for meal times is often necessary, particularly if you have a busy schedule. Pack yourself some transportable snacks you can easily eat between meetings or travelling e.g. muesli bars, bananas or apples, nuts or trail mix, crackers with cheese or nut butter and honey (it will take less than a minute to prepare and stays fresh wrapped in foil).
This can be a challenge for those training at least 3 hours in a day as you tend to miss key meal times whilst you are out running. Of course it is those days where the energy budget is highest. An example of this is when I was training for the Ultra Trail Australia 50 km and would get home from a 5 or 6 hour long run mid-afternoon. I’d make a conscious effort to eat a second meal about an hour after my recovery meal, then another snack, dinner and dessert would see me to the end of the day.
- Don’t be afraid to include low-fibre, refined grains or sugars such as white bread, rice crackers and sports nutrition products like gels and sports drink. These foods and drinks can allow you to consume more calories on days where your energy budget is really high as they don’t tend to add bulk or fill you up. I tend to eat these foods during and around training sessions as they are more quickly digested and available to utilise for energy. But remember that point 1 above still stands and eating a healthy core diet first is necessary.
Some of my favourite meals for high training days are:
- Breakfasts/brunches with eggs, salmon, avocado and toast, prepared in various ways
- Fruit smoothies with milk, yoghurt and a high-fat, high-energy (and nutrient-dense) food such as avocado, nuts or seeds (Chia are a favourite). These are easy to drink on the go..
- Healthy burgers with lean meat and plenty of salad
- Risotto or pasta marinara – lunch or dinner
- Muesli, yoghurt, nuts and berries – as a snack
- The odd brownie or gelato 😉
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