5 Tips to Stop Underfueling
If I had to pick one question I get asked more than any other, it's this: "How much should I be eating?"
That makes a lot of sense. If you follow my Instagram or read through my website, it's pretty clear that I really emphasize the importance of adequate fueling for performance. But most of the athletes I know are more anxious about whether they are eating too much. Despite the clear evidence that long term low energy availability can damage bone health, lower resting metabolic rate, impair hormonal function, and hurt training outcomes, the idea that "being thin makes you faster" is everywhere - and is constantly reinforced by society's fixation on weight loss and the thin ideal.
Clearly, elite distance runners have a stereotypical body type. The fastest in the sport do tend to be lean - but there's also a heavy genetic component to their performance and physique. Most of us recreational runners are not going to be capable of mimicking the body type of Ryan Hall (when he was running marathons and not lifting heavy weights!) or Des Linden. And that's okay! You can still run your absolute best and see health and performance benefits with good training - without trying to lose weight. The key is to focus on performance outcomes, not weight loss, as an indicator of success. Your weight might go up or down - or it might stay about the same - but your times will still improve, and I bet you'll feel a lot better physically, too.
How do we do this? So glad you asked! I have some suggestions.
Listen to your body
"Listen to Your Body" could be the title of my memoir; I honestly say it that often. This means moving beyond tracking every calorie and macro in your fitness app or limiting yourself to 1500 calories because you read online that that's what you need. The reality is that we all need different energy amounts to meet our needs, and those needs vary from day to day. So if you're hungry when you go to bed, or if you just ate lunch but you still have a rumbling stomach - honor those clear signals from your body and eat something else! And even better - eat something that is actually filling and tasty. Don't eat a rice cake and hope the feeling will subside. I like for athletes to have snacks with at least two different types of food - like an apple with peanut butter, a packet of tuna with crackers, or yogurt and fruit. Adding in fat, protein, and/or fiber helps provide satiety.
Put the scale away
This is a big one - and I know it's really hard! The scale can have some uses - testing your sweat rate, for example. But I find that most of the time, it does more harm than good. For one thing, people put way too much stock into small changes of a few pounds up or down. Those pounds could be the result of hydration status, hormonal fluctuations, whether you're constipated, how recently you ate, what time of day it is, or what you're wearing. A bathroom scale also doesn't measure body composition, so you won't know if you've gained muscle mass because you've been working out and lifting regularly, or if weight gain is due to fluids or fat instead.
What the scale does tend to do effectively is make people question their body's signals and drive them toward eating less and moving more in an attempt to make that number go in the preferred direction - down. And that is an unhelpful mindset for a runner, because when you're restricting your intakes, you're probably not fueling your running well.
If you want to get your body composition tested through more advanced tools, and you have the means to do so, great! That can provide a helpful baseline for figuring out your energy needs and provide direction for your training goals and nutrient balance. But the scale isn't gospel, and it tends to push runners away from good training practices and towards unnecessary restriction.
Fuel so the run feels good
Most runners understand that they're supposed to fuel for long runs. It used to be much more popular to try and train fasted in an effort to avoid excess calories, but more and more athletes are coming around to the idea that giving your body energy helps it perform. (If you're still training fasted, my advice is... don't).
The point of training is to help your body adapt to the demands of the sport. Ultimately, you want to go faster and/or longer for the same amount of effort. You want to have the gas in the tank so that you feel good when it's done. If you're getting scraped off the pavement after every run - you're either running too hard, or your tank is on empty. Running too hard can be fixed with an eye on effort and heart rate. To fill up the tank - you probably need to eat more than you think on a long effort.
Runs >60 minutes should be fueled with ~30-60 gm carbs per hour. This is equivalent to two gels, or one whole packet of chews. You should not be running 20 miles on two gels! Start fueling about 30 minutes in, and keep it up with additional fuel throughout the run. Drink plenty of fluids with gels and start slow if you have a sensitive stomach before working your way up to fueling more often. You can also use real food, like potatoes, applesauce, or pretzels if you prefer.
Think fueling is only for beginners and people running at a slower pace? Think again. Aliphine Tuliamuk, the winner of the 2020 USA Olympic Marathon Trials, recently shared on Instagram that she ate nine gels when she ran the NYC Marathon in 2020 in a time of 2:28:12. If she ate nine, you need more than two. End of story.
Make recovery your job
Too many runners prioritize running and neglect the other components of successful training, like fueling, sleep, and strength training. And I get it - it's not as fun as running, and who even has time?? But all of those other elements are very likely the difference between your breakthrough race and your 10th failed attempt. We can't train effectively if we're always overworked and exhausted from pounding out hard miles. Even though you're not a professional runner who gets paid to recover, you'd probably benefit more from cutting out a couple of miles in order to get enough sleep, or switching a day of running for a day of strength training. Recovery is where the magic happens - it's how your body gets stronger, rebuilds, and gains fitness!
Nutrition is an important part of recovery, too. Blowing off your post-run snack to save calories or time is a mistake - your body can't recover and rebuild without energy! So think through what works for you and make time to get in a snack or meal after your workouts - a 3:1 or 4:1 carb-to-protein ratio is what's recommended. Try a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a glass of chocolate milk, or an egg and potato breakfast taco.
Focus on balance and variety
Finally, make sure your fueling is giving you a good mix of nutrients by mixing it up. It's easy to get into a food rut - eating the same foods in the same combinations all the time. But that can backfire, because you might be missing some important nutrition if you never change things up! Eating the same things all the time can also reinforce rigidity and reduce your options when you need to bump up your intakes. If your usual food isn't available, do you panic, or are you able to redirect?
Try adding in some different things and letting go of the food rules you might subconsciously subscribe to. You don't have to eat a salad every day to be healthy, you can eat after 8pm without harming your body, and you don't even have to have a vegetable at every meal! You might just find you have more energy and enjoy your food more when you're not stuck in your same old patterns.
Phew, that was a lot of information! If you have more questions about how to fuel for the best running of your life and adapt this info (and more) to your own training, sign up for the interest list for my upcoming course for female athletes, Fast + Fueled. I'm releasing the first module for pre-sale for my interest list folks this month - so don't miss out! And when you sign up, you'll get an amazing free workbook on estimating your energy and macro needs to get you started.