THE ATHLETE'S KITCHEN
by Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD
While many athletes yearn to be leaner and lighter, some athletes have to be leaner and lighter. As a runner, your sport does not have weight classes (as does wrestling, light-weight rowing), but the sport is sensitive to weight. Hence, you may put pressure on yourself to achieve a weight that might defy your genetic physique. Some runners can achieve the desired lightness healthfully; others struggle with poor energy, lethargy, and depressed mood.
It’s no secret that disordered eating practices are common among weight-conscious athletes. An estimated 30% to 60% of active women and up to 19% of active men struggle with finding the right balance of food and body-fatness (1). Their quest to be light easily leads to restrictive food intake, over-exercising, and too little fuel to support normal body functions. In women, strict diets trigger amenorrhea —loss of regular menstrual periods. While some women seem content to get rid of that monthly hassle, they lack knowledge that amenorrhea leads to weaker bones, higher risk of stress fractures (today) and early osteoporosis (in the future). It’s hard to be a life-long runner when your skeleton won’t support your goals.
While the combination of amenorrhea, disordered eating, and stress fractures has been dubbed The Female Athlete Triad, today’s sports medicine professionals acknowledge that weight-conscious men also experience medical issues. For example, a study of competitive male cyclists suggests as many as 25% had osteopenia (the early stags of osteoporosis) and 9% had full-blown osteoporosis (low bone density). The exact cause of the poor bone health is yet to be determined (2).
Up to 94% of elite athletes who participate in weight-sensitive sports report dieting and using extreme weight control measures to achieve their desired weight (1). They commonly experience dizzy spells, needless fatigue, headaches, constipation, and poor sleep. Symptoms of long-term under-eating include hair loss, dangerously low heart rate (<40 beats per minute), electrolyte imbalance, constipation, anemia, stress fractures, mood swings, social withdrawal, insomnia, and inability to concentrate well—to say nothing of poor performance. After all, you can only compete at your best if you can train at your best. You can only train at your best if you are doing a good job of fueling up before training and refueling well afterwards.
Long-term food restriction easily leads to medical complications that involve not just bones but also the whole body: intestines, heart, hormones, reproductive system, kidneys and brain. It creates psychological stress and depression. Hence, runners who need to make weight should take the job seriously—not simply resort to starvation diets when the weight creeps up.
So what’s a weight-conscious runner to do?
The best time to lose weight is during the off-season. But runners, being human, often procrastinate until the last minute before a race to complete this task. Here are tips to help you make weight healthfully:
Dieting gone awry…
Despite the demands of your sport, try to keep your life in balance. Your whole identity should not be based on being a runner, but rather on being a person who runs and has other interests. After all, if you identify yourself as a marathoner, who will you be if you get badly injured and cannot run?
If you wonder if you have crossed the line and have an eating disorder, take this SCOFF quiz:
--Do you make yourself Sick because you feel uncomfortably full?
--Do you worry you have lost Control over how much you eat?
--Have you recently lost Over 14 pounds in a 3-month period?
--Do you believe yourself to be Fat when others say you are too thin?
--Would you say that Food dominates your life?
If you answer yes to two of the five questions, seek help from a sports dietitian.
The bottom line: You will not be able to be a great runner unless you take care of your body and fuel it appropriately. Here’s to healthful weight management!
Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD has a private practice in the Boston-area (Newton; 617-795-1875), where she helps both fitness exercisers and competitive athletes win with good nutrition. Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook, and Food Guide for Marathoners, as well as her teaching materials, are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com. For information about online workshops for CEUs: NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com
1. Sundgot-Borgen J, Meyer N, Lohman T, Ackland T, Maughan R, Stewart A, Muller W. How to minimize the health risks to athletes who compete in weight-sensitive sports. Review and position statement on behalf of the Ad hoc Research Working Group on Body Composition Health and Performance, under the auspices of the IOC Medical Commission. Br. J Sports Med 2013; 47:1012-1032
2. Smathers A, Bemben M, Bemben D. Bone density comparisons in male competitive road cyclists and untrained controls. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2009; 41:290-6