Episode 48 - Signs you might not be eating enough to support triathlon training

Signs you might not be eating enough to support triathlon training

How do you know if you’re eating enough to support training for three sports?

The body is smart. It will give you some warning signs if you’re not fuelling properly. Some warning signs will be a light touch like a feather, others will be harder like a brick being thrown at you or, louder still, like being hit by a truck 🚚!!

Here are a few signs you’re not eating enough:

  • You’re not training well and/or your motivation to train is low
  • You’re not recovering very well or quickly enough
  • You keep getting annoying niggly injuries 
  • You continuously get sick or can’t seem to shake things
  • You have weird or exacerbated gastrointestinal issues
  • Your menstrual function is light, irregular or completely absent (if not overridden by contraception)
  • Your sex drive is reduced
  • You have restriction and/or binging behaviours with food

So what can you do about it? Tune in to find out!

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Episode Transcription

Episode 48 - Signs you might not be eating enough to support triathlon training

Taryn Richardson  00:00
Welcome to the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast, the show designed to serve you up evidence-based sports nutrition advice from the experts. Hi, I'm your host Taryn, Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Advanced Sports Dietitian, and founder of Dietitian Approved. Listen as I break down the latest evidence to give you practical, easy to digest strategies to train hard, recover faster and perform at your best. You have so much potential, and I want to help you unlock that with the power of nutrition. Let's get into it. 

Taryn Richardson  00:44
I'm recording this episode, just before I head away to go to Uluru for the weekend. I've never been before and I'm so excited to go and visit. I'm also incredibly excited for my first trip away from my family, ever, in three and a half years. My voice is only just hanging on, so apologies for the audio quality if it's a little bit sketchy. But it's just been a mad rush to try and get everything done before I go away. But what I wanted to talk to you about today is some signs and symptoms that you might not be eating enough to support the type of training that you're doing.

Taryn Richardson  01:18
Now, before we get into it, you need to understand that your body fuels training first - before it's own normal bodily functions. It's crazy, right? So your body needs energy for exercise. But it also needs energy just to live and breathe. You at rest, burns the majority of calories or kilojoules of your day just lying still, breathing, having your heart contracting, your lungs expanding, your diaphragm contracting, blood pumping around your body - all those things require energy.

Taryn Richardson  01:31
But as triathletes, we think we need to train a house down to burn calories and to drop weight. And that kind of is where the challenge comes. Because we don't feel like we need to be eating when we're not moving. Because we're so used to training at least once a day, sometimes twice a day that when we suddenly stop and don't do anything, we don't feel like we get to eat or should eat. So I wanted to go through some of these signs with you so that if you have this little voice in the back of your head that's going, "You maybe need to eat more", or some of these things you really resonate with, then chances are nutrition is something that you might need to look at to make sure you are actually eating to support the demands of triathlon training.

Taryn Richardson  02:35
So one thing that you can look out for is not actually training well. You might be struggling to get through sessions. You might be feeling really flat or fatigued in the back end. Or you also might just be dragging your butt to training. Your motivation is quite low. Once you get there and you get warmed up, you're okay, but your overall motivation to train is, maybe, less than usual, or it's not what it could be. And that might be one of the early signs and symptoms that you're not eating enough - is that you just feel absolutely wrecked.

Taryn Richardson  03:09
If you get to, say, Friday, and you are wiped and you don't know how you're gonna get through your long weekend sessions, then chances are you haven't done a good job with your nutrition through the week, and you're in a hole come Friday. You've done a really poor job of your recovery day in day out, and you're just struggling to back up sessions.

Taryn Richardson  03:29
Feeling wrecked, feeling absolutely fatigued. Not fatigued from training hard - I'm not talking about, you know, pushing yourself through sessions and getting fatigued because you've just done a really good quality session. And that's how you should feel. But I mean that fatigue compounded over time, week in, week out, day after day, where you're not recovering particularly well. And that motivation is low.

Taryn Richardson  03:53
They are some signs that you may not be eating enough, not necessarily every single day. But there might be some key days in your week, where you’re not doing a good job of fueling. And that's culminating in a complete energy slump by the end of the week. That would be what I call a feather warning sign. So there's a little bit of a continuum when it comes to warning signs. We get some, like, little feathery touches that are telling us that something's not right or something's not working. And then we go further down that continuum and get thrown a brick with some louder signs to say "Hang on a minute".

Taryn Richardson  04:30
So something like that might be getting little niggly injuries - like weird things that just won't go away or keep repeating themselves and you're not really sure why. Like it's not because you're doing weird things with your feet or you've got the wrong shoes. It's just like soft tissue things that are just annoying. Or getting sick as well. But over and over - like picking things up that you just can't shake.

Taryn Richardson  04:32
They hang around for ages or you get sick and then you get better briefly and then you just get sick again, that would be a bit of a brick warning sign. It's a louder message to say something's not working. Maybe look at your nutrition - that would definitely be a sign that you're not eating enough to support training.

Taryn Richardson  05:13
Another sign might be GI issues. Now, this is a very broad stroke GI issues, so bear with me. But sometimes when we don't have enough energy available for our bodily functions, any sort of GI distress, gastrointestinal distress, is exacerbated or made worse. You might be a niggly gut issue type person anyway - and that might not necessarily be energy availability related. But if you're not that type of person, and you suddenly start getting these more niggly gut things or, if you think really hard, you can coincide niggly gut things. Or getting a little bit more bloated than usual. Or runners gut-type things - like having to run to the loo, having to go to the toilet more often or the other end of the spectrum as being more constipated. And that's not normal for you - like, it's not something you've had your whole life - then GI issues is something that is further along the continuum of low energy availability if that's happening because your gut is not working that effectively.

Taryn Richardson  06:15
Now, I did an episode on runners' gut. Go and listen to that if you want to dive into some of those things to help fix it. But just some signs and symptoms here to highlight that - that may not necessarily be normal. Now, if we go further along that continuum of not doing a good job with our nutrition, and we're starting to get messages that resemble something a bit heavier than a brick like maybe a lawnmower or something like that gets thrown at you, or you get hit by a car, then one of those louder messages that you aren't eating enough is menstrual dysfunction.

Taryn Richardson  06:47
So I'm talking to the females here. Guys, hang on a minute, I've got something for you too. But if you're a regularly menstruating female - you're not taking a pill or don't have a Mirena or anything that's going to mask what's actually going on. But you have a normal menstrual cycle, and it's getting a bit lighter, or shorter or irregular, that is a sign that you don't have enough energy available for your body's day to day functions, let alone enough energy to support another life. And so your body is very smart, it shuts that whole system off if it knows that you can't support yourself, let alone another person.

Taryn Richardson  07:25
Now again, that's a bit of a continuum, we have this spectrum of things starting to just go a little bit weird. And then further along the continuum where you're starting to get warning signs like being hit by a truck is where your menstrual cycle drops out altogether. That is definitely further along the continuum of energy availability, where we're getting a very clear sign that you aren't eating enough to support training. Now for the guys who don't have a regular menstrual cycle to give you that sign, you can get your male sex hormones checked to see what your testosterone is doing. If you've got a big, really heavy training block, and things are starting to go a bit weird with your male sex hormones.

Taryn Richardson  08:07
Some indicators for you as a guy that you can think about or start to notice is potentially a reduced sex drive. Now, it's something that I talk to guys about all the time, so I'm happy to talk to you about it on the podcast. But guys generally know what's going on. Right? So if you feel like your sex drive has dropped, or it's reduced through a heavy training block then, to me, that's an indication that something is going on with your testosterone, and potentially a sign that you're not eating enough to support that heavy training block.

Taryn Richardson  08:39
Do you ever feel like that? You go through a big build. And then that's the last thing on your mind. Potentially, there's some tweaks to do with your nutrition that we can fix there to make sure that your sex drive is much more stable through those big training loads. Now for both males and females, we can check this - we can check your male and female sex hormones to see what's going on. And that's something that I would suggest you do if any of this stuff resonates with you.

Taryn Richardson  09:04
Now, if you take the pill as a female, we're not going to be able to see any change in your estrogen and progesterone over the month, it's all going to be flatline. Because the pill is masking that - it's not giving us an indication of what's actually happening. But if you're not taking any sort of contraceptive, then we should see this beautiful flow of estrogen and progesterone over the month. And if these things start to go AWOL or our estrogen starting to drop or go too low, then that's definitely a sign that things are not working.

Taryn Richardson  09:33
I like to use the analogy of a kangaroo. They are pretty smart too. They can switch off the growing of a joey in their pouch. if there's not enough food around. How cool is that? So they know that they're not going to be able to support them, let alone growing another thing and so they just turn it off for a bit until there's more food available. Humans are the same if you don't give yourself enough fuel and energy to support training, then that whole system gets downregulated and it can switch off.

Taryn Richardson  10:05
Another sign or symptom that you are maybe not eating enough is if you find yourself doing restriction and binging type behaviours. Now, not necessarily disordered eating but if you're somebody that constantly thinks about food, you're starving all the time, or you're a bit obsessive when it comes to food - you've got these rules about what you can have what you can't have, you feel like you have to eat clean all the time. I bloody hate that term. But it's very common for me to see triathletes do that. Something about our personality type - we like to control all the things.

Taryn Richardson  10:37
And what I see is people restrict their food, particularly in the morning after training, because they think that's going to lead to body fat loss. Under eating and under fueling, breakfast, morning tea, and you get to lunch, and you're just in a starvation hole. And then you open those floodgates for lunch, and then all hell breaks loose - and you can't control them, like, you open them and it's hard to stop eating You just can't fill a hole. Whatever you eat doesn't kind of satisfy you or fill you up. And if you're doing that type of restriction in the morning, and then sort of binge eating in the afternoon, then you're definitely not eating enough in the morning where you need it. And chances are the food choices that you're making in the afternoon are probably not ideal, either. Your body's really smart at regulating itself.

Taryn Richardson  11:21
So if you've put yourself into a calorie deficit too far, or you haven't refuelled enough with carbohydrate to top up your glycogen stores again, then the body's going to send out all those hunger hormones and make you crave sweet. And you're more likely to eat crap foods in the afternoons and therefore, overeat on calories or kilojoules, and you're no longer in a deficit anymore. So you've starved yourself for no reason.

Taryn Richardson  11:47
The other time I see this happening - the restriction through the day and then binging behaviour is in the evening. So once we've finally stopped for the day, we're sitting down for maybe 30 minutes to watch some TV before we crash out. That is another key time where people binge eat on food that's not ideal. Again, you might be craving sweets here, because it's habitual. It's something you've always done. Like you might associate having a cup of tea, but it has to go with a biscuit or a piece of chocolate or something like that. And that's something that's been trained into you since you were a kid. But this is another time where we're probably not eating mindfully, we might be watching TV or scrolling through Instagram or watching a screen and not really being fully present with what's going in our mouth. And so we actually have no idea what's going on there. And we're not feeling full or satisfied from that sweet food or savoury that we've had. And so we reach for more, we reach for another hit to try and get that endorphin release that we got from the first bite, but it doesn't seem to be coming again.

Taryn Richardson  12:46
So if you find that you're that type of person, then that might be another sign that you aren't actually eating enough and it doesn't mean you're not eating enough overall in a day. You might be catching yourself up later, but you're not eating enough where it counts. One of the biggest eye-openers that a lot of the Academy athletes have and experience after Phase One is the amount of food that they need to do to tick off their right recovery boxes.

Taryn Richardson  13:12
So many people don't do this nutrition 101 thing, right? And then getting that sorted is like revolutionary. I've had one of the ladies, Lisa, used to have a packet of chips every afternoon for afternoon tea. She craved carbs, salty, give it to me - get it in. Now that she does a better job of her recovery breakfast and eats better for lunch (we had to increase her protein, it wasn't anywhere near enough for her), she doesn't crave that packet of chips in the afternoons anymore. She's much more satisfied with her meals. And that's what we want because then she's making a better choice in the afternoon, rather than one of like desperation and starvation.

Taryn Richardson  13:51
I bang on about this all the time. If you're a longtime listener, this is not a new concept to you. But as a triathlete who trains for three different sports in a week - you high achievers - you need to understand how to periodise your food to training. You have to learn to eat differently on light training days versus a double session day. And then a really hard day or a long training session day as well. Each of those days needs to have a different strategy when it comes to nutrition.

Taryn Richardson  14:21
I've got one guy at the moment who wants to meal prep for Monday to Friday, he's eating the exact same thing for breakfast, lunch, all of his snacks, but he's not feeling really good doing that. So even if you're a meal prepper you need to add something in to add and boost up your intake on those bigger heavier days so that you're eating differently across the week. If any of those signs and symptoms sound like you then you may not be eating enough to support training where it counts.

Taryn Richardson  14:50
And so it's giving you warning signs. Whether it's giving you little light feathery touches like feeling flat and fatigued and tired and rundown. Or more louder messages like a brick being thrown at your head - like constant little niggly injuries, getting sick all the time. Or much louder messages like a truck hitting you or a car hitting you - like your menstrual cycle is gone completely or worst-case scenario for a triathlete, you're getting a stress injury or stress fracture. All of those warning signs you need to start listening to. And the message is not “Eat more, increase your calorie intake”, particularly if you're somebody that is trying to drop body fat. You might resonate with some of these if you're trying to drop some fat, but the message is to eat more strategically, so that you are eating where it counts and where you need it - not starving yourself, restricting, and then binge eating and catching yourself up later on in the day or in the evening. Or on the weekends when we lose our structure of the work week and we have more access to eating out or the cupboard, and we've got a bit more time as well.

Taryn Richardson  15:57
So I wanted to quickly touch on relative energy deficiency in sport. We haven't talked about it much on the podcast yet, and I may still do a whole other episode on it. But this is kind of the other end of the spectrum where we really aren't eating enough. And we don't have enough energy available for our body's daily function. So REDS or RED-S, it is the syndrome that refers to the impaired physiological function of our body. And it includes things like our metabolic rate, menstrual cycle, our bone health, our immune system, protein synthesis, and our cardiovascular health. And it's caused by not eating enough energy or calories and or having increased energy expenditure.

Taryn Richardson  16:40
Now, if you're a triathlete and you're listening, you probably have pretty high energy expenditure. Even if you drive a desk for work, you still might train once, maybe twice, sometimes three or four times in a day. So your energy expenditure might be high or higher than the general population. Or it might be that this is something that you need to be really mindful of when you go into a key race, or you step from 10k running into marathon running, where you go from doing Sprint and Olympic Distance triathlon and you suddenly build into bigger training volume for say, 70.3 and Ironman.

Taryn Richardson  17:13
Like ideally, you have different nutrition for each of those distances of racing, because the training load is probably different for all of those events, right? You need to do way more hours for Ironman training compared to Olympic distance training. And so normally, when you're just cruising along, doing your thing, you might be fine. And it's not until you jump up to increase energy expenditure - so burning more calories with heavier training loads, that it becomes problematic. Because remember, our body fuels training first, but we still need energy to support our daily function of living and breathing, digesting, growing - if you're a growing body, as well as throwing training on top of that.

Taryn Richardson  17:52
Now, being in low energy availability just means that you don't have enough energy available for those things. And it is a continuum. It's not a 'you do and you don't', it's definitely a continuous spectrum where one end we've got a healthy athlete, optimal energy availability, regular menstrual cycle, really strong bones and things are working properly, right? To the complete other end of the spectrum where you're in low energy availability, you don't have enough energy available for the body's function.

Taryn Richardson  18:24
So menstrual cycle drops out, we start to affect our bones and start drawing more calcium from our bones, leading to you know, worst-case scenario, osteoporosis. But we have these little messages along the way to tell us that we're heading in that direction, so I need you to start listening out for them. If you are in low energy availability, if you don't have a menstrual cycle, your testosterone is through the floor, then you need to get this sorted. Now. I don't mean to scare you, but it's not normal to not have a menstrual cycle and be a naturally menstruating female. You're doing damage to your body that you can't even see. And it'll tell you if you can listen out for it. But if you don't, it's going to hit you with a truck and a stress injury or stress fracture.

Taryn Richardson  19:12
So I encourage you to work with a multi-disciplinary team to get it sorted. You're going to need a good sports physician in your corner who understands the demands of training more so than a regular GP. You're also going to want to work with your coach or your physio or your exercise physiologist, or whoever it is it's doing your programming and make sure you understand your training load and how that is periodised across the weeks and the months and the year, so that you know how to lay your nutrition into that. And then of course, you're going to need a Sports Dietitian in your corner so that you can understand how to eat for different types of training days and make sure you have enough energy for training as well as life.

Taryn Richardson  19:52
Now it's not hard to get right. I'm not saying it's easy, but it's relatively straightforward to fix. You just need the right professionals in your corner. And you need to understand how to eat strategically so you're not starving all the time, you're fueling your body for what it needs. And you're not putting yourself into too much of a hole, that it's starting to give you these warning signs that something's not working. So if you really want to understand periodisation, what you need to do for your recovery nutrition, pre-training nutrition, what you're doing on the bike, what you're doing on the run all the things - then you definitely need to join us inside the Triathlon Nutrition Academy.

Taryn Richardson  20:29
We tick off all of those boxes in Phase One. So in just eight weeks, you'll have a plan for all of those things. You'll know exactly what to eat and when to get the most out of your training. And make sure you're not under-fueling where you shouldn't be. And over-fueling where you shouldn't be. We are ramping up to launch in September again, so if that's something you're interested in, definitely put your name on the waitlist - go to dietitianapproved.com/Academy and then you'll be first to know when doors open.

Taryn Richardson  20:59
And if there's anything out of today that you're unsure of, or you really need some help with, I definitely suggest linking in with a Sports Dietitian and a Sports Physician to tackle this early. So we're not heading down that trajectory of the other end of the continuum, where we're doing long-term damage to our bones and our overall health. You want to catch this stuff early. So keep an eye out for some of those signs and symptoms that maybe you're not eating properly and get an understanding of what you actually need to eat to train for three sports instead of one.

Taryn Richardson  21:32
Thanks for joining me for this episode of the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. I would love to hear from you. If you have any questions or want to share with me what you've learned. Email me at [email protected]. You could also spread the word by leaving me a review and taking a screenshot of you listening to the show. Don't forget to tag me on social media at @dietitian.approved so I can give you a shout out too. If you want to learn more about what we do, head to dietitianapproved.com. And if you want to learn more about the Triathlon Nutrition Academy program, head to dietitianapproved.com/academy. Thanks for joining me and I look forward to helping you smash it in the fourth leg - nutrition!

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