Calories & Introduction to RED-S
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Last month’s nutrition article discussed fueling the work that needs to be done, focusing primarily on general fueling guidelines/strategies while riding. But what about overall caloric intake?
This article is more about some of my thoughts around caloric intake than telling you how much you should be eating, using that as an introduction for RED-S resources and further reading.
There is a seemingly never ending debate around calories in vs calories out and how much calories one should eat for performance and/or weight loss (I rarely encounter endurance athletes who wants to gain weight, although that does happen from time to time for various reasons). You can find a lot of information on that in the rest of the internet, so I will spare you the science lesson (at least for now) and focus on some of my practical experience in the area.
In my world, the short answer to “how many calories should I be eating” is ‘it depends’ and the long answer is fully customized for the individual and their goals, starting point, lifestyle factors, etc - It is important to note that it is not only about physiology, there are also psychological and behavioral components to this.
Over the years, I have come to realize that I can do all the calculations for an athlete, telling them exactly how many calories they should be eating in a day based on their basic needs + training, manipulate the numbers for each days activities, as well as calculate all their CHO/Protein intake by g/kg… All by the book. Sounds great, right? Actually… Not so much. In practice? It just does not work, especially not in the long run, because who has the time or patience to count every calorie and gram? It could be an interesting (and often times necessary) short term educational exercise for sure, but I do not see it as a viable long term strategy, at least not for the majority of athletes I encounter, regardless of their ability level, goals and/or baseline nutrition knowledge.
It is interesting to note that a lot of the time my job isn’t really telling athletes exactly what to do - It’s more about giving them the tools and skills to actually apply knowledge to make better decisions in their every day life, for life. Afterall, knowing what needs to be done and actually doing it are two very different things… And the best advice is actually not all that great if it is not tailored in a way that makes it simple to follow consistently.
I find that a much better approach involves shifting the focus a bit more towards timing of food intake, paying attention to hunger signs throughout the day, how the body is feeling before/during/after training, and a few additional markers like sleep patterns, muscle soreness and general energy levels. My favorite approach involves creating a customized ‘if this then that’ type flow chart as those are so easy to follow. Here is a fairly simple example:
A male athlete in his late 30’s who has a fairly busy work schedule, while training 10-12 hours per week on average. He a hard training session scheduled for late afternoon / early evening on Thursday and then he has to start work at 7am the next day. Friday is an easy spin day and then he has a long, hilly ride on Saturday morning. Fairly typical stuff, really. That said, there are some challenges: - If his session ends after 7:30pm, eating a large meal afterwards could negatively affect sleep patterns, which is not ideal given the early start the following day - Eating a meal that isn't substantial enough could negatively affect recovery, potentially affecting the quality of the long training session on Saturday morning. The potential solution? - Make a point of eating a bit of a larger than normal breakfast on both Thursday and Friday, as well as a bit more throughout the day on Thursday leading up to the hard training session (easy to digest meals best). - Fueling during the training session itself is a great idea, for performance but also as a race day fueling practice (bonus!). It will also help make sure there isn't a substantial deficit going into the weekend or the opposite: overeating. - After the training session on Thursday, eat a lighter dinner that will not affect sleep patterns (get enough protein & carbs). - Friday morning - slightly larger breakfast and then back to a 'normal' pattern (whatever that looks like for that individual).
I’m bringing all of this up as an introduction and a way to start a conversation about RED-S.
There will be future articles on RED-S, as it is a topic that is very close to home for me personally as well as professionally. This is simply the starting point, providing a few general resources to start off with. I think the biggest problem I see these days, is that athletes seem to think this is a problem that can only affect ‘serious athletes’ and/or professional athletes, but that is simply inaccurate - If you are training on purpose, you are an athlete, and this can affect you too.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, it stands for Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) and is the result of insufficient caloric intake and/or excessive energy expenditure, affecting both men and women. Both articles below are fairly straight forward and easy to read:
Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport: What Coaches Need to Know
IOC consensus statement on relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S): 2018 update
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