As your training load goes up, so does your need for food (even if you’re fat-adapted!). What once kept you well-nourished and satisfied all day long is usually not enough once you increase your training. Makes sense, but there’s a catch—we may not be hungry for those extra calories and can under-eat and under-fuel on accident1. This is especially the case for those of us who have no trouble skipping the occasional meal and have a good level of fat-adaptation. We can sometimes get ourselves into trouble by not giving our body what it needs to recover properly and function at a high level. Here are signs that you may not be eating enough to support your training and daily life.
1. Waking Up Hungry in the Middle of the Night
This first red flag is usually the easiest one to spot—you go to bed at your normal time and have no problem falling asleep. All of a sudden 3 a.m. hits, and BAM—your eyes snap open, heart is racing, and you feel empty and hungry. Before you know it, you’re in the kitchen making a massive omelet with a generous slice of sourdough toast. If that sounds oddly specific, I found myself in that situation more than a couple of times last summer.
Even if you had a pretty big dinner that night, a demanding workout paired with a light breakfast and lunch can still leave you in a sizable calorie and nutrient hole. Your body needs enough energy to repair itself from training and daily life, and if it doesn’t get what it needs and the deficit is substantial, it will wake you up with a big cortisol spike to rectify the situation.
The solution? Eat early and eat (more) often. Most of us don’t need to eat six-plus small meals every couple of hours, but if you’re used to fasted morning training and generally eating only twice a day, add another meal or two in the morning and afternoon. Try adding a pre-workout breakfast, and make sure to eat enough plenty the workout as well. Fasted training can be a good tool for fat-adaptation, but if you aren’t getting enough food to sleep through the night, any positive adaptation is going to be negated from your middle-of-the-night fridge raids and low quality sleep.
2. Inconsistent (and Comically Terrible) Workouts
Aside from sleep, the quality of your workouts is also a sign of chronic under-fueling. One day last summer, I was getting ready for an afternoon bike ride. It was a normal day—I had slept well the night before and wasn’t dealing with a lot of stress. As soon as I started pedaling, I knew it was going to be a rough day. My legs were totally out of gas and it was hard enough to just get over the few-foot-tall “hill” near my house. Of course, my mind jumped to conclusions. Was I overtrained? Is this sport all for nothing? Am I just slow and washed up?
Overreactions aside, I later took a look at the day objectively and wanted to figure out why that workout was so awful. Normally, that ride would have been easy, and I was not training any more than usual. I don’t think it was overtraining, as my sleep was fine, body uninjured, and general motivation was moderate to high. What I realized was that I wasn’t eating enough food (and in particular carbs) to fully recover from the previous week’s training. That morning, I’d only had a couple eggs, a carrot stick, and maybe a handful nuts and raisins. No wonder I felt like crap! The next few days, I made an effort to eat more throughout the day, and consequently had some great workouts.
If you are struggling with putting together consistent workouts, especially if it’s at a level you’re otherwise comfortable with, take a look at your food. I don’t know who said it first, but “overtraining is undereating” is an all-too common phrase bandied about online. While I can’t agree with that 100%, if you’re otherwise healthy and starting to show early signs of overtraining or underrecovering, look at your nutrition and sleep first before diving in to the deeper issues.
3. Tired and Cold During the Day
It’s normal to be a little tired and fatigued after a workout, especially if you’re in the middle of a big training block. However, if you finish even an easy workout and spend the majority of the day with mega low energy and get cold hands and feet, chances are you might not be refueling well enough after the workout. You not only need food to recover from the workout itself, but to give your body plenty of energy to perform at a high level in life. Eating all your food at night will do you no good if that energy isn’t available to you when you need it during the day.
While quality of food undoubtedly matters, often quantity does too, especially for those who are highly active. Most of these red flags have a common solution—take a look at your food intake by doing an analysis of calories in vs. calories out, and see if you’re truly getting enough throughout the day, especially after your workouts. Do a food diary on myfitnesspal.com to determine “calories in.” To determine “calories out” add up your RMR and daily activity expenditure using this RMR Calculator and this Activity Calorie Calculator. Many will find they’re not meeting their calorie needs. Plus if your daily performance starts to suffer (and not just in your workouts), then you know it’s time to ensure you’re getting enough good food early on so that it can go to work for you when you need it. Remember, your body needs a LOT of energy just to live even if you’re an awesome fat burner!