If you are training for and competing in endurance sports, such as running, cycling and triathlon, there’s a good chance that your personal characteristics include being determined, driven, purposeful, competitive and even perfectionist. You probably set high standards and targets for yourself, and challenge yourself to meet them. This is likely to be the case in your work life and personal life, as well as in relation to your chosen sport. These characteristics help to make you a winner!
However, there is a potential downside to being the achieving type, which is that at times you may push yourself too far in the quest to meet your goals. From a sports perspective, this can result in a state commonly known as ‘overtraining’, which can be described as a plateau, or sometimes decline, in performance that does not improve with short amounts of rest and recovery. Overtraining often occurs after a disappointing performance results in pushing yourself harder and training more in preparation for the next race opportunity, but without making sufficient allowance for rest and recovery. If you are also juggling a stressful job and/or personal life, the negative effects can be compounded.
Warning signs associated with overtraining, aside from performance issues, include depressed mood, general apathy, reduced self-esteem, emotional instability, irritability, poor sleep, loss of appetite, increased resting heart rate and increased vulnerability to injury. There may also be changes in the amount of the stress hormone cortisol that you release from your adrenal glands over the course of a day. Cortisol levels generally increase with exercise; this is beneficial as the hormone acts as an anti-inflammatory, and helps release glycogen and free fatty acids from storage for use as energy. But excessive cortisol levels associated with sustained high training loads weaken the immune system, impair digestion, slowly break down healthy muscle and bone, and disrupt emotional wellbeing. An athlete in the early stages of overtraining may reveal an abnormally raised cortisol release pattern throughout the day; this can be tested through saliva samples (known as an Adrenal Stress Profile). Chronic, long term overtraining may actually be indicated by lower than normal cortisol levels in saliva: this may be considered a sign of ‘burnout’.
So what does this have to do with nutrition? First, if you are going to increase your training load, without experiencing overtraining, it is important to meet your increased need for fuelling and recovery in line with this. Please see my earlier blog posts on using carbohydrate to fuel training (April 2012) and using protein to aid recovery (May 2012) for more detail on this. Secondly, a higher training load results in increased “oxidative stress” in the cells of your body. This in turn creates an increased need for anti-oxidant micronutrients, such as vitamins A, C and E and various plant nutrients. So it is important to up your intake of vegetables and fruit. I suggest 8-10 portions a day; fresh juices and smoothies can be useful here.
If you believe that you are already experiencing overtraining, improved nutrition, along with sufficient rest and sleep, may play an important role in facilitating recovery, particularly in supporting adrenal function. Try these strategies:
- Choose more foods containing magnesium, eg nuts, seeds, beans, brown rice, leafy green vegetables. Magnesium is needed to make both energy and adrenal hormones.
- Increase the amount of vitamin C you consume. Good choices are peppers, kiwi fruit, oranges, strawberries and leafy green vegetables. Vitamin C supports immune function and is essential to make adrenal hormones such as cortisol.
- Include plenty of B vitamins in your diet from wholegrains, meat, fish, mushrooms, avocado, beans, lentils and Marmite. B vitamins play a key role in energy metabolism, especially B5 and B6.
- Don’t miss out on healthy fats from olive oil, avocado, eggs, oily fish, nuts and seeds. Plus a moderate amount of saturated fat from meats and dairy products.
- Reduce your intake of caffeine, alcohol, soft drinks, highly processed foods, refined grains and added sugars. These types of foods add to the stress load on your body. Keep your diet as natural as possible.
Jo Scott-Dalgleish BSc (Hons) is a BANT Registered Nutritionist, writing and giving talks about nutrition for endurance sport. Based in London, she also works as a Registered Nutritional Therapist, conducting one–to–one consultations with triathletes, distance runners and cyclists to help them eat well, be healthy and perform better through the creation of an individual nutritional plan. To learn more about these consultations, please visit www.nutritionforendurancesports.co.uk