* The girls begin a crucial championship run in November in New Jersey
Photo: Doug Hood/USA Today via Asbury Park Press
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Jessica Stratton – Old Saybrook (CT) High School, Class of 2019
Graduated from the University of Delaware
Note: Jessica Stratton is a registered nurse. Every bit of advice she gives in this column is the result of a long career in cross country and distance running. If you or someone you know needs help, seek out a clinical nutritionist or expert.
A great analogy I’ve learned is to think of your energy stores as a gas tank, and when you wake up, you’re running on fumes, not real gas.
This month I’ll be answering some of the most frequently asked questions about fuel and nutrition.
Many of these ideas are misunderstood as a result of an unhealthy culture. We are here to change that!
Why am I hungrier on my days off??
If you often feel hungrier on your days off, you are NOT alone! And the most important thing is to listen to what your body is telling you. Exercise itself is an appetite suppressant, causing our bodies to feel less hungry during our most active days. Have you ever felt hunger hitting you day after day? AFTER a busy day of training? That’s why. So when your body slows down and gets a break, it starts to activate your body’s hunger-stimulating hormones like ghrelin in response to the energy deficit, making you feel much hungrier than on your most active days. Running is also known to boost metabolism, which causes our bodies to be hungrier, faster. Remember, you’re fine to eat the same amount — if not more — on your off days; it will only help you recover faster.
How do I eat intuitively like an athlete?
The most important aspect of intuitive eating is to learn your body’s hunger cues. However, I think a lot of people don’t realize that there are a lot more signs that your body is hungry than just a flat stomach. Because of our appetite suppression as athletes, often hunger may not manifest itself this way. Some of the more subtle signs to look out for are a sudden drop in energy levels and/or increased lethargy or fatigue, increased irritability or difficulty concentrating. Experiencing these signs definitely means you need a meal or snack to bring your blood sugar back up. Even just an hour of ignoring your hunger cues when your body needs food can start to drain your energy stores and break down your muscles which will hinder recovery, which is why it’s never okay to ignore your hunger cues. Plus, since I’m also aware of how my incredibly active lifestyle can suppress my appetite, I also make it a priority to eat at least every 2-3 hours even if I don’t feel acutely hungry. This way I know I’m meeting my energy needs even when my body may be having trouble telling me what it needs.
Should I eat before my early morning workout?
YES! Since your body is working to digest and metabolize your energy into overnight energy stores, you don’t have fast sugars in the morning for your body to use to get work done. Therefore, your body immediately draws from your glycogen stores, which are not meant to be your primary source of energy. Glycogen stores should be activated when your fast energy is depleted. Drawing on your glycogen stores, and then your muscles if they run out, can significantly delay recovery and make it harder to reach your potential. A great analogy I’ve learned is to think of your energy stores as a gas tank, and when you wake up, you’re running on fumes, not real gas.
How do I know I’m eating enough without counting calories?
Again, a lot has to do with intuitive eating and listening to your body’s hunger cues. But like I said, I try to eat at least every 2-3 hours to make sure I eat enough to meet my energy needs. In relation to eating on days off, although increased appetite is quite normal; I make sure to think about how I ate throughout the week as increased hunger on rest days can also potentially mean that you haven’t been eating consistently enough during your training week and basically the energy deficit catches up with you.
This may be the case if you notice an abnormal change or increase in appetite that wasn’t there before, or if you wake up with a rumbling stomach. In this case, I would try to improve the consistency of your fueling throughout the week. Some other “rules” I follow are making sure I never go to bed hungry because then I know I’ll wake up under empty and my body won’t have the energy overnight to help me recover. Especially when I’m training hard, I also make sure to incorporate carbs every single meal. And lastly, I make sure I always eat until I’m at least full or even just a little full, knowing that I’ll feel full within an hour and that reassures me that I’m fully fueling my body. Personally, I always tend to eat a little more than I think I need, as I’d rather err on the side of caution than be underfed.
At what point should you seek additional nutritional support?
Personally, I think any athlete would benefit from education and guidance on their nutrition and fueling, so don’t ever feel embarrassed to seek out a nutritionist. Even if you don’t think you have a problem, asking for guidance will only help. But if you think there’s a bigger problem, I highly recommend you get help right away. Addressing the problem sooner rather than later can be the difference in avoiding a host of long-term health problems that come with running low on fuel over a long period of time.
Some red flag indicators that you may need additional help or resources would be missing or irregular menstrual cycles, persistent injuries, a noticeable decrease in your energy such as feeling like you are running on empty, increased fatigue, difficulty sleeping. at night, preoccupied with food or body composition, losing weight, plateauing in performance, restricting food (including desserts), or counting calories.
Jessica is a 2019 graduate of Old Saybrook (CT) High School and is a recent graduate of the University of Delaware, where she was a four-year member of the cross country and track programs. In the spring of 2023, she was named to the CAA Commissioner’s Honor Roll. This is a monthly series where Jessica writes about important and broad topics involving young and developing runners.
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