One of the main reasons why athletes book an appointment with me, a Registered Dietitian, is because they want to have more energy. Let’s review some nutrition-related reasons why an athlete might have low energy and what to do about them!
Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. Iron plays a huge role in transporting oxygen to different parts of our bodies, including our muscles. When we don’t have enough, we can feel unusually tired during exercise, or even after a long night’s sleep!
Athletes are at higher risk of iron deficiency because high-impact exercise increases iron needs. Athletes who regularly lose blood (through menstruation or inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis), as well as children, are at highest risk for iron deficiency.
The average Canadian eats about 10 mg of iron per day, which is enough for many men and post-menopausal women, who only need 9 mg. However, menstruation increases iron needs to 18 mg per day, and pregnancy increases daily needs to a whopping 27 mg! No wonder iron deficiency is so common.
Some of the symptoms of low iron include fatigue (even after many hours of sleep); fingernails that peel and break easily; uneven fingernail beds with ridges; and paleness. The best way to determine if you have low iron is to consult with your doctor, as a blood test is the only sure way of knowing.
Low energy intake
One of the most common causes of fatigue—particularly amongst athletes—is not eating enough. Many athletes need to eat double or triple what sedentary people eat. This is especially true for athletes with a high metabolism, high muscle mass, and/or who train a lot (7 times per week or more).
When your needs are high, it can be difficult to plan, shop for, cook, and eat, all of the food you need. To make matters worse, the ideal time to eat for optimal recovery is immediately after training, and many people have difficulty eating right after exercise.
To eat enough food without breaking the bank, get familiar with meal prep, and always leave the house with one or more meals or snacks. And if you’re intermittent fasting, stop.
Low carbohydrate intake
It is well-known that athletes need to eat more protein than sedentary people. But did you know that they also need to eat more carbohydrates than sedentary people?
Carbohydrates are the body’s most efficient fuel course for the brain and muscles. It is stored in the muscles and liver (as glycogen), and if we run out during an endurance event, we “hit a wall.” Low carbohydrate diets have a negative effect on performance, so embrace sweet potatoes, potatoes, pasta, bread, quinoa, rice, oatmeal, and other complex carbohydrate foods.
Trying to maintain an unnaturally low weight
Some athletes attempt to alter their body composition because they are told that a certain weight or body fat percentage is important for performing their sport. Unfortunately, the link between peak performance and being a specific weight is hugely overemphasized in the world of sport. Many people who give this advice—such as parents or coaches—are not trained in performance nutrition and do not understand that for most athletes, pursuing weight loss poses more risks than benefits.
Actively trying to lose weight can reduce energy levels, diminish performance, limit muscle mass gains, and negatively affect an athlete’s relationship with food and their body. Reducing body fat below the body’s optimal range of functioning—which is different for each person—poses a risk to health and performance.
Second, athletes already have an increased risk of developing eating disorders compared to the general population. In one study, almost half of athletes in aesthetic sports (gymnastics, dance) and one-fifth of athletes in technical sports (soccer, hockey) met the criteria for a clinical or sub-clinical eating disorder.
Fortunately, how an athlete’s body looks tells us nothing about their skills and cardiovascular capacity. Instead of focusing on weight, athletes are better off focusing on developing habits that support their training, such as a regular sleep schedule, eating foods rich in nutrients (energy, protein, vitamins, minerals, etc.) and a solid hydration strategy. This allows the body to settle into its natural ideal weight and does not need to be altered even if it is higher than expected.