How Not Eating Enough Affects Training Seasons

  Jan 14, 2018  |  #Marathon Training

I know I haven’t written about running as much lately – mainly because I’m not training for anything (except a baby), but I still talk about running and training daily with many of my clients.

Many of my clients are training for a spring race or marathon. Therefore, it’s important we talk about the importance of changing up nutrition in tandem.

How inadequate nutrition affects your marathon training and recovery

I recently wrote an article for Women’s Running about this topic. It’s so important to step up nutrition when you step up training (distance and/or intensity). And by that, I mean, start paying more attention to what you’re eating.

Whether you’re graduating from the couch to a 5k, a 5k to a 10k, or a half marathon to a full marathon, you need to change the way you eat (for training and recovery), or you won’t see results.

Why Undereating and Training Don’t Mix

I often see people prioritize their training plan, but don’t equally prioritize nutrition. People still think you can “get away with whatever you want to eat,” if you’re marathon training.

While I see where that idea comes from (sometimes it can be hard to get enough calories), that mentality often de-emphasizes the importance of quality foods for your training and recovery.

Training means you have to eat more, and often times, more often. You also need to eat quality foods – adequate macronutrients and antioxidants. You can’t expect to achieve good results or avoid injury if you are underfueling.

With clients, we work on what this fueling plan looks like. Intuitive Eating can still play a part in endurance training (more on intuitive eating and exercise here).

But, there are going to be times where you have to use your head, not your body, to make your fuel and recovery choices if you want to perform well.

Oftentimes, when I meet with clients and calculate their needs as they increase their running times and distances, they are surprised when I tell them how much they should be eating.

It’s easy for us to forget how good our bodies are at using fuel when we let them.

Inadequate Nutrition and Training

Here are some signs that your nutrition may not be matching up with your training:

You Feel Fatigued and Slow to Recover

Exercise is a stress to the body. I’ll say that again. Exercise evokes stress on our bodies. In most circumstances, this is a good stressor that our bodies are equipped to handle.

But, if we’re already stressing our bodies (maybe from a night of poor sleep, battling a cold, or undereating), exercise can cause more damage. 

A focused desire to exercise in these instances can lead me to question whether compulsive exercise is at play. 

When our bodies are constantly stressed from excessive exercise and insufficient recovery, they start to break down. You may notice your body won’t recover as quickly.

Or, your times and splits may become slower. You may even feel fatigued earlier in to your workouts.

These are signs of overtraining/undereating, and a signal from your body to change things up.

Add in some more rest days, or focus on some changes in your nutrition plan.

How inadequate nutrition affects your marathon training and recovery

You Constantly Feel Cold and/or Your Hair is Falling Out

When your body is lacking energy (read: calories), you may see changes in your skin and hair. Dry skin and hair loss are common symptoms of undereating.

When our bodies aren’t receiving adequate energy, they are smart and will do their best to protect us.

That being said, they will selectively decide where to put the energy they do have, which will go towards pumping the heart and keeping the brain functioning.

Without enough energy to generate heat, our temperature regulation gets put on hold (1).

Therefore, you may feel cold all the time.

You’ve Lost your Period

Females, this one is directed towards you. While there may be medical reasons for this (always check with your medical practitioner), irregular periods, or lack of a period completely is a red flag.

It typically signals an inadequate amount of energy that your body can readily use.

Like mentioned earlier, your body selectively shuts down certain processes when you are low on energy. You don’t need to menstruate to survive, so the body lets that go.

What makes this a serious concern is the potential for developing the Female Athlete Triad.

The Female Athlete Triad is characterized by low energy availability, functional hypothalamic amenorrhea (lack of period), and osteoporosis.

This is most commonly seen in female endurance athletes. It is possible to reverse, and often looks like some combination of an increase in calories and a decrease in exercise.

What Does Fueling Look Like?

We’ll cover this in another post, but you can find more information here, here and here. The main issue I see in athletes is inadequate carbohydrate intake before runs, and inadequate balanced meals and snacks after long runs and workouts.

As the “low carb” diet for runners continues to gain interest and momentum to “burn more fat” while running, know that no studies show that this way of eating improves performance, if that’s what you are after.

You need carbohydrates and glycogen to prevent you from hitting the wall and have those last minute sprints available to finish.

Carbohydrates are the predominant fuel for exercising muscles in terms of intensity and performance (2). 

We need adequate fuel for our bodies to function normally and optimally, and that goes for all of us beyond just athletes.

But, if you are starting a training session or getting ready to begin one, don’t forget about the importance of fueling and nutrition.

If you have specific questions about matching your nutrition to your training, I can help!


How inadequate nutrition affects your marathon training and recovery

Other Sports Nutrition Articles:




Are you training for anything currently, or planning to? I’m living through you vicariously!

40 responses to “How Not Eating Enough Affects Training Seasons

  1. You are so right on when it comes to inadequate consumption of calories/carbs for many endurance athletes, especially females. And these are people putting in the time and work and training hard – their performance should/could be way better if they just ate enough! Enough is better than perfect. I just read Eberle’s nutrition book for endurance athletes. It was astounding that when it comes to carb loading before a marathon, males can just simply alter their percentage of carb intake (ie., eat a higher percentage of carbs for their caloric daily intake) whereas females need to not only increase their percentage of carbs, but also add on something like 700 calories per day to their diet in order to get the same carb-loading benefits as men. I don’t think people get this. Basically, carbs are life because they enable your body to do everything most efficiently. Also, carbs are just life:)

    1. “Enough is better than perfect” <-- Love that line. People have started fearing carbs so much without realizing the athletic potential and opportunity they provide.

  2. Now at a later stage of life, I pay attention to nutrition…This is wonderful information – I hope I didn’t start this too late!

  3. This is all really great info! i haven’t trained for anything in awhile, but I don’t think I have been increasing my food intake as I increased my mileage over the past few months. It’s definitely something I need to work on. I guess its hard because I’m not in the “training” mindset, but I still sometimes do long runs and hard workouts and need to refuel properly from those!

    1. It can definitely be tricky if we’re not in the “training” mindset – I totally get that. I have non-elite athletes who still run 30-40 miles/week without training and have to remind them that equals alot more fuel for the body!

  4. It’s amazing how easy it is to take good nutrition for granted, and I didn’t always think of it as something that I needed to be extra mindful of especially when training for something. I’m not really training for anything right now, but I do find that my body is very sensitive to changes in nourishment, and it does need more than I think it does. It’s incredible how we really need such good nourishment to keep our bodies well fueled for life and working out.

  5. I definitely notice a difference in the way I perform if I’m not fueling properly! This is such a terrific post, Sarah! I went from knee surgery in February to now I’m back out running and starting to train for races. Ran my first double digit run this past weekend and MAN, was I hungry afterwards! haha! I’m working to include more whole grains and veggies into my day. I love them, so it’s not difficult, it’s just remembering to include more that can be difficult for me. Plus, I get stuck in that rut sometimes where I just eat the same thing on repeat. *sigh*

    1. Thanks for reading, Jennifer! The eat, repeat rut is real for us runners – especially when time is short. Even the tiniest bit of meal planning can help me. And always focusing on enough food AFTEr my runs 🙂

  6. I had no idea that dry skin and hair loss were signs of poor nutrition! I’m totally going to keep an eye on that as training ramps up for my half. I’ve fallen into the “I ran XX miles so I can eat whatever” camp before but you’re right that it is so much more important to eat quality food over crap.

  7. ” It’s easy for us to forget how good our bodies are at using fuel when we let them.” —-> always always needing this reminder.

  8. This is a great reminder. I’m guilty of not always making the best choices as they often take a little more time and effort. (And free time is the first thing to suffer when training for a marathon, for example.) Even when I’m not on point with my meal plannin, the one thing I try to remember is to eat my colors. Thanks for linking.

  9. Fueling properly before and during a run is still something that I deal with but I am getting better!
    I’ve tried to do a better job at getting more high quality protein in my diet, especially after a training run, and that has worked well for me.

  10. I agree with you 100%–nutrition is so important! When I was younger, I could eat anything I wanted but now I really have to pay attention to what I eat. I’ve noticed a huge difference since I’ve adopted a more anti-inflammatory diet. Great post–food for thought! Pun intended. Thanks for linking up!

  11. I never eat any way differently when I am training for a race or when I am just working out regularly. I know that is so bad. I am sure I would see a difference in my training if I would pay more attention to my eating habits. But like many runners, I think hey I can eat this, I just ran. Even though it probably doesn’t justify it.

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