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Do you make this mistake when it comes to nutrition?

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LA Post: Do you make this mistake when it comes to nutrition?
January 08, 2024
Claude Taylor - LA Post

Trail runners face big challenges figuring out proper food intake on rough paths. The steep up-and-down hills burn way more calories than running on flat roads. According to new statistics, more than 40% of people are unable to fuel their bodies adequately, resulting in both visible and invisible injuries.

The study, surveying nearly 2,000 trail runners, reveals over 4 in 10 display symptoms of inadequate calorie consumption for required effort. Such nutritional deficits yield measurable harm. “Low energy availability occurs when the body doesn’t get enough calories to power vital processes after strenuous exercise,” explains lead researcher and elite trail runner Dr. Keely Henninger. “It negatively impacts everything from bone health to hormonal functions.”

Trail running inherently demands more fuel with greater distance and duration than road races. Yet, as a newer sport still establishing competitive norms, few grasp the elevated nutritional necessities.

“When I started, fuel needs weren’t discussed. Lack of intake was even praised despite clear injury risks,” says Dr. Henninger. “Seeing myths persist despite my science background prompted delving into connections between underfueling and consequences.

Alongside energy deficits, Dr. Henninger’s work exposes another frightening phenomenon among over 40% of subjects studied – disordered eating patterns. Skipping meals, obsessive calorie cuts, and angst around food plagued female runners especially. Such behaviors co-occurred with compulsive over-exercise, suggesting a high proportion turn to unwise dietary extremes in trying to excel.

Sports psychologist Dr. Tonya Sutton notes perfectionism and body image pressures make female competitors more vulnerable. But elites aren’t immune, either.

"I've treated women athletes clinically who reach world-class level yet secretly starve, purge and abuse substances chasing the flawless athletic ideal sold by society," says Dr. Sutton. "Until we shift beauty standards and acceptance comes from within, these struggles will persist."

Delving deeper into nutritional breakdowns out on trails, Dr. Henninger’s research further quantifies widespread under-fueling. Over half of trail runners fail to take in adequate carbs for workouts beyond 2.5 hours. Deficits grow among younger athletes and women up to 55% unable to meet hourly fuel recommendations.

The perils of lack of awareness around fuel needs amplify with ultra distances. Nutrition advisor and Western States finisher Claire Wilkinson explains.

“Counterintuitively, your body needs exponentially more calories and carbs to keep going past the 26.2-mile marathon mark into 50 or 100-mile races,” Wilkinson says. “Poor intake leads to complete breakdowns causing many elite ultrarunners’ DNFs.”

With limited field nutrition knowledge, many fall prey to restrictive diets hyped online, claiming carbs ruin performance. Wilkinson emphasizes combating such misinformation.

“These dangerous diets often trigger disordered habits which can derail health and competitive abilities long-term,” she warns. “Optimizing food strategies allows achieving potential while mitigating negative outcomes.”

So, how can trail runners avoid the underfueling pitfalls of stealing prowess? Both researchers champion education and expertise. Dr. Henninger notes key responsibility falling on nutrition brands commonly dictating intake guidance.

“Products proclaiming ‘take every 45 minutes’ shortchange athletes with only 30 grams of carbs,” she says. “Companies must highlight fuel needs better while runners seek qualified sports dietitians to meet individualized demands.”

Recommendations coalesce around 30-60g carbohydrates hourly for efforts exceeding one hour. Optimizing timing and combinations leveraging multiple fuel sources can determine a competitive edge.

Sports nutrition societies echo the call for readily available resources. President-Elect Tina Jackson sees trail-running revelations as a wake-up call.

“We've updated guidelines but must get critical data into more hands through accessible channels and training,” says Jackson. “Everyone from gear companies to coaches directing athletes carries responsibility for closing knowledge gaps. Lives depend on it.”

While daunting, the sport still offers boundless inspiration if proper care is taken. Dr. Henninger hopes illuminating hazards plaguing the community will spark action, lifting performance to new heights safely.

“My research aims to empower, not discourage aspirational athletes from realizing dreams out on those trails,” Henninger says. “We all must spread fact-based fuel guidance so health doesn’t become a casualty of stunning vistas.

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