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ATHLETE HEALTH: Nutrition, Hydration, Sleep & Managing Stress

As we gear up for the new season, it’s important to consider your health and wellbeing outside of the actual training. Many of you have big dreams and are going to put in a lot of work this off-season and I want things to work out for you.


The following are resources that could be helpful if you’re looking to dig deeper into research-based strategies for staying healthy and on your way to your best season yet.


I am not a doctor, nutritionist or registered dietician, so please consult one of those folks if you have any questions or want further guidance. Everything here is for awareness and education for runners.


NUTRITION

Please eat regular meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner + snacks and post-workout nutrition. You need to eat more than any of your non-running friends by a mile.


Food is Fuel. Carbs, fats and protein all have a purpose and we need them all- and plenty of them. During the season, we do our best to provide food after hard workouts, but in the off-season, you will need to take care of this yourself.


Easy items we use post-workout include:

  • Chocolate Milk

  • PB & J

  • Breakfast bars, granola bars, protein bars, etc.


A mix of carbohydrates, fats and proteins are great…and then go home and eat dinner.


That being said, ANY FOOD is better than no food; don’t try to be perfect. Not eating _____ during the season isn’t going to do anything positive.


RED-S. Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport. You need to eat enough to sustain performance and preserve your health. Distance runners come in every shape and size. Project RED-S is a great resource to learn more about this important subject.


Related to RED-S is the female athlete triad which can also have its origin in an energy imbalance or not eating enough to sustain the work you’re putting in.


IRON

Distance runners are an at-risk group for iron deficiency or iron-deficiency anemia. Add to that recent research that came out suggesting up to 38% of teen females were iron deficient and it’s easy to see that iron deficiency could be an issue for runners.


Why is iron important? For the 1600-5k, about 80-90% of the energy we use to run comes from oxygen being shuttled to our working muscles. This oxygen is carried in the blood via hemoglobin, of which iron is a building block. When iron is limited, hemoglobin isn’t produced at a fast enough rate to replace lost red blood cells through running, sweating, menstruation or not consuming enough iron. When hemoglobin is low, performance in endurance events suffers.


Respond vs. Prevent

The problem with iron deficiencies is that you usually detect problems when it’s too late.


Due to the nature of our sport (it’s a preparation/training sport) we spend 16 weeks training before we race for just 8 weeks. Iron deficiencies are sort of impossible (although not always) to spot in those 4 months of training since almost all of the symptoms of low iron are the same ones you’ll feel when you’re building up training: tiredness, fatigue, etc.


Symptoms are most noticeable during races (max aerobic efforts) and by that time, it’s oftentimes too late to salvage the season. You would need to get a blood test by a medical professional and be advised supplementation or nutritional interventions to correct the iron deficiency, which can take weeks or months, depending on how well you absorb iron.


Rather than responding to iron issues late in the season, a more proactive and preventative approach is to get your blood tested in-between seasons; before you start training hard again.


Although you may see talk of athletes taking iron on social media, etc, taking iron doesn’t improve performance if your iron stores are already in the normal range. Too much iron is toxic, especially if you have the hemochromatosis disorder.


The only way to know if you are iron deficient is a blood test by a medical professional. Do not guess and start taking iron supplements, get a test. An additional ferritin test will give you a picture of your iron storage; ferritin levels serve as somewhat of a low fuel indicator for iron storage.


This turned out to be longer than I wanted, but low iron is a yearly issue with runners on our team and distance runners across the world and I wanted you to be educated on the matter.

IMO, the best single resource on iron and running is an article from Track Technique that I posted on my Coaching Distance website. It’s an article by Rebecca Gussmer and Dr. Donald Denger from the University of Minnesota that goes beyond the surface and gets into the details.


A few years ago when we had several iron deficient athletes, I was chatting with exercise physiologist Dr. Jack Daniels who studies these types of issues via email, he made this observation about the relationship between performance and iron deficiency: a gram low is worth ~40s in a 5k, which extrapolates to ~8s in a 1600 & ~20s in a 3200m. Although these are estimates and vary from athlete to athlete, and are consistent with what we’ve seen, you get the picture.


If iron levels are something you think might be an issue, consult your family doctor or use a service like the Athlete Blood Test. Don’t Guess and think about being proactive vs. reactive.


HYDRATION

Like nutrition, proper hydration is an issue of safety and performance. Here’s a good resource from the NCAA Sports Science Institute


2-3 liters per day is a good general recommendation, although the exact amount depends on many factors including how much you sweat, weigh, etc.


Consistent hydration is going to beat pounding a gallon of water on the bus to the meet because you’ve neglected hydration all week.

The NCAA Hydration Chart is also useful.



SLEEP

This is super simple.


The best recovery tool you could ever buy is a bed. Use it to get 7-10 hours of sleep consistently, this way, if there’s ever a day where you need to stay up late or rise early, it’s not going to set you back.

  • Get homework done early

  • Get off phones/computers

  • Turn off the lights and sleep


Lack of sleep killed my freshman year of Cross Country in college and is currently hitting me hard with a newborn in the house. Sleep matters!

MANAGING STRESS

High schoolers have more on their plates than when I was in high school. I don’t envy that and am really impressed with how you all can handle the demands of family life, friends, school, sports and all of your other interests.


“Comparison if the Thief of Joy”

I think this quote is extra important for runners since every single one of your results goes into an online database with every other kid in the USA. It’s easy to compare and feel less-than.


That’s why I LOVE focusing on the process, aka “Pound the Stone” over results. Just invest in the process and everything else takes care of itself.


  • Preparation Work hard & take it seriously

  • Team 1st. Be a good teammate.

  • Stewardship. Take care of the program.


To be honest, if you got dead last and ran the worst time of your life, we’ll still care about you the same as if you set a national record.


If you ever get to where you have too much on your plate and need to miss a practice for school work or whatever, it’s going to be fine by me. We want Cross Country or Track practice to be the best part of your school day and not an extra stress.


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