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Why Over-Training is just as Dangerous as Under-Fueling


"I help athletes overcome disordered eating and perform at their highest level."


To some people, when they hear "disordered eating" they automatically think "eating disorder." But the truth is, there are a lot of concerning thoughts, behaviors, and actions around food and exercise that justify the need for nutrition intervention and education. Over-training can be a huge part of that problem for athletes.


Recently, a lot of attention has been brought to the term RED-S, or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, which refers to impaired physiological, metabolic, endocrine, bone, immune, and cardiovascular function when the body does not have the proper energy it needs. It's a more inclusive and broader scientific understanding of the Female Athlete Triad.


One distinguishing feature of RED-S compared to the traditional triad, is that RED-S can result from over-training, not just under-fueling.


For example, the person that restricts their calories to just 1000 a day is under-fueling. But the person who eats 2000 calories a day, then exercises to burn 1000 calories a day is over-training.


In both scenarios, under-fueling or over-training, they will experience symptoms of RED-S since their bodies are not getting the energy they need to sustain health and performance. Over-training is just as dangerous as under-fueling as the body responds with suppressing essential hormones, digestion, metabolic health and more.


For competitive and professional athletes, training at a high level is a job, and may be unavoidable. However for non-competitive athletes it's important to question where the drive and desire to spend hours each day exercising is coming from. Over-training may be another form of body control, unhealthy coping, and a replacement or cover-up for an eating disorder, proving again to be just as dangerous if psychological in nature.


But regardless of the reason, both scenarios will benefit from nutrition intervention and education to match fueling to exercise.


Nutrition education is helpful for everybody to understand what will work best for their body and mind.


For somebody with an eating disorder the fear of food & gaining body weight often drives the eating decisions and results in clinical outcomes. For example, somebody may skip breakfast, resulting in under-fueling, altered hormones, poor bone health and more.


However an athlete may make eating decisions based on performance goals. An athlete may not have an eating disorder, but may skip breakfast if they don't want to train on a full tummy. Or perhaps if the athlete has read messages online about intermittent fasting and want to see if it will help their performance.


Unfortunately, the athlete is at just as much risk as the person with an eating disorder in this scenario. As an athlete, skipping breakfast may quickly put you in a state of energy deficiency, especially if training in the morning. The physical body will not have enough energy available to sustain exercise and over time can develop into RED-S with the same physical and clinical outcomes.


There are many athletes in a state of RED-S who do not believe they are under-fueling. Some athletes may be eating 3,000, 4,000 or more calories, which may be perceived as "a lot of food," but is still under-fueling relative to their exercise. The solution may be to increase food intake, decrease training load, or a combination of both. Again, over-training is just as dangerous as under-fueling if the energy intake does not match their demand.


I've only just brushed the surface of the nuances between over-training vs. under-fueling vs. eating disorder but the scenarios are endless ...


And because of this, I've settled on the term "disordered eating" to encompass it all.


No matter the reasons why, if you are not fueling your body for what you need, its disordered in some sense. So the solution to all of these scenarios is: Understand how to properly fuel your unique body and training goals for your happiest and healthiest life. Overcome disordered eating & perform at your highest level.


If you'd like help balancing your fueling with your training, click here to book a free 15-minute call with me to chat about your needs.

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© 2019 by Lindsey Elizabeth Pfau MS RD CSSD LD/N