Jessica Stratton: Frequently Asked Questions About Fueling

* Girls begin a critical championship race in November in New Jersey

Photo Credit: Doug Hood/USA Today via Asbury Park Press

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Jessica Stratton - Old Saybrook (CT) High School, Class of 2019

University of Delaware graduate

Note: Jessica Stratton is a Registered Nurse. Any advice she provides in this column is a result of a long career in cross country and as a distance runner. If you or someone you know needs help, please seek a clinical nutritionist or professional.

A great analogy I learned is to view your energy stores like a gas tank, and when you wake up you are running on fumes and not real gas. 

    Fueling FAQ!!!!!

    This month I will answer some of the most frequently asked questions related to fueling and nutrition.

    A lot of these ideas are misconceived as a result of an unhealthy culture. We are here to change that!

    Why am I hungrier on my off days?

    If you often feel hungrier on your off days, you are NOT alone! And the most important part is to listen to what your body tells you. Exercise itself is an appetite suppressor, leading our body to feel less hungry on our most active days. Have you ever felt like your hunger hits you the day AFTER a hard training day? That's why. So when your body slows down and gets a break, it starts to activate your body's hunger-stimulating hormones like ghrelin in response to an energy deficit causing you to feel much hungrier than on your most active days. Running is also known to increase metabolism, which causes our bodies to be hungrier, faster. Remember, you are A-okay to eat the same amount -- if not more -- on your off days; it'll only help you recover faster.

    How do I intuitively eat as an athlete?

    The most important aspect of intuitive eating is to learn your body's hunger cues. However, I think a lot of people don't realize there are a lot more signs that your body is hungry than just a rumbling tummy. Because of our appetite suppression as athletes, often times hunger may not show up in this way. Some of the more subtle signs to look out for are a sudden dip in your energy levels and/or an increased lethargy or tiredness, increased irritability or difficulty concentrating. Experiencing these signs definitely means you need a meal or snack to get your blood sugars back up. Even just an hour of ignoring your hunger cues when your body needs food may result in it starting to pull for your energy stores and break down your muscles which will hinder recovery, which is why it is never okay to ignore hunger cues. In addition, because I am also aware of how my incredibly active lifestyle can suppress my appetite, I also make it a priority to eat at least every 2-3 hours even if I don't feel acutely hungry. This way I know that I am meeting my energy demands even when my body may have trouble telling me what it needs.

    Do I need to eat before an early morning practice?

    YES! Since your body is working to digest and metabolize all of your energy into energy stores overnight, you don't have quick sugars in the morning for your body to use to perform. Therefore, your body immediately pulls from your glycogen stores, which aren't meant to be your bodies first source of energy. Glycogen stores are supposed to kick in when your quick energy is depleted. Pulling from your glycogen stores and then muscles if those run out can significantly delay recovery and make it harder to perform to your potential. A great analogy I learned is to view your energy stores like a gas tank, and when you wake up you are running on fumes and not real gas.

    How do I know that I eat enough without counting calories?

    Again, a lot of this has to do with intuitive eating and listening to your body's hunger cues. But, like I said, I try to make sure I eat at least every 2-3 hours to make sure that I am eating enough to meet my energy demands. In relation to eating on your off days, although increased appetite is perfectly normal; I do make sure that I reflect on how I ate throughout the week because increased hunger on your rest days could also potentially mean that you weren't fueling consistently enough throughout your week of training and essentially the energy deficit catches up to you.

    This may be the case if you notice an abnormal change or increase in your appetite that wasn't there before, or if you wake up with a rumbling tummy. In this case, I would work to improve the consistency of your fueling throughout the week. Some other "rules of thumb" I go by are to make sure I never go to bed hungry, because then I know that I'll wake up below empty and my body won't have the energy overnight to help me recover. Especially when I am training hard, I also make sure to incorporate carbs into every single meal. And finally, I make sure I always eat until I am at least full or even just a little bit past full, knowing I will feel digested within the hour and it assures me that I am completely filling up my body. Personally, I always aim to eat a little bit more than I think I need because I would much rather err on the side of caution than be under-fueled.

    At what point should you seek additional nutrition support?

    Personally, I think that every athlete would benefit from some education and guidance on their nutrition and fueling, so don't ever feel shameful for seeking out a nutritionist. Even if you don't think you have a problem, seeking guidance will only help you. But if you think there is a bigger problem, I highly recommend seeking help immediately. Fixing the problem sooner rather than later can be the difference of avoiding a plethora of long term health issues that come with under-fueling for a long period of time.

    Some of the red flag indicators that you may need additional help or resources would be an absent or irregular menstrual cycle, persistent injuries, noticeable decrease in your energy such as feeling like you're running on an empty tank, increased fatigue, difficulty sleeping at night, preoccupied with food or body composition, weight loss, plateau in performance, restricting foods (including desserts), or counting calories.

    Jessica is a 2019 graduate of Old Saybrook (CT) High School and a recent graduate of the University of Delaware, where she was a four-year member of the cross country and track programs. In the spring of 2023, she was named on the CAA's Commissioner's Honor Roll. This is a monthly series where Jessica writes about important and wide-ranging subjects involving young and developing runners.