The running world is slowly turning away from the belief that you need to eat less in order to run faster. There is more and more education around the dangers and the damage this can cause. However, this message can never be reiterated enough, because there is always someone who has a small voice in their head telling them it is true. I had that voice in mine for a long time, so are not alone. I hope this blog can help you realise why eating less won’t make you run faster.
Eating less in order to loose weight and run faster may leave you feeling great for a short amount of time. This is enough time to trick your brain into believing you are doing the right thing and reinforce such behaviours. However, before long, your body will run out of energy, quite simply because you are not giving it enough fuel and it will go into conservation mode. Think of your body like a car. Without fuel, it literally cannot function. As a result, you will not have the energy needed to run fast, let alone train at the standard you wish to. When I was at my unhealthiest point, I did not have enough energy to even run 1 lap of a rugby pitch and my performance plummeted as a result.
If your body isn’t being given enough fuel, neither is your brain. Both need to be fuelled sufficiently in order for them to operate optimally. If we don’t provide our minds with plenty of fuel, it can be difficult to focus and concentrate. This can therefore make it hard to knock out solid fast sessions, as your brain just doesn’t have the mental energy to focus on the task ahead. Sessions can require a lot of mental energy, so you need to have a fuelled brain in order to get the hard work done. I found myself feeling mentally drained before the session even began, therefore I rarely had the mental strength to get to the end.
If your stomach is tossing and turning, you likely will be too at night. You may not think it, but sleep actually requires energy too. If you under-eat, there may not be enough energy readily available to support your sleep activity. Therefore you may struggle to get to sleep, but also to remain asleep for a long period of time. Additionally, if you find yourself waking up hungry in the night, your body is likely telling you that it needs more food. As humans, let alone athletes, we need plenty of sleep in order to meet the demands of training. When I was underfueling my sleep took a hit as my brain didn’t have the ability to rest like it needed to. This in turn leads to my next point.
Increased risk of injury.
If you are not sleeping well on a constant basis, you are not able to give your body the level of recovery it requires. A lot of our adaptation occurs overnight, and poor sleep will affect the rate of this. A lack of sleep may lead to poor recovery, which in turn contributes to a higher risk of injury. Additionally, an increased risk of injury comes from the added destruction that comes with under fuelling. If your body does not have enough fuel to function properly, it will not be able to repair your muscles and bones. Consequently they can become weak and fragile. This can thus lead to an increased risk of injury. It may also damage your bone health and physical health. For example, under eating may cause periods to stop, something I experienced in the past, which in the long run can affect bone health and make injury more likely.
Loss of enjoyment.
This is a big one. Ultimately, the main thing that will make you run faster is if you enjoy what you are doing. If you are excited to get out the door and work hard, it won’t even seem like hard work. When I was underfueling, I lost all my love for the sport. This was because every run was a struggle. I didn’t have the energy to make even a recovery run feel easy. Consequently, my enjoyment levels were zapped because I didn’t have the energy to make running enjoyable. I also became difficult as a person because I was “running” on empty at all times of the day. This did not help me run any faster at all.
There are many more reasons why underfueling can be damaging and hinder your performance, but I hope these give some insight into why it does a lot more bad than good.
What do your values say?
Values are an important part of life in order to give you a sense of equilibrium. When we remain true to our values, we ultimately remain true to ourselves, which allows us to to feel a sense of balance throughout our lives.
What are values?
Values are a set of beliefs that you live and work by. They ultimately determine where your priorities lie and what is valuable to you. They allow you to measure whether something is or isn’t important to you and whether it aligns with your personal ethos. They let you determine whether you are or aren’t being true to yourself in all aspects of your life.
What are your values?
The first and most important thing to do is decide what your values are. In order to recognise if you are being true to yourself, you need to ascertain what your values lie. These can relate to all aspects of your life, specific ones, or very generic ones. For example, a few of the generic traits I like to live by are honesty, kindness, respect and positivity. However, if I hone in on a specific sector of my life, for example, running, my values would be enjoyment, courage, hard work and determination. Therefore depending on what I am doing, I consult my different beliefs.
When to use your values.
Values can be used at different points in your life, and on a daily basis. They are especially useful in times of conflict or uncertainty. If you feel lost and unsure of the best way to proceed, consulting your values can determine the best path to follow to ensure an outcome that will sit well with you. If you have been asked to do something, but you are not sure if it is the right thing to do, you can consult your values and see where you align. If you find that specific thing opposes many of your values, perhaps it would be important to rethink whether you do it or not, but if you find your values are strengthened by this approach, you can believe it is the best way forward.
You don’t need to have your values at the forefront of you mind at all times, but it is worthwhile checking in with them every now and then and recognising whether you are remaining true to yourself, or perhaps recognising that you have lost a little bit of direction. Our values will change, and at different points of our lives some may be more important that others, but they allow us to remain grounded. They also, most importantly, allow us to maintain a level of self respect.
Our brains just like our bodies get tired. We can only work them so hard before they start to scream out to us for rest. Just like our bodies, they need to be nurtured and looked after. However, sometimes we aren’t able to recognise when mental fatigue hits us and we can end up in a downward spiral without even realising.
So, what can we do to try and prevent our minds from getting too fatigued? And how can we stay as mentally fresh and motivated as possible?
Remember your why.
Mental fatigue can get the better of us at times when it doesn’t need to. We can find ourselves getting pulled down, especially when our direction of focus disappears. For this reason, I find it incredibly important to remember your why. Remind yourself what it is you are training for. Perhaps it is a specific race, simply for the enjoyment of it, or just to get fit. Keep this focus in your mind at all times, especially on the harder days. This will help keep you motivated and prevent your mind from fatiguing due to a lack of direction.
When we spend the majority of our time working hard, both in and out of training, it is unavoidable that we will get tired. Hard work requires a lot of mental energy and focus that can drain us. In order to avoid mentally burning out and fatiguing to an unproductive point, we can implement regular rest days. Whilst these allow our bodies to rest and recover, they also allow our minds to switch off and recharge. Incorporating regular rest days keeps our mind excited for the training ahead of us. This means we can train productively for extended periods of time without burning out, essentially allowing us to make bigger steps forward in terms of our fitness.
Keep it varied.
When we do the same thing over and over again, our brains can easily become tired of what we are doing. The best way to avoid this happening is to keep your training varied and as interesting as possible. This may simply be by changing the location of where you run. Try not to do the same route repeatedly, and perhaps drive to other spots if you have the time. You can also vary the time of day you run at, you don’t always have to get out the door first thing. Also keep your sessions varied. The variation in workouts keeps you excited for the next one to come. Finally, add variety by running with company. Link up with friends, whether it is for an easy run or a session, this will help the time fly by a lot quicker and keep you excited to run.
How can we expect to remain mentally fresh if we don’t allow our brains to sleep? Prioritising a sufficient amount of sleep each night can allow us to go into each day feeling as fresh and motivated as possible. When we are lacking sleep, our brains don’t function quite as well as they can when are fully rested. Therefore getting 8+ hours each night gives us the best possible chance of fighting fatigue.
An element of mental fatigue is unavoidable. We will all experience it from time to time, but the above points can help ensure we stay as mentally fresh as possible and stop fatigue from setting in too deeply.
Reminder to be smart.
Whether in sport or other aspects of life, it isn’t always wise to constantly do more and more. There comes a point where more can actually do more harm than good. It is often difficult to see this, and we recognise the need to step back when the damage has already been done.
Looking back on previous years, I am able to see how much I have grown as an athlete and a person. Previously I would’ve pushed on through any niggle, no matter how bad it got (I ran through stress fractures in both legs for months!) as I felt this was the ‘strong’ to do. I also pushed through barriers of hunger because I felt that was the ‘right’ thing to do to get faster. I was wrong and both led to a lot of destruction. Being able to recognise when the need to be smart arises is a very powerful trait to possess, and here is how we can stop ourselves before the damage is done.
Listen to your body
Our bodies are very clever things. They speak to us, and tell us how they are feeling/what they want, just in a language that isn’t always very explicit and can be difficult to understand. This means we have to listen very carefully and recognise as soon as something isn’t quite right. It is important to recognise the signs your body makes, and take it seriously when it tells you something different to normal. If you are feeling energy dead in a session, take a few days to get on top of yourself before sessioning again. If part of your body is in discomfort, cross train or rest until it feels better. Taking a few days or weeks here and there to get your body back to its normal state, is much better than months and months.
Detach yourself from yourself
It can be hard to always look at our own situation with a clear mindset. We constantly see ourselves differently to the way we see others. We are much harsher on ourselves and don’t always think rationally about the consequence of particular behaviours. However, by thinking about our situation as though they were the experiences of someone else, allows us to consider the best way to act. What would you say to a friend who was feeling the way you are? You would have a rational response. Whatever that is, respond in that way.
Look at the bigger picture
Think to yourself. What are you trying to achieve? Are you in it for the long run? If the answer is yes, think about if what you do now will benefit you in the long run? Pushing through whatever you are feeling now won’t benefit you in the future, but being kind to yourself and respecting your body will. There is nothing to be gained. Even if you end up having to take a few months to get yourself strong and healthy, it is nothing in the grand scheme of things. Remember the bigger picture.
There is a lot of value in being SMART. More training, and less fuelling isn’t a smart or constructive thing to do. The route that involves malnourishment and battering your body isn’t the one that will lead you to a better place. Often, taking what we see as the ‘easier’ physically but frequently smarter option (and mentally harder), will lead to a much brighter place.
Therefore, I want to remind you to think smart, because often the smart choice isn’t physically the hardest, but it is mentally. It is the option that makes us feel uncomfortable, because it seems surprisingly sensible.
I love to run and I love to write, so I write about running!