Archive for the ‘Sports Nutrition’ Category

I Had No Idea: a “healthy” passion can become a problem

February 26, 2015

Passion drives many athletes and outdoor enthusiasts here in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Surrounded by rugged mountain ranges and access to raging rivers, this recreational Mecca is a sort of proving ground for athletes who want to push their limits skiing, rock climbing, boating, biking, running and more. There is a strong subculture here that sets a high bar for “normal” exercise.

Passions Can Become Problems

Passions Can Become Problems

More than 20 years ago during my early years in Jackson a friend and I did a 24-mile day hike up in Grand Teton National Park, a major feat for us east coast transplants. We got an early start and crested the top of the divide feeling pretty good about our accomplishment until a couple of local friends came jogging up the trail and passed us wearing fanny packs with water. If you climb or ski something here someone has climbed or skied it faster, or as part of a multi-peak day, or they first biked from town, swam across a lake, and were heading down to reverse their route after passing you. Seriously.

This Uber-athlete mentality makes it difficult to define “excessive exercise.” Disordered eating patterns that often accompany problem exercise are also normalized here. Sometimes eating takes obvious disordered forms such as severely restricting all food intake or bingeing and purging food. Less obvious disordered eating can be adhering to rigid food rules such as “eating clean” or following any number of fad diets that are socially accepted. This does not mean anyone who is consciously eating well to improve health or athletic performance has an eating disorder but points to the difficulty in identifying problems in subcultures like ours where extreme behaviors are normalized.

A group of friends on a long backcountry ski tour together may have no idea one member of the group has not eaten for 12 hours because she “ate too much” yesterday. Or she needs to hike, skin and ski first to “earn” her next meal. Or she “feels too fat” to eat. Or the food available doesn’t meet her strict guidelines of acceptable food. And with the exercise itself, if someone works out despite illness or injury or never takes a rest day, she is badass, dedicated, someone to be admired.

Excessive exercise as a form of purging in Bulimia Nervosa was added to the DSM-5 (the manual that outlines criteria for a variety of mental illnesses including eating disorders) in June of 2013. Exercise has long been recognized as a problem in a variety of eating disorders but it was not previously defined as a form of purging in place of other purging behaviors such as self-induced vomiting.

Unfortunately, the general public health messages that encourage people to “move more and eat less” don’t acknowledge any downsides to either of these mandates. “Earning” meals or treat foods with exercise is commonly encouraged and the fine line between balancing calories and physical activity or obsessing about these habits is often blurred. Exercise habits can’t be adequately assessed based simply on the number of hours or days each week, the type of activity, or even the intensity, we must look at what drives the exercise.

Is it enjoyable?

What happens if you miss a day of working out?

Has exercise replaced time you spend doing other things you enjoy or time you spend with friends and family?

Do you fuel and hydrate to support your activities?

Do you feel better afterwards or do you just feel relief that you exercised?

All of these questions must be considered in the context of the whole person. An elite or professional athlete may have to train on days conditions are less than ideal and training can appear compulsive to an outside observer and a recreational athlete who sometimes overdoes it may not have a problem. The point is we need to know that despite all of tNEDA - Exercisehe positive benefits associated with physical activity, exercise can have a dark side. People who exercise while malnourished and underweight can experience accelerated bone loss and exercising after food restriction or other forms of purging can cause dangerous electrolyte imbalances.

If you suspect someone you care about has no idea that their passion may have crossed a line into dangerous territory – seek support. NEDA has a free Coach and Athletic Trainer toolkit with ideas that may apply to recreational athletes who are not being coached. Also from the NEDA website are the following risk and protective factors for athletes that may be helpful to consider in the broader context of appropriate or “healthy” exercise.

Risk Factors for Athletes:

  • Sports that emphasize appearance, weight requirements or muscularity. For example: gymnastics, diving, bodybuilding or wrestling.
  • Sports that focus on the individual rather than the entire team. For example: gymnastics, running, figure skating, dance or diving, versus teams sports such as basketball or soccer.
  • Endurance sports such as track and field/running, swimming.
  • Overvalued belief that lower body weight will improve performance.
  • Training for a sport since childhood or being an elite athlete.
  • Low self-esteem; family dysfunction (including parents who live through the success of their child in sport); families with eating disorders; chronic dieting; history of physical or sexual abuse; peer, family and cultural pressures to be thin, and other traumatic life experiences.
  • Coaches who focus primarily on success and performance rather than on the athlete as a whole person.
  • Three risk factors are thought to particularly contribute to a female athlete’s vulnerability to developing an eating disorder: social influences emphasizing thinness, performance anxiety and negative self-appraisal of athletic achievement. A fourth factor is identity solely based on participation in athletics.

Protective Factors for Athletes:

  • Positive, person-oriented coaching style rather than negative, performance-oriented coaching style.
  • Social influence and support from teammates with healthy attitudes towards size and shape.
  • Coaches who emphasize factors that contribute to personal success such as motivation and enthusiasm rather than body weight or shape.
  • Coaches and parents who educate, talk about and support the changing female body.

 

Should You Really Skip Breakfast Before a Workout?

June 6, 2010

Nutrition headlines are notoriously misleading, spinning the latest research to make it seem sexy, new, controversial, or otherwise exciting. One such headline struck me this week “Skip Breakfast Before Exercise to Burn More Fat.” Despite the fact that this report emerged from a recently published study this concept is far from new. This appears to be yet another take on the fat burning myth that has been popular among some personal trainers for over a decade.

The implication of this headline, and the persistent fat-burning myth, is that you can skip breakfast, do your usual workout (meaning you’ll burn the same number of calories) and more of what you burn will be fat.  The reality is that without proper fueling you will not go as intensely (translate: as hard or as fast) therefore you will not burn the same amount of calories. So, more of the calories you burn may be fat calories but in the grand scheme of things if you want to lose weight you want to burn more calories (preferably without sacrificing muscle). For sports performance you probably want to go faster, harder or longer and to build (or at least maintain) muscle mass. Skipping breakfast prior to your usual workout is not likely to help you achieve any of these goals.

Now if you prefer slower exercise that happens to be more in the “fat burning zone” that’s great. Making exercise enjoyable is important for both short term weight loss and long term maintenance of good health. But you will need to exercise longer or more often (translate: longer duration overall) than you will with higher intensity exercise to lose weight or to gain other improvements related to sports performance. Again, not a problem but skipping breakfast is a bad idea if you want to increase the amount of time you exercise, even at a lower intensity. For one thing you’ll get hungry and what’s fun about exercising slowly with lots of time to think about how hungry you are?!

One caveat in the whole fast vs. fed before exercise is that you may not need a big breakfast – or a breakfast at all to sustain a decent workout. A small snack may be plenty, especially if you exercise for an hour or less.  If your exercise of choice includes sprinting or doing laps on hills you may not be able to digest anything solid so some kind of beverage may be all you can tolerate before exercise. There is a lot of individual variation among athletes with respect to optimal fueling. The quality of your workout, as well as how you feel before, during and after your workout, will help you find the best fueling strategy.

If you are a casual exerciser just trying to drop a few pounds I recommend doing whatever makes you feel the best and keeps you motivated for your exercise routine. If you currently don’t eat before you hit the gym and you feel great, have plenty of energy and are meeting your weight loss goals, fine. If not eating makes you think about food the whole time, work out less intensely, for less time or less often you may want to add a snack or small breakfast to fuel your workout.

Do You Need a Sports Drink?

March 30, 2010

Recently I gave a talk to the Seattle Women’s Hockey Club about nutrition for tournament weekends. In preparation for the talk I visited the local REI store to look at various sports products since I am commonly asked what I think about drinks, bars, gels, blocks or nuggets, etc. I must say the variety of products is overwhelming at first. Upon closer inspection however, I realized many of the products are very similar. There are of course “proprietary blends” of both carbohydrate and protein components and quite a bit of hype surrounding maltodextrin, whey protein and various amino acids. In general however, the differences among products don’t seem all that significant (despite marketing propaganda to the contrary!).

So here are a few basic ideas related to sports products.

First, if you are a recreational athlete not in competition or rigorous training, sports products may be helpful but not necessary. If you are sitting at your computer, walking leisurely during a lunch break, or casually riding your cruiser bike to do errands you don’t need a fancy sports drink. If you don’t like plain water the reduced or no-calorie “sports drinks” are fine for these purposes.

If you are doing something high-intensity like fast paced running, sprinting, or cycling for more than an hour then sports drinks can really help. Or if you are playing hockey, soccer or another sprinting sport, a sports drink may help you even if it is less than an hour – especially if you are playing multiple games in a day or consecutive days.

If in these high intensity situations you choose the low- or no-cal beverage you are missing the point. You want carbs during high intensity and/or longer duration activities.

Along these lines, the various electrolyte replacement drinks that do not contain any calories or carbohydrates are not the best choice either. If you sweat a lot (either because it’s hot and humid or you are wearing several added pounds of hockey gear) the electrolytes may be really helpful to replace fluid but you will not “get energy” from these drinks/powders/pills.

Finally, gels or blocks/nuggets do provide carbs for energy during a high intensity sport but you generally need to get enough fluid with them (usually 8 oz. per serving) to prevent gastrointestinal problems. This is fine for longer endurance activities but not practical for many intense sprinting sports when it is difficult to drink enough water. The same for the various bars – they can be great for a quick pre-workout/game snack if you know you can digest them, or afterwards to begin replenishing glycogen within the “magic 15-30 minute window” but not good during an intense bout of activity.