Ryan Kohler’s Guide to Efficient Fueling & Nutrition
What is Low Energy Availability?
As endurance athletes, we’ve all experienced those days that seem to drag on, our body’s feeling dead tired and our legs feel like lead. But have you ever asked yourself why this is happening? Well, the answer might be Low Energy Availability (or LEA for short), which is the amount of energy left over once we account for exercise. Today, we’re going to talk about how to gather the data to help you spot the problem of low energy availability and go through some solutions that can help you reverse it.
LEA occurs when there’s a mismatch between your energy output and your energy intake. I see this many times in endurance athletes that claim to be eating very cleanly. This is good, because they’re eating a lot of high quality foods. But, oftentimes what they’re missing are those calorie-dense foods that are going to help them meet their energy needs.
What Do Daily Energy Deficits Look Like?
Let’s take this athlete, for example (see video above at 01:04), and look at how they manage their input and output over a week’s time. The blue bars below zero are showing a deficit and the blue bars above zero are showing an excess. Take note of how this athlete is creating small daily energy deficits over the course of this week. How many of us continue to do the same intensity or the same volume of training in the face of an energy deficit? Now, what happens when this deficit accumulates over a much longer period of time?
Take note of this orange line, which shows the cumulative deficit as the athlete fails to restore energy balance on a daily basis. This problem is only a week in the making. Many endurance athletes make the mistake of repeating this cycle for weeks and months at a time, digging a huge hole that’s very difficult to climb out of.
How to Measure and Make Sure You Restore Your Energy Balance
So, let’s map this out with three key things to measure and record:
- Metabolic rate
This is the amount of energy your body needs per day to carry out the basic functions of life, such as keeping the heart beating, the brain sending signals, etc. You can do this with standard equations that will get you a close estimate, or you can come in to a physiological lab where we can do this with the metabolic cart and get a more accurate number for you.
If you watch our recent workshop on portion sizes, you can get a pretty close estimate that way, or you can record your intake on many of the popular nutrition apps. Bonus, we have a workshop on that as well.
- Daily Activity Level (not including exercise)
Are you primarily a desk jockey? Or are you on your feet most of the day with a lot of additional movement?
Let’s start with the standard 20% and add that to our RMR. Once you have your intake and your expenditure data, you can now see what kind of daily deficits you are running. I like to start looking at the big weekly picture initially, and only drill down to the daily view if necessary. In this athlete’s example, we see only one day of the week that has a caloric excess. Beyond that point, you can see where the deficit occurs, and accumulates for the remaining days.
How to Fix an Energy Deficit
To fix this, it requires us to look at two things:
We need to create a modest reduction in our energy output so we can start to get this energy deficit back under control.
Strive to increase your intake by about half of your deficit. Make this a small, but manageable change. I generally have athletes start somewhere between plus and minus 250 calories a day.
Finally, keep a diary or track your intake just like you do with your training. In working with athletes, I like to have them focus on the smallest possible changes they can make over the longest possible time period. Otherwise, it becomes too easy to start micromanaging your daily intake, and this just turns into a game of Whack-a-Mole. Give this process about two weeks initially, and then take a break. Unlike training where we may have longer training blocks of three or four weeks at a time, I find that nutrition training works better in smaller chunks. Be sure to use your training calendar to keep notes so that you can track your progress and your goals. Don’t let your training and racing suffer due to LEA.
Properly fill your tank with the high octane fuel that it needs so you can match your intake with your training. If this workshop has been helpful, be sure to check out our Sports Nutrition Pathway, which contains valuable information on getting your nutrition and your fueling dialed for performance. If that sounds like too much work, let us help you out. Book a Nutrition Console at fasttalklabs.com to troubleshoot any fueling issues. We’re here to make you fast!