Energy for Running

sarah cuff Running Performance, Training 5 Comments

Aside from performance goals that my clients come to me with and I hear about from runners I give talks, seminars and workshops to, the goal of increasing energy levels is nearly always on their list of desired results. A need for more energy. Sound familiar?

Lacking energy in general, wishing for more energy during runs and workouts, feeling depleted mid-afternoon and skipping evening workouts due to exhaustion… What is it that we must do to boost our energy levels once and for all?!!

When it comes to running (and any exercise for that matter), the answer is simple. Carbohydrates fuel running. Glucose (derived from carbohydrates) is the energy of life – it is what every cell in our body uses to produce energy. Unfortunately not all that energy is then transferred into power – we are about 20% efficient in converting the energy created by the carbohydrates we eat into actual power. The rest is released as heat (aka sweat!!). There is a genetic component to efficiency, but as you train you become more efficient, and efficient athletes can go farther off of less fuel because less is lost as heat.

It’s true that fatty acids can also be converted to glucose (and fat-loading can train the body to increase fat oxidation), however the body prefers to draw from muscle glycogen, which is the storage form of carbohydrates. If we are ‘fat-adapted’ we may be able to exercise longer than otherwise – but regardless, if we haven’t eaten enough carbohydrates before going out for that run, we just won’t have the power we have when we have full glycogen stores.

All that to say, it’s really important to go into your workouts with muscle glycogen stores that have been topped up eating carbohydrate prior to exercising. If you don’t you’ll likely struggle through your workout. Anyone who’s tried completing their runs while fat-loading or first thing in the morning without eating anything prior knows exactly what this feels like – your body will adapt to a certain degree, but you’ll never have the same power you’d have going in well fuelled. This Top 8 Pre-Run Snacks blogpost gives you a few ideas of what you might reach for before heading out.

However, we all know that sometimes it doesn’t matter if we eat carbs before working out or not – we’re just plain flat out tired. If we know we’re eating enough carbohydrates to fill our glycogen stores but are still experiencing fatigue, what else should we do? Here’s a list of other reasons you may be experiencing fatigue and a few tips to combat fatigue stemming from these issues.

1. Excess Inflammation in the Body.

We know that low-level ongoing inflammation can eventually lead to diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other chronic diseases. Newer evidences tells us that inflammation is behind chronic fatigue syndrome, depression and general fatigue. And this 2008 study links chronic gut inflammation with fatigue (as well as IBS). Among other things, this means that any food sensitivities (which inevitably cause gut inflammation) must be addressed in order to alleviate the systemic and chronic inflammation.

There are many, many non-nutritional things that will increase inflammation in the body including stress and lack of sleep, as well as many nutritional things such as consuming excess sugar and too many processed cooking oils or not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids.

This blogpost Speed Healing and Prevent Injury talks a lot about nutritional anti-inflammatory strategies, and this one Foods Runners Should Avoid talks about which inflammatory foods to avoid.

2. Low Iron Levels.

Iron-deficiency anemia can happen to any runner – while females tend to be more at risk, researchers have found that iron levels in vegetarians and non-vegetarians are very similar.  If you suspect low iron levels, you must visit your doctor to determine whether or not this is the case – only a blood test will show you for sure. If diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia your doctor will recommend a supplement to bring your levels back to normal (typically takes between 2-6 months to regain normal levels). This Boost Your Iron Levels Permanently blogpost gives you nutritional strategies to keep your iron levels up. Eat2Run client Ally Ginther applied these principles and experienced fantastic results!

3. Not enough good rest. 

Seriously (haha surprise!) – in order to have good energy, you must get good sleep. Enough sleep allows your body to rest and repair and strengthens your immune system.

There are certain phases we go through as we sleep when our bodies release hormones, such as melatonin which controls our sleep-wake cycles and Growth Hormone (GH). GH is known to be critical for tissue repair, muscle growth, healing, brain function, physical and mental health, bone strength, energy and metabolism. It is often referred to as the “fountain of youth”.

The prime hours for rest and repair are said to be between 10pm and 2am as this is when the highest amounts of melatonin and GH are secreted (although technically, release is dependent on the circadian rhythm of our body’s internal clock). However, artificial light (from TV, computer or even a bright alarm clock) can disrupt the release of melatonin.

Sleep Guidelines:

  • Adults require between 7-9 hours of sleep per night (more for athletes);
  • Try to get to bed by 10:00pm (teens are naturally on a later circadian rhythm so tend to choose later bedtimes);
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed as they are known to interfere with sleep and/or reduce amount of key hormones released;
  • Sleep in complete darkness and try to avoid bright lights and computer or TV screens 1 hour before bed.

4. Deficiencies in Key Nutrients (other than Iron).

If you find yourself eating out a lot, choosing many pre-packaged foods and generally not eating very many ‘green’ foods, you may be missing out on key nutrients such as potassium, the B-vitamins, zinc and key antioxidant vitamins (A, C, E). This blogpost Why You Probably Want to be Eating more Nutrient-Dense Foods covers off key nutrient-dense foods you are best off eating more of if looking to boost your energy levels.

5. Consumption of too Much Sugar, Caffeine or Alcohol

Sugar and caffeine tend to be substances we reach for when looking for a quick energy boost, but they often are only making the problem worse. The quick boost is followed by a crash and chronic release of hormones in reaction to these substances, such as insulin and cortisol, can eventually cause problems such as blood sugar issues or adrenal fatigue (constant stress can also lead to adrenal fatigue). Conversely, alcohol is often reached for in order to help relax and unwind from a stressful day, but then ends up disrupting our sleep cycle, only adding to the problem of chronic fatigue.

6. Medical Conditions.

There are medical conditions such as thyroid problems, diabetes, depression and heart conditions that can cause chronic fatigue. If you’ve addressed the issues above but are still struggling with fatigue, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor about the possibility of any underlying medical condition.

I know the struggle for energy. Before I began eating2run I was tired… All. The. Time. I still experience fatigue now and again – but these days I’m able to quickly remedy it as I’m able to quickly point out the cause. My favourite fatigue causing downfall? Constantly skipping out on enough sleep! Seriously, why are there not more hours in the day?!! 😉

To deliciously healthy food and stronger faster running… Cheers,


Sarah J Cuff, RHN

Image 4_2PS. I’ve mentioned client success story Devon McGuire before, but I wanted to point her out again, because now after just over 12 months of eating2run, she is doing better than ever!! In fact, she has set PB’s in nearly every distance, crossed the finish line as first overall female in a local 5km race, shaved 10 minutes off her half marathon time, and best of all? Just last month, she took 23 minutes off her previous marathon PB, finishing with a 3:32:05 – which qualified her for the Boston Marathon!! And now? Devon is now joining the Eat2Run team as an educator – she began studying nutrition last year and can’t wait to share her knowledge, recipes and experiences with you right here via the Eat2Run blog!!

Comments 5

  1. Great post Sarah! I just have to work on getting my baby to sleep, so I can get some as well! At least eating according to your plan (including a daily green smoothie) seem to keep my energy levels high as a new mom. It’s my “eat to mom” plan! 🙂

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      Thanks Julie! Aww, well, you’ve got the best excuse possible for not quite getting enough sleep! But solid nutrition at least absolutely helps offset some of the stress of missed sleep, you rock! Your “eat to mom” plan, I love it 🙂

  2. I’m really enjoying your blogs and obtaining so much useful info… Now to hit all the interesting links! I definitely want more energy to improve my running, sleep is another tricky one!

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  3. Pingback: Cordyceps for Energy & Running Performance | Eat 2 Run

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