When it comes to nutrition in the case of overtraining, it’s most important to eat real, whole foods. The long rest periods that come with a diagnosis of overtraining syndrome (OTS) are fraught with hours of boredom and restlessness. It’s very easy to think one is hungry to fill the void, and of course we all go for simple carbohydrates and sugary foods when our energy is low.
Instead of filling that void with fatty and highly processed items like fried foods, cakes, cookies, donuts, pastries, and sugary beverages, larger portions of more healthful foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, liquid fats, avocados, nuts and seeds, and beans should be utilized to avoid cravings for simple carbohydrates and sweets.
As far as caloric intake goes, there are two sides to the coin in OTS. On the one hand, an athlete may be used to consuming large amounts of calories during peak training, and will need to significantly lower caloric intake during the prolonged rest period that accompanies OTS to avoid weight gain.
Yet on the other hand, a common symptom of OTS is lack of appetite and interest in food. In that regard, it’s important for an overtrained athlete to carefully balance caloric needs with the right amount of healthy foods to avoid weight gain and the effects of high sugar, processed junk foods on OTS recovery.
If you’re having trouble eating enough calories, try:
- Eating smaller, more frequent meals
- Adding calorically dense foods like avocados, nut butters, olive oil and dried fruit
- Getting most of your fluids in between meals rather than during to prevent early satiety
- Add a nutritional beverage or smoothie between meals – they’re easier to digest
Eating the right types of foods is an important consideration in OTS. Nutritionally dense foods will help the body recover; make sure your meals are comprised of the following:
Protein foods provide building blocks for rebuilding muscles after workouts. Animal protein foods provide all of the essential amino acids (building blocks) while plant protein foods may lack in some of those building blocks. In addition, a larger amount of plant protein foods may be required to get enough building blocks to fulfill the need for complete proteins.
The richest sources of lean animal protein include chicken breast, turkey breast, eggs, greek yogurt, sirloin, pork loin, or ground meats that are > 93% lean. Excellent plant based proteins include beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, quinoa, and hemp seeds. By eating a variety of plant based sources of protein combined with other foods like grains and dairy, you’ll get all of the essential building blocks for muscle rebuilding.
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred energy source. When we eat carbohydrates (not in excess), the energy they provide is used to produce a readily available form of energy known as glycogen, which is stored in the liver and muscles. Glycogen fuels us when we haven’t eaten in several hours, or during endurance training.
Because of the latest diet trends, many athletes are avoiding carbohydrates out of fears that they cause weight gain. It is true that excess carbohydrates are converted to fat for storage, but the truth is excess anything, carbohydrates, fat, protein, or alcohol, can cause weight gain. There is no reason carbohydrates in the proper amounts should be feared by athletes.
Choose good, quality carbohydrates like oatmeal and berries for breakfast, beans with lunch, banana and peanut butter for snack, and quinoa and/or roasted sweet potatoes on the side with dinner. Simple carbohydrate foods like cakes, cookies, donuts, and white bread will spike insulin and promote fat storage in overtraining syndrome if not burned during exercise!
If you’re suffering from overtraining syndrome and struggling with making the best dietary choices to improve/speed recovery from OTS, contact a registered dietitian to get a more personalized approach. Until then, really focus on eating a well-balanced, mainly whole food diet that is rich in plant foods and adequate in calories – you’ll be glad you did as your energy improves!