What triathletes are wrong about energy availability

What triathletes are wrong about energy availability

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Most triathletes love to eat, and many of us consider it a hobby when we’re not swimming, biking, and running to a finish line. Destination races are often chosen based on their ability to be considered a “race-cation” due to lively social gatherings, appetizing meals, delicious libations, and incredible sights. Although calorie consumption is more complex than simply providing energy for the body to function physiologically, many athletes intentionally or unintentionally adjust calorie (energy) intake, resulting in decreased body weight or body composition. Do athletes competing in triathlons and other sports have these same fluctuations in energy expenditure and energy intake from pre-season to post-season? In a new study, Jesus et al. (2022) examined energy expenditure and energy intake in various weightless and weight-sensitive sports over an athletic season during the preparatory phase and the main stage of competition to compare and contrast these values ​​over the course of the season and between the types of sport.

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What is energy availability?

Energy availability (EA) is the difference between energy intake and energy expenditure relative to lean body mass (FFM), as defined by Locks and Thuma in 2003. Through decades of research, it has been recognized that maintaining optimal EE is essential to the health and performance of active individuals. When EA is unsupported and energy intake does not match energy expenditure, low EA is associated with negative consequences, including implications for altered hormonal profiles, impaired function of reproduction and a decrease in bone mineral density. The difficulty lies in quantifying low EA, which in many studies is assessed through athletes’ food diaries. These diaries are considered “self-reports” and can easily be biased towards overestimating or underestimating energy intake. Along with the assessment of energy intake, body composition and activity energy expenditure must be assessed to accurately address the FFM part of the equation and calculate EA. Measurements of body composition and energy expenditure should use an appropriate methodology that is accurate but also reliable and specific for calculating EA.

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Comparison of the energy availability of triathlon with other sports

The original data for this research was collected by Silva et al. (2017). In a secondary analysis, Jesus et al. (2022) analyzed 88 athletes (27% women) for the EA of basketball, handball, volleyball, swimming and triathlon in the preparatory phase and 56 athletes (30.4% women) in the same sports for EA during the middle part of the competitive phase of a sports season. Inclusion criteria for participation included the following:

  1. Training more than 10 hours per week,
  2. A negative test for performance-enhancing drugs,
  3. The athletes did not take any medications or dietary supplements.
  4. Female athletes were excluded if they were taking oral contraceptives or if they did not have a regular menstrual cycle (28 ± 7 days).

Body composition (fat mass and FFM) was assessed by a four-compartment model including doubly labeled water to assess total energy expenditure while resting energy expenditure was determined by indirect calorimetry. EE was based on energy intake minus estimated energy expenditure divided by FFM. Three levels of EA have been defined, including 1. Clinically low EA (<30 kcal/kg FFM), 2. Subclinical low EA (30-40 kcal/kg FFM for men or 30-45 kcal/kg FFM for women) and 3. Optimal EE (>40 kcal/kg FFM for males and >45 kcal/kg FFM for females).

The results suggest that in all types of sports, participants increased their AE values ​​from the preparatory part of the season to the competition phase, including 14% in basketball, 41.1% in handball, 16, 3% in volleyball, 18.3% in swimming and 29.3% in triathlon. A lower AE was observed at both measurement points for triathletes compared to other sports. Triathlon is considered a weight-sensitive sport due to the lower body weight during cycling and running, which produces an advantageous power-to-weight ratio. During the preparatory phase, 11 (12.5%) athletes from all sports were classified as having clinically mild EA, 25 (28.4%) as mild subclinical EA and 52 (59.1%) as optimal AE. However, based on the competition phase measure, no athlete in any sport was classified as clinically weak EA, 11 (19.6%) were categorized as subclinical weak EA, and 45 (80 .4%) were considered to reach an optimal level of EA.

One of the reasons for improved EA throughout the season may be related to what an athlete perceives as a negative result of increased body weight during the off-season. During the transition to the preparatory phase, athletes can manipulate weight and body composition by creating a more extreme calorie deficit. If an athlete is too rigid with these strategies, the unexpected result could be a low EA.

In contrast, during the competitive season, athletes may be more aware of the importance of performance fueling strategies that require additional energy at critical times (such as during exercise recovery) and a overall energy intake that results in better practices and workouts. . It should be noted that handball players, who experienced the greatest increase in EA from suboptimal to optimal over the sports season, did not experience a significant change in fat mass, but experienced a significant increase in bone mineral density. Finally, the triathletes in the study experienced significant metabolic adaptation or resting energy expenditure, which reduced metabolic activity for the purpose of energy conservation.

The bottom line

Although it may be tempting after the off-season to reduce your calorie intake and try to lose unwanted body weight quickly, a more pragmatic and practical approach for triathletes is to include a slight calorie deficit while keeping protein at a minimum. 1.6-2.0 g/kg body weight is advised for triathletes. Additionally, knowing the acute and long-term negative physiological consequences of low EA should deter athletes from going overboard and depriving their bodies of much-needed calories and nutrients, which could ultimately cause adaptations. unwanted metabolic processes when the body tries to conserve energy.

The goal of educational programs and health practitioners should be to increase awareness of the importance of adequate EA throughout the season to meet the energy and micronutrient needs of healthy and happy triathletes.

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Kim Schwabenbauer, PhD, RD, CSSD, LDN, is a former professional triathlete turned dietitian, teacher, consultant, speaker, and triathlon coach with a focus on overall health, wellness, and sports nutrition.

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