Off-season has arrived and you’ve reached a well deserved break from your vigorous training. You enjoy more time with your family, the holidays aren’t filled with stress about having to get your workouts in, and you notice you feel more energized. These are all great things about the off-season … until you step on the scale. You’ve put on weight and you begin to panic: “How am I going to get back into shape with this extra weight?” or “I am so irresponsible for overeating and consuming foods that I normally wouldn’t.” You regret letting yourself slip a little and worry that next season will be more difficult than the last because of this slight gain in weight.
But if you’re an athlete–especially endurance–the reality is that you probably are pushing your body and weight to limits that can’t be or shouldn’t be sustained year round. There is a clear advantage to becoming lean and light during the on-season. Staying on top of hydration, nutrition, sleep and training is a big task, let alone keeping up with your relationships and work. Disciplining yourself to be in the best shape you can muster is not a bad thing, but it becomes extremely taxing year in and year out.
The off-season serves as a time to reset and give yourself a break physically, mentally and emotionally. By focusing on recovery, you can re-enter the on-season feeling refreshed and actually stronger. Pushing too hard too often results in burn out, malnutrition, chronic fatigue and hormonal imbalances.
It’s not uncommon for athletes who are at the very top of their field to suddenly drop off and disappear. Kyle Skaggs, Anton Krupicka, Mike Wolfe, and other ultra running athletes, have had this experience.1 It’s an odd phenomenon that scientists call “overtraining syndrome.” There isn’t a clear explanation as to what happens in the body, but in Kyle’s case, he went from winning the Hardrock 100 to barely being able to run at all. Surely this could have come from overtraining, but overtraining itself can occur from not just running too much, but from undereating as well. What if Kyle ate more? What if he took his off-season more seriously? Pushing your body too hard too often is risky business and can literally end your athletic career.
So how can you know that you’ve gone too far and your weight is putting you at risk? Let’s first talk about RED-S, or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport. This term essentially means that you are simply not eating enough to not only recover, but to maintain normal bodily functions. The Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is a measurement to know how many calories you burn at rest per day. These essential calories are responsible for allowing chemical processes to take place in the body. Just living without any physical activity takes quite a few calories. When athletes burn several thousand calories per day on top of their BMR needs, it can be difficult to eat enough. When a big enough deficit is created day after day, all systems of the body can become affected.
The nervous system and endocrine system become overtaxed and the sympathetic nervous system becomes more active.2 The sympathetic nervous system is a stressed state for the body. When you get scared or run really fast, this system comes on board. We can all recognize when the sympathetic nervous system comes online. We feel alert, our heart rate increases, and we may even sweat a little.
The hormones that are involved in this response are epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine and cortisol. These hormones aren’t designed to be pumped out all day. They are “emergency” hormones. Because the body perceives a threat by way of the sympathetic nervous system being activated, in this case, by being deprived of nutrients and calories, blood flows to the most important organs, and other important functions become secondary. The hypothalamus is responsible for signaling this emergency response to the adrenal glands, and it is also responsible for signaling hormone production. So while the hypothalamus is working full-time to signal for this stress response, there is less hormone production happening. In women, amenorrhea, or missing your period, is a clear sign. In men, one sign is less erections in the morning.3,4
Staying healthy doesn’t mean staying your leanest at all times. In fact, consistently reduced body weight can lead to performance decline and cause serious health issues in the long run. Giving your body a time to rest and recover between reduced training load and eating more calories and nutrient rich foods could improve your training and increase your longevity in sport.
- Brown M. Running on Empty. Outside Online. https://www.outsideonline.com/1986361/running-empty#close. Published June 12, 2015. Accessed February 23, 2021.
- De Souza MJ, Koltun KJ, Williams NI. The Role of Energy Availability in Reproductive Function in the Female Athlete Triad and Extension of its Effects to Men: An Initial Working Model of a Similar Syndrome in Male Athletes. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6901401/. Published December 2019. Accessed February 23, 2021.
- Christo K, Prabhakaran R, Lamparello B, et al. Bone metabolism in adolescent athletes with amenorrhea, athletes with eumenorrhea, and control subjects. Pediatrics. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3208310/. Published June 2008. Accessed February 23, 2021.
- Narla A, Kaiser K, Tannock LR. EXTREMELY LOW TESTOSTERONE DUE TO RELATIVE ENERGY DEFICIENCY IN SPORT: A CASE REPORT. AACE clinical case reports. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6873856/. Published November 1, 2018. Accessed February 23, 2021.