How To Spot The Signs Of Under-Fuelling In Cyclists?

Apr 26, 2024

Eating enough energy (in the form of kcals) to meet your daily needs is the single most important aspect of your diet for maintaining your health and optimising your performance.

Dietary aspects such as getting the right amount of macro and micronutrients, meal timings and supplements are much less important in the grand scheme compared to simply eating enough energy.

Energy availability refers to the energy left over when you’ve factored in the energy cost of exercise to support normal physiological function. These are processes like growth and repair (key for long-term training adaptation and performance improvement), digestion, immunity, temperature regulation, and reproduction.

Without enough energy availability, many of these key processes can be negatively impacted, and, in the long term, this can lead us to develop relative energy deficiency in sports (REDs). This can have catastrophic effects on both our health and performance.

High energy expenditures from heavy training can often make eating sufficient energy to meet one's daily needs challenging. Our appetite doesn’t closely track our requirements during heavy training (have you ever finished a huge ride and just not been hungry?). For many athletes, the logistics of preparing and eating enough food around a busy training schedule, full-time job, and family life can also make it difficult.

Eating enough also requires a good knowledge and understanding of your nutrition needs, which is a skill in itself and takes time to develop. This is one of the key reasons we set up Fuel the Ride Academy and a key topic we cover within it.

There can be a number of key red flags that can strongly indicate that you may be in a state of low energy availability (and, as such, under fuelling your training) or are beginning to develop relative energy deficiency in sport (REDs).

  1. Loss of menstrual cycle - In adult female athletes who are not taking hormonal contraceptives, a loss of a period(s), is the most significant indicator of low energy availability. If you don’t have sufficient energy availability to support reproduction, then the body will conserve energy by shutting down processes related to reproduction. A loss of a few consecutive periods is enough to warrant seeking professional help. If you use hormonal contraceptives, this can mask the loss of a period as a result of under fuelling.

  2. Low Sex Drive – In male athletes, a loss of sex drive and a lack of morning erections are key signs of low energy availability. These symptoms are closely related to low testosterone, which is a key symptom of under fuelling.

Alongside these key red flags, several other symptoms can indicate that you may be under fuelling… 

  1. Lack of training progression – If you’re training hard, but appear to have stalled in terms of performance gains or even noticing a drop in performance after a training block.
  2. Increased illness and injury – If you’re losing a lot of training days due to illness and injury.
  3. Poor recovery - If you’re simply not recovering well between sessions.
  4. Decreased motivation – If you’ve noticed a drop in your general well-being, are more irritable and depressed, have noticed a general drop in your mood, have reduced your social interaction or are generally an emotional liability whilst training hard.
  5. Decrease cognitive performance – i.e. reduced reaction time and poor  judgement and coordination and concentration.
  6. Reduced performance on the bike.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and given the wide-reaching effects that low energy availability can have on an array of different body systems, it often requires professional input and further assessment to determine if you have developed REDs, but these are certain indicators that you may not be fuelling your training enough.

A common misconception is that if an athlete hasn’t lost weight, then this can be a sign that they are eating enough. This isn’t the case and being weight stable, can still be a sign of under fuelling due to the downregulation of non essential processes (like reproduction) that occurs when we don’t have sufficient energy coming in. For example, a key indicator of under-fuelling can be less than expected resting metabolic rate (i.e. the energy we need at rest).

Alongside the signs and symptoms, we may see as a result of under fuelling, there can also be a number of key red flags in terms of eating behaviours that may pre dispose an athlete to not eating enough to meet their needs, particularly during

  1. Extended periods of fasting – If you go long periods of the day without eating, it is likely to lead to periods of significant low energy intake and therefore low energy availability.
  2. Excluding foods groups – cutting out large food groups from your diet (without medical reason i.e. cutting out gluten for celiac disease) such as carbohydrates, grains, dairy or adapting a vegetarian/vegan approach can make it harder to eat enough.
  3. Poor fuelling around training – As athletes, we can expend huge amount of energy around training, often without eating a lot. Poor intakes of carbohydrate in the period before, during and immediately after training
  4. Avoiding sugar/processed foods – Whilst limiting sugar intake and reducing processed food intake can be beneficial for improving health in non active individuals, applying this advice to athletes with heavy training loads, can make it hard to eat enough and therefore be detrimental to health.

If you’re not eating enough to support your training, then this is exactly where you should be putting your attention as an athlete. Performance, recovery and adaptation all require energy. A key part of Fuel The Ride Academy is to educate you on how to best fuel your training.

Coach Ben

If you're a road, mountain bike, gravel or track cyclist and want to take your performance and physique to the next level...let the FTR coaches show you exactly how to achieve this inside the Fuel The Ride Academy.

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