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Why eating enough when exercising is so important

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A female boxer, Tiana Echegaray, practices shadow boxing in the ring while training.

Knowing what to eat, how much to eat, and when can be a challenge for most people.

But for athletes of all levels, it can be even more difficult and many experience a common problem.

“Before I went to a nutritionist, I was definitely lacking energy,” Australian 54kg boxing champion Tiana Echegaray told ABC Sport.

“I was trying to control my weight. I was just training, very dehydrated, fatigued, I was lacking a lot of energy in my sessions.

“I was focused on work… and I thought if I feel so bad, it’s because I’m not working hard enough.”

Echegaray only started playing sports in 2019, but after connecting with a sports dietitian, he began to understand proper nutrition.

It has allowed him to reach his full potential and he will make his Olympic debut in Paris.

Fill your bucket

“Lack of fuel or insufficient total energy consumption to meet demands is probably one of the key problems I see in all athletes,” New South Wales Institute of Sports sports dietician Holly Edstein told ABC Sport. .

“That’s where education about how much they need to eat to meet their total health and sports demands is really important.”

Echegaray will make his Olympic debut in Paris.(ABC Sports: Amanda Shalala)

Edstein says the easiest way to understand how much you need to eat is to imagine a bucket full of food, and as you use energy throughout the day, you’re taking food out of the bucket.

“What’s left in that bucket at the end of the day, after all the training and competition has been accounted for, is what’s left for normal physiological functioning,” he said.

“And when there’s not enough left in the bucket, something has to give.

“And that’s where athletes can experience things like irregular menstrual cycles, compromised bone health and stress fractures, iron deficiency, gastrointestinal symptoms and poor immune function.”

These symptoms are due to low energy availability, which can then lead to a relative energy deficiency in sport.

Edstein says it can affect all athletes, regardless of gender, although women are more likely to be iron deficient and some of the warning signs, such as irregular menstrual cycles, are easier to spot.

Find the right information

While elite athletes generally have access to sports dietitians, for sub-elite, recreational, and younger athletes, it is much more difficult to find the right information.

“When I was between 16 and 21, I was very strict with the carbs I put in my body,” Sydney Flames guard Vanessa Panousis said.

“Actually, it didn’t really work for me.

Sydney Flames basketball player Vanessa Panousis is ready to shoot the ball.

Sydney Flames player Vanessa Panousis has realized the importance of integrating carbohydrates into her diet.(ABC Sports: Amanda Shalala)

“There are so many negative connotations about carbs: they’ll make you fat, they’ll make you bloated, they’ll make you bloated.

“Where, in fact, it really helps with recovery.”

Cronulla Sharks player and NRLW Indigenous All Stars captain Quincy Dodd says she has learned how much she needs to eat, depending on her training or playing load.

Rugby league player Quincy Dodd, wearing a Sharks NRLW jersey, poses smiling at the camera holding a ball.

Sharks NRLW player Quincy Dodd wants younger players to be educated on proper nutrition. (ABC Sports: Amanda Shalala)

“That probably doesn’t apply to all age groups in rugby league,” he said.

“I know some of these younger girls have no idea what to eat on game day or what to have for breakfast, but when they educate themselves, their performance will be much better.”

Edstein says eating a variety of foods and key nutrients is also essential.

“Ensuring they eat enough carbohydrates to fuel their training sessions, enough protein to support muscle repair and recovery, adequate fiber for gut health, good amounts of healthy fats for hormone production and vitamin absorption,” he said.

“And then we can break it down further into micronutrients, ensuring adequate amounts of iron, vitamin D, calcium, zinc and folate.”

making weight

There are particular challenges faced by athletes who play weight-based sports.

Echegaray says it’s essential to stay true to your weight class, even outside of competition.

A close-up of a boxer's white boxing gloves as they train in the ring.

Athletes who play weight-based sports, such as boxing, face additional challenges around nutrition. (ABC Sports: Amanda Shalala)

“When I’m trying to lose weight and reduce my calories, I just follow an eating plan,” she said.

“I’m trying to get organized every week, doing a lot of meal prepping and sticking to particular portion sizes.

“You don’t want the fight to be… against the scale, you want the fight to be about the fight itself and what you’re going to do in the ring.”

Edstein says any athlete looking to lose weight should seek advice from an accredited sports dietitian.

“That way they can get an assessment, intervention and education tailored to their specific needs and the context of that athlete,” he said.

“I really strongly discourage athletes from seeking generalized advice on the Internet.

“There can be high quality advice and there can be not so good quality advice on the Internet.

“And often this not-so-good advice can do more harm than good and have some really negative consequences for health and performance.”

A boxer, Tiana Echegaray, jumps and looks down while training in the gym.

Echegaray tries to stay close to his 54kg weight class at all times.(ABC Sports: Amanda Shalala)

Echegaray admits that in sports like boxing there is a danger of developing an unhealthy relationship with food.

“Because if we constantly count calories and keep them in mind, we become very obsessive about everything we eat,” he said.

“It can definitely have a negative effect on the mental health of a lot of people in boxing.

“I think I’ve done it pretty well. The most important thing is to communicate how you feel… because you’ll find that a lot of people in the sport have experienced the same thing.”

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