The low body-fat levels of elite distance runners are primarily a result of genetics and high-volume training. However, even elite runners— males and females, Caucasian and East African—eat carefully to ensure that they stay in shape. They may further fine-tune their body weight/ body-fat levels as they peak for special races. Dedicated weight/fat loss may also be needed on an athlete’s return after the off-season or after a period of injury.
Many recreational runners also need to reduce body-fat levels—in fact, many people take up running in order to lose weight. Dietary measures can assist this process as well as improving running performance. Regardless of the caliber of the athlete or the starting point for weight loss, the processes should be the same. The first step is to set a realistic target—a body-fat level that will support good health as well as good performance, and that can be achieved and maintained with a sound diet and a sensible workload. You can find more information about this in Chapter 3
Fat phobias and the female athlete triad
For some runners, particularly females, setting and achieving a desirable body-fat level is difficult. Many female runners set unrealistic targets— either to get below their natural body-fat levels or to lose weight too fast.
This can result in a cycle of frustration and further trouble. Remember that the female body is designed to carry a higher level of fat than the male body. An athlete can afford to create only a certain energy deficit before she runs into the problems of low energy availability. In studies, many female runners report a surprisingly low intake of kilojoules— less than you would expect for the training they do.
It’s not that they don’t enjoy eating. In fact, many spend hours each day thinking about food. Sometimes the discrepancy occurs because they underreport or underestimate what they really eat. But often they do need to restrict energy intake far more than their male colleagues to keep their weight down to what they regard as appropriate levels. Often the situation becomes progressively worse—the more they restrict their intake, the less they need to eat. Chapter 3.5 explains the concept of restrained eating