Everyone feels tired from time to time, and exercise can really take it out of you. But it’s all too easy to blame that mid-run fatigue on yesterday’s intense gym class or last Friday’s weights work when, really, something far simpler could be at play. ‘It’s important to take a realistic look at what your training volume has been over the last month and honestly appraise if you’ve given yourself time to rest properly,’ says Emma Barraclough, senior sports nutritionist at Science in Sport (scienceinsport.com). If your recovery regime really is tip-top, consider the other factors – diet and lifestyle – that could be scuppering your stamina. We’ve asked the experts to reveal the everyday niggles that could be stealing your zip. Prepare to get your long-lasting pep back!
THE IRON DIP
Feeling foggy after a long run? It turns out the symptoms of iron deficiency are similar to those of over-training – poor performance, fatigue and a lack of motivation. And girls are at risk. ‘Female athletes are more at risk of iron deficiency anaemia due to several factors including diet, heavy sweating, pregnancy and blood loss through menstruation,’ explains Sally Wisbey, nutritionist. ‘Iron helps transport oxygen throughout your body, carrying it from your lungs to your body’s tissues, so it’s vital that athletes have optimum iron levels.’ As a fitbie, you’re at a greater risk of iron loss – especially if you’re a vegetarian. Even if your iron levels aren’t low enough to make you anaemic, you may still feel the tiring effects of an iron dip. Look to your diet to support your goals.
Eat plenty of iron-rich vegetables – think leafy greens such as kale, plus pumpkin or sesame seeds, lentils, kidney beans and red meat. If your iron levels are very low, consider a supplement such as Spatone (£9.25 for 28 sachets; Boots).
THE CAFFEINE DOWNER
It’s easy to turn to coffee for extra pep, and data even shows that caffeine can play a positive role in improving sports performance. But your daily cup could also be zapping your energy. ‘Caffeine silences tiredness receptors in the brain, stimulates the release of adrenaline from adrenal glands and increases heart rate and blood flow to muscles,’ explains Ella Allred, technical nutritionist at the Nutri Centre. ‘But if the adrenal glands are used excessively, and not well nourished, they can become tired – which makes us tired.’
Sure, caffeine can be useful for energy and sports performance, but you shouldn’t rely on that pre-training espresso! Try occasionally switching to decaffeinated varieties or matcha green tea, which contains less caffeine than coffee.
THE WATER DROUGHT
You expect to feel lethargic at the gym after a busy day but, if exercise feels harder than normal and you can’t suss out why, consider whether you’re sufficiently hydrated. ‘Dehydration limits how well your body can control temperature,’ explains Barraclough. ‘You sweat to lose heat but, if you don’t replace this lost fluid, your peripheral blood flow eventually reduces as your blood volume drops. This causes you to perceive the effort as being harder than it actually is.’
Since a mere two per cent dehydration causes performance to drop, go into every workout topped up with H2O. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends having a drink several hours before exercise to allow for fluid absorption.
THE UNHEALTHY BELLY
Bloated? Cramping? Nausea? Spend enough time jumping, lifting or running and you’ll learn that exercise can play havoc with your tummy. And an upset gut could make you feel tired. ‘Those with an imbalanced gut flora tend to experience more fatigue,’ says Natalie Lamb, nutritional therapist. ‘A number of factors can compromise optimal balance, including stress, travel or a period of unhealthy nutrition, and tiredness can often be seen in those with inflammatory digestive problems such as constipation or irritable bowel syndrome.’
People with a healthy gut experience less bloating and more energy. If your tummy’s playing up, consider what you’re eating and whether you’re stressed. If need be, help the microflora in your gut by consuming fermented foods or taking a probiotic supplement, such as Bio-Kult (£9.49 for 30 capsules; Boots), each day.
THE IMMUNE SLUMP
Feeling zonked after that 10-mile run? We’ve all been there! But if your body’s taking longer than normal to recover, something else might be the problem. Perhaps you’ve caught a cold – or are about to experience one – or maybe you’re super-stressed from work. Whatever the trigger, your body doesn’t perform as well when its immune system is compromised. ‘Your recovery period will be extended if your immune system isn’t functioning properly,’ reveals Barraclough. ‘And this will impair endurance performance.’
If you’re feeling fatigued without due cause, reduce the intensity and duration of your workouts until you feel better. A complete recovery day may even be in order – after all, you’ll only compromise your immune system further if you don’t give it the opportunity to bounce back.