General dietary advice and athletic performance, why the two don’t mix.

We live in a society that is getting incrementally fatter.  Statistically, more people are obese than ever before. The general population is sedentary or does a minimal amount of movement every day.

To counter this, there is a dizzying amount of diet advice around. In popular outlets this is mostly targeting the general reader – a person who can be assumed to be relatively sedentary. The current craze for counting steps taken in a day illustrates this. Somehow it has entered popular consciousness that if you take 10,000 steps per day (as measured by an often inaccurate pedometer or fitness tracker), you are “active”. But this is a meaningless measure. 10,000 steps per day is a baseline minimum, especially if these steps are simple walking. Anyway, I digress.

Dietary advice in the general media is aimed at people for whom 10,000 steps per day is an achievement. It is aimed at people whose energy output is minimal. All diets or “lifestyle” changes work by cutting the number of calories consumed. For people who are generally inactive, or whose activity is limited, calorie restriction is the only thing that does work for weight control.

For athletes, the story is rather different. It is vital that an energy balance is established that a) fuels the performance goals of the athlete, and b) maintains a body composition that enhances the athlete’s ability to fulfill those goals. As such, most general dietary advice is hopeless. But it is so difficult to avoid, as there is a constant hum of noise around food, diets, weight loss and misinformation around, especially on social media. The trend for people to share photos of their food is a good example. A small plate of fish and vegetables might be perfect for a sedentary 5’6 woman. An athlete of the same height and gender, who might have expended an additional 1,500 calories over their TDEE, could easily see that and jump to the conclusion that such a portion is correct for them also. Or they might then berate themselves for not being able to survive on a similar portion of food.

In general, most sedentary people probably could do with eating less over the course of a week. In comparison, most athletic people probably could eat smarter than they do, and this could mean eating a total of more calories than they currently do, especially if their performances are suffering or if they often report feeling under fueled or lethargic. Being caught in the swirl of diet talk does not help athletes, as their needs are completely different from those of the modern general population. The sedentary lives and obesity that cause so much suffering among the general population have become a default position when discussing food and diets, and it is hard for an athlete to learn what is normal for them, when their way of life is increasingly abnormal in society. It is a problem.


My story of injury and overtraining and what I have learned

A year ago, at the London Marathon 2016, I ran a personal best and achieved a Championship qualifying time.  I crossed the line after a perfect race, and saw that I had run 3:13. This came off the back of eighteen weeks of uninterrupted, quality training, and at the time I thought it was going to herald a successful year of racing.

I was wrong. Two weeks after London, I stood on the start line of the Wings for Life World Run. I had been invited to start with the elites at the front, and I was excited to see how far I could go. I had taken a few days off after London, but picked up my training quickly as I felt recovered. Three days before Wings for Life I was doing a tempo run along the canal. During that run I started to feel a sharp pain in my left foot. I knew that I was fitter than I had ever been in my life, and I wanted to make the most of all my training. I started Wings for Life knowing I was hurt. I was running with a group women at the front of the race when, at 8km, I felt like a spike had gone through my foot.

I had torn one of the ligaments off the third metatarsal of my left foot. It took a month to start to heal, during which I cycled a lot, completed my first ever 100k sportif, and did a lot of work in the gym. I started running again as soon as I could. I was entered for a 50k mountain race and needed to get ready.

A few months of training, including winning a trail race in the Peak district, and I thought I was back. Then the niggle in my right leg started. I ignored it. Finally I was limping. A possible tibial stress fracture was feared. It wasn’t that bad, but running on it further would have caused the fracture and I had no choice: I had to stop running. Again.

Back running. Feeling great. Another 50k entered and training going well. Another win on the trails. I developed a bit of pain in my left quad. The pain got worse. I kept running. I did a 40k training run on the Ridgeway. I paced the Oxford Half marathon, sporting kinesology tape and a large serving of denial. I dropped out of yet another 50k, when it became clear that I could not walk without pain.

This time it was serious and the weeks slipped past without improvement. I spent hours in the gym, grinding it out on the cross trainer and step machine, doing weights and yoga. Finally, I found someone who helped: two sessions with a talented sports therapist and my pain was gone.

Next, it was time to start training for London 2017. I had a Championship place and wanted to get closer to the three hour mark. I knew I could shave five minutes off my time from 2016 easily, as I ran the first 10k quite conservatively in 2016.  I ran over 90 miles in a week training in Lanzarote. The first six weeks of proper marathon training went well. I ran a consistent average of 60 miles per week, did my speed sessions and hit my splits. My long runs felt easy and I was confident.

I was doing my second run on a Wednesday when it started to go wrong. I usually did a double day on a Wednesday, two fairly long runs adding up to 20 miles, with one of the runs done as a tempo. I was doing the afternoon run and felt tired. The last few miles were a struggle. I dragged myself home, felt sick, and went to bed. I thought I had some sort of a bug, and assumed I would bounce back to normal after a few days. But I didn’t. In retrospect, I had not sufficiently fuelled for the accumulation of miles I was running, and my body was empty. I got slower. I couldn’t hit splits on the track. Everything felt wrong. I ran the Wokingham Half Marathon, and was five minutes slower than I should have been. My lower legs ached while I was running, and my heart rate was ten beats per minute higher than usual. I had all the symptoms of overtraining, but couldn’t admit it, even to myself. All I knew to do was to keep pushing on, keep to the schedule and grind out the runs. Finally, the same pain in my right shin as I had the previous summer returned. I had no choice, I had to stop. My partner found me limping down the road, crying. I was well and truly broken.

So it is April 2017, and I see everyone getting excited about running London. I have deferred my place until 2018. And I’m resting, cycling, doing yoga and strength work, and hoping that this time I will finally heal properly and learn from my year of injury.

When you are injured, or struggling with your training, this is my summarised advice:


  • When you feel pain, stop. Now.
  • If the pain persists, and if you can’t walk, see someone.
  • Overtraining is a thing. If you start feeling miserable, if your runs are getting slower and it is all becoming a chore – back off immediately.
  • When injured, cross training is fine, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Allow yourself to rest completely if you feel you need it. Cross training will only preserve a certain amount of fitness. You’ll still have to rebuild when you start running again.
  • Don’t fixate on other people’s runs. It is hard not to feel jealous and to question what might have been, but remember that it will be your turn eventually. Heal properly, and your turn will come more quickly than you think. Rush your healing, and you’ll be back on the injury bench again. Be patient, use your time to enjoy other things, and truly listen to your body and its cues.