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It’s three hours into a five-hour training ride when suddenly, you’re having a cranky existential crisis. You’re wondering why you’re here and what the point of this ride is. Why are you training at all and who even cares about triathlon? A riding buddy veers a little bit too close to you in the peloton and you’re screaming at him to be careful. Now you want to stop riding and you feel like a jerk. What the heck is going on?
One question: When’s the last time you ate something?
The word “hangry,” a now-ubiquitous portmanteau of hunger and anger, is not always taken seriously. We’ve probably all seen the word on t-shirts or internet memes with cartoons of the Incredible Hulk. However, scientific research on food and mood tells us that it’s a very real situation that can affect athletes at any time, even in the middle of a training session or race. The result can be anger and frustration, sure, but it can also be sadness, a sense of hopelessness, and a severe drop in motivation. Athletes might find themselves snapping at people, throwing a water bottle, or even scrapping the rest of the workout when what they really needed was a snack.
A depleted brain is an unhappy brain
When we haven’t eaten for a while, our blood sugar plummets. The hunger hormone ghrelin then triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to rebalance blood sugar. Since these hormones act on the sympathetic nervous system, the person can expect to feel all of the symptoms associated with “fight or flight”. Adrenaline can make us feel anxious, pressured, and jittery with heart palpitations. Cortisol can make people behave aggressively and feel irritable. In those moments of caloric depletion, we’re not exactly full of rainbows and sunshine, but a bad mood is only part of the problem.
Throw in the towel—or pull out a gel?
Aside from snapping on a riding partner, the feeling of desperation and panic that sets in when blood sugar is low may negatively affect our perception of our performance or environment. According to a 2018 study, this shift toward the negative may force us to make impulsive choices or bad decisions based on what we believe is happening in a training or racing situation. Athletes may view an upcoming climb as overly difficult and decide to slow down or take a different route. They may think they are falling behind in the pool and quit practice altogether. Even a sudden rain shower during a run can cause a race meltdown if we’re in a depleted state. In those moments, athletes might think that the world is ending and they never want to train again. They are probably not thinking that their DNF could be avoided by something as simple as remembering to eat a portion of an energy bar every 45 minutes.
Hunger is an instinct, but easy to miss
It may seem impossible that triathletes, some of the hungriest people on Earth, could be in danger of not eating frequently enough. However, there are many reasons why we might get the timing wrong. Some people need to have a relatively empty stomach to avoid GI distress and may not top off the tank before heading out to train. Those of us who are new to longer distances may miscalculate our needs during multi-hour activities. Other athletes may be experimenting with low carbohydrate diets and trying to restrict certain fuel sources. Finally, some athletes have a goal of weight loss or body composition changes and are intent on reducing calories, though it may be at odds with their body’s fueling needs.
Although many people can recognize the symptoms of hunger while not physically active, it can be difficult to recognize the signs while in the middle of a training session or race. Typical hunger cues can be blunted in a moving body, especially one that is likely distracted by equipment, other competitors, and variations in terrain among other concerns. Triathletes may be at a further disadvantage for dialing into body sensations like headaches, clumsiness or tripping, fatigue, shakiness, and dizziness since the body will be oriented in three different positions, as well as submerged in water during a race. All of this means that we may have to look far beyond the classic, “empty stomach” feeling to get the message.
Check your mood for signs you need food
Some of the more subtle signs of hunger and an impending blood sugar crisis might be those dips in mood that seem to come out of nowhere. You may suddenly feel sad without any specific reason or begin to panic about the distance ahead which now seems impossibly long. You might misinterpret someone’s intention to joke and take offense at something that wouldn’t normally be upsetting or become enraged when another rider overtakes you on a tough stretch of road. In all cases, the uncomfortable emotion seems to take over, derailing efforts and threatening to ruin your plans.
In a body-obsessed culture, it is easy for us to become convinced that hunger is all mind-over-matter and that our nutritional needs are negotiable. Therefore, it’s important that athletes try adding fuel to their workout sessions and/or eating more, in general, to truly appreciate the benefits of an adequately nourished brain. It won’t take more than a session or two to notice a more optimistic attitude and a spring in the step. If you’re not sure where to start, a sports dietitian or nutrition-informed coach can help design a plan that will work for your individual needs. And if it becomes clear that you’re resisting the idea of eating more or fearful of how more food will affect your body, it could be time to talk to a mental health professional who can help you to challenge your assumptions.
Whether or not we perceive declining physical ability due to hunger, research shows that the mental stress created by the lack of calories and subsequent drop in blood sugar is likely to weigh on us and of course, the people around us. Since some of the most important reasons why we participate in triathlon are for enjoyment and a sense of community, it makes sense to put as much effort into achieving the best mood as any other aspect of performance. Next time you’re feeling low, consider biting into something delicious before biting someone’s head off.
Subtle signs that you need to eat:
- Anger and frustration, feeling irritated by others
- Sadness or melancholy
- Panic over distance or perceived effort
- Feeling suddenly demotivated
- Tripping, stumbling
- Headaches, dizziness, fatigue
Jill Colangelo is a writer and researcher of mental health and ultra endurance sport. She has a BA and ALM in psychology and is a former triathlete and ultramarathoner.