Has your child or athlete ever felt like they are working their hardest but not improving? Have they suffered from multiple injuries and wondered why? Has their menstrual cycle been affected or even stopped? If so, they may be suffering from low energy availability. More specifically, Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport or RED-S is a condition that is alarmingly common in athletes. In the first article of our Novanta Sports Performance nutrition article series, we discussed the many reasons why young athletes should care about food and nutrition. Awareness and prevention of low energy availability is one of the most important reasons for this.
What is energy availability?
Energy availability is the amount of energy remaining (left in the tank) after sport/exercise for essential bodily functions. Our body will use energy for exercise first and the remaining energy is used to function our brain, heart, immune system, etc. When the amount of energy remaining is too low, our body will steal energy from systems for muscle repair, immune function, and reproductive health to compensate. This is called low energy availability.
Why is awareness and prevention important?
Low energy availability can negatively impact an athlete’s performance and health. Regarding health, low energy availability can increase an athlete’s risk of injuries and illness. It can lead to poor reproductive health, low bone density, low mood, and depression. Low energy availability can impact an athlete’s performance by impacting muscle recovery, their energy and energy stores, their focus, and can limit the adaptations to training.
Who is at risk?
It is important every athlete is aware of the signs and symptoms of low energy availability because every athlete is at risk. However, athletes who are at an increased risk include multisport athletes, athletes with high training loads and athletes who participate in aesthetic and weight sensitive sports such as dance, figure skating, gymnastics, weightlifting & rowing.
How can athletes prevent low energy availability?
You can prevent low energy availability by screening often for injuries, missed periods, weight loss, changes in mood and inability to improve. The Canadian Sports Institute Assessment Tool is very helpful for screening for low energy availability. Additionally, refrain from trying “fad” diets, restricting food and/or avoiding certain food groups. Lastly, participate in nutrition programs that are offered by qualified dieticians and follow our Nutrition Article Series to learn more about sports nutrition.
How can parents and coaches help?
First, it is important to have open discussions with your children/athletes around food, mental and physical health. The signs and symptoms of low energy availability are not always obvious. Additionally, try to avoid conversations related to weight loss, dieting and food restriction with your athletes. Lastly, help your children plan and match training volume and intensity with appropriate nutrition.
If you suspect you or your child has low energy availability speak to a sports dietitian, parent, coach or trusted health professional.
Mountjoy M, Sundgot-Borgen JK, Burke LM, et aI. (2018). IOC consensus statement on relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S): 2018 update. British Journal of Sports Medicine. Retrieved from, https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/52/11/687