I train a lot, so I eat a lot. Logical right? However, many serious athletes follow a different logic that conflicts with this, which is “the lighter, the faster.” You can find calculators on the internet that show how much your times can improve if you lose X amount of kilograms, and in running culture it’s normal to compliment each other on how skinny you are.
It may be hard to imagine for anyone who has ever seen me eat, but I too was influenced by that culture. For the past two years I’ve looked at the scale expectantly every morning. In the run-up to competitions I ate less and less to get the grade down. I firmly believed that if I reduced my weight from 73kg to 70kg I would perform better. In the end, my weight turned out to have no effect on my performance and it only made me unhappy from constantly working on it.
I believe it works a bit the same in sports as it does in fashion. You have role models that you look up to and that you (often unconsciously) copy. In fashion, the beauty ideal of thin in women and muscular in men is created, so this is broadly copied. In running, and specifically in endurance distances, we see that African (Ethiopian, Kenyan and Ugandan) athletes are the dominant factor. These runners have a different build than the average Western person. They are generally smaller, but mostly lean and often well under 60kg in weight. Seeing these runners constantly at the top reinforces the idea that you have to be small, but at least skinny to perform optimally.
When I started to learn more about my Norwegian friends, I found out that things can be done differently. Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the world champion over 5,000m, is 1.87m tall and weighs 74kg, according to the Norwegian podcast “Breaking Marathon Limits”. Kristian Blummenfelt, the fastest Ironman athlete ever and one of the best runners among triathletes, is 1.74m and weighs 77kg. Blummenfelt has a BMI of >25, which is even considered overweight. Both athletes have a completely different build than the model endurance athlete, but they follow a very logical guideline that puts them at the top.
When Gjert Ingebrigtsen, father and former coach of Jakob, was asked about his philosophy on nutrition and weight, he replied: “People get “shocked” and ask, isn’t nutrition important? Well, the important thing about nutrition is to get enough nutrition. Because there are far too many of you who get too little. I see much more of it than those who get too much.”
The philosophy of nutrition of the Ingebrigtsens is actually very simple: you have to get enough of it. If you watch the series Team Ingebrigtsen (a 5-season reality series about the life of the Ingebrigtsens, highly recommended!) you see that Jakob does not care much about what he ingests. He likes burgers and other foods that are considered unhealthy. His fiancée agrees in the series that he does get enough. She says he eats two evening meals a day.
In interviews with Olav Aleksander Bu, the coach of the Norwegian triathletes, we see the same philosophy. In an interview with Triathlon Crew tells Bu that they have tried to get Blummenfelt’s weight down in the past. However, every time in their tests they saw that when the weight came down, Blummenfelt’s VO2 max fell relatively even further. In doing so, Bu shares a mantra they learned from this: “If you restrict the calories you restrict the power, and then you end up restricting the speed.”
In another interview, Bu says that the daily calorie intake is even the limiting factor for the training volume of triathletes. In other words, the more calories you take in, the more you can train. In a fantastic video we will see this again in a day in the life of Norwegian triathlete Gustav Iden. The video takes place during a training camp in the Sierra Nevada. From the moment of getting up to going to sleep, the Norwegian is only concerned with two things and that is eating and training. The reactions to the video showed that many people fell over Iden’s ‘unhealthy eating pattern’. Mikel Iden, his brother and the videographer of the video, responded and sums up the philosophy of the Norwegians perfectly:
“To all the people talking about food: Gustav needs to eat about 8000kcal on these long hard training days. His limitation is not sleep nor the will to train more, but being able to eat enough over time to manage the energy consumption from all the training. And that’s not insignificant.
Why do endurance athletes get injured? In my experience, many don’t eat enough for the amount of energy they use in training: Is it more “healthy” to get injured because you’re not able to eat enough kcal with “healthy” food. Or, is it more “healthy” to eat some “junk” to fill your kcal demand to stay injury free and live life with energy to perform and win races ?
– Yes, Gustav eats biscuits, desserts, white bread, Nutella and drinks soft drinks and chocolate milk . But that’s only around 15-25% of the daily need
– 2-6 bottles of Maurten 320 a day.
– Rest of the consumption as he tells in the video: Pasta, chicken, vegetables, fruit. I would think 4-6000kcal of this will gives him enough of macronutrients and vitamins a day
Challenge for you guys. Eat 8000 kcal a day. For 7 days. And only what you find “healthy”. Have a nice weekend :)”
On a double-threshold day according to my Garmin I burn between 4,000 and 5,000 kcal. That means I should be getting about twice as much as an average adult. I stuff myself with 250g of oatmeal in my morning overnight oats, eat about 6-8 sandwiches in the afternoon and easily finish two large plates of dinner in the evening. Personally I’m not a fan of it junk food or sweets, so I believe I automatically get more ‘healthy’ food than the Norwegians. I do agree with Mikel Iden that it is important to get enough in the first place and that you should only look second to what you are taking in.
My biggest lesson is that it’s better to be on the safe side with your weight than chasing a goal weight. You may get temporary gains from losing weight, but in the long run it’s a recipe for injury. Stress fractures are particularly common in undernourished/overtrained athletes. Ultimately you need enough fuel to be able to train a lot and intensively and to stay consistent.
Of course, your calorie intake must be in balance with your training volume. If you walk for an hour you don’t need gels or bars or other sweets, and if you walk two or three times a week you don’t need to eat much more than the average adult. To get a good insight into your needs, it is an idea to wear your smartwatch throughout the day. The metrics these watches have improved considerably in recent years and provide good insight into your recovery needs, but specifically also into how many kcal you burn per day.
I haven’t weighed myself daily for a while now and on Tenerife I don’t have access to a scale at all. It feels good not to be obsessed with weight, but to focus on the things that are important. Weight should never be an end goal. It will only sidetrack you from your true goals such as better performance or a healthier body. That it can actually become dangerous to be obsessed with weight is reflected in the countless examples of runners coming out with anorexia. In the Netherlands, for example, Jip Vastenburg is very open about this. In an article in the Volskrant she says: “I was much too thin. Why didn’t anyone say anything?” It is therefore high time to change the view on weight in running (and sport in general)!
You can read more about Jasper here.
Sources “Jakob Ingebrigtsen BMI of 21” by Zella (https://www.letsrun.com/forum/flat_read.php?thread=11726373).  “Team Ingebrigtsen” (https://www.youtube.com/@teamingebrigtsen6005/videos).  “Interview with Olav Aleksander Bu” by Triathlon Crew (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbPsG7TD1bw).  “A Day In The Life Of A Professional Triathlete || Gustav Iden” by Mikel Iden (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GrzDoSwg198).  “The Connections Between Overtraining and Underfueling” by David Roche (https://www.trailrunnermag.com/training/trail-tips-training/the-connections-between-overtraining-and-underfueling/).  “Jip Vastenburg: ‘I was much too thin. Why didn’t anyone say anything?’” by Eline van Suchtelen (https://www.volkskrant.nl/sport/jip-vastenburg-ik-was-veel-te-dun-waarom-zei-niemand-iets~b21e958e/).