Latest edition of the Peak Performance weekly newsletter!
Providing your training is structured correctly and you’re getting plenty of rest and recovery, regular training and higher levels of fitness should result in you having more energy than the average couch potato – not less. However, there may be times when this is not the case, as exemplified in a query that I received last week.
Writing in an email, a young swimmer called Astrid expressed concernes about her energy levels. As she explained, she is due to move to the US shortly to undertake some intensive swimming training. This will involve swimming first thing in the morning, coming home to study and then going back to the pool later on to train again.
The problem was that she is already finding that this level of training is too much in one day; in her words: “My energy levels drop and I cannot concentrate, especially whilst doing my studies. I get extremely tired and find it difficult to continue.”
Astrid recently went to a health shop to ask them for any advice, and they suggested that she used “Super Guarana – 1200mg per tablet” whenever she felt tired. They also told her that this was not a banned substance for athletes in Britain and America. But Astrid wanted to check if this was in fact true – and also if there was something better that I could recommend, bearing in mind that she was already taking omega-3 supplements, which did not seem to help.
Guarana and caffeine
In my response, I explained that the reason guarana had been recommended is that it’s a herb containing naturally occurring stimulants known as xanthine alkaloids. The best known of these is caffeine (also found in coffee, tea and cocoa beans), but there are others such as theophylline and theobromine. The caffeine content of guarana is extremely high – about 4 times higher than fresh coffee beans.
Caffeine is a stimulant and pick-me-up, increasing mental alertness and (in certain circumstances) physical endurance too. Caffeine is not a banned substance, either by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) or the USA’s National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). However, I also cautioned that because many herbs contain a wide variety of other naturally occurring compounds, taking a herb because it contains a legal compound doesn’t exclude the possibility that you may be unwittingly consuming other illegal compounds, so to play safe, it’s probably best to stick to a pure caffeine supplement.
Getting back to basics
These kinds of questions are surprisingly common; athletes who are struggling with energy or recovery are often tempted by the lure of a supplement. However, as I explained to Astrid, there’s a more fundamental issue to address – why is she becoming so tired in the first place? Rather than adopting a “sticking plaster” type approach by using stimulants like caffeine to get through bad patches, it’s much better to try and address the root cause of fatigue.
If you’re an athlete facing excessive fatigue, your first port of call should be to your GP – he or she can run some simple tests to ensure that you’re not suffering from any medical condition, viral-type infection or nutrient deficiency (i.e. iron or B vitamins), all of which could cause undue fatigue. Assuming these tests are all clear, the next thing to look at would be your carbohydrate and fluid intake.
Any shortfall in fluid intake will leave you feeling tired and lethargic and carbohydrate intake is particularly important when you are training hard. Not only is it important that you consume enough carbohydrate to fuel your training (even a slight shortfall will leave you feeling tired), it’s also vital that you consume the right type. The bulk of your carbohydrates should be from unrefined whole grains (wholemeal bread and pasta, whole grain rice, beans and lentils, oats and other whole grain cereals), potatoes, bananas and other starchy vegetables and fruits. Quick releasing refined carbohydrates such as sugar and sugary drinks, confectionary, jam, chocolate, cakes etc. can disturb blood sugar levels in vulnerable individuals, leading to energy peaks and troughs, during which extreme fatigue and tiredness are apparent. You may find it helpful to seek the advice of a qualified nutritionist in this respect.
Last but certainly not least, you need to look at your training load – i.e. the volume and intensity of the work you’ve been doing. It might have crept up to the point where it’s unsustainable. Or it might be that other circumstances in your life such as work or family stresses have increased in recent month, which reduces your capacity to sustain your current training load. Or, you’re just not getting enough recovery. To sum up, it’s worth quoting a refrain from a not-so-popular politician from the 1990s – sometimes it really is time to “get back to basics”!
Yours in fitness,
P.S. See below for a summary of best practice when it comes to hydration. If you’re serious about achieving your maximum potential, you can find more on the latest research and best practice from Peak Performance, our monthly issue. Trial or subscribe right here.
Bestselling Fitness & Injury Guides