Athletes, by definition, need more energy reserves than non-athletes so their bodies can perform at a higher level.
But what happens when athletes don’t have enough energy storage to support the physiological functions needed to reach their physical peak?
CWU sports nutrition Professor Kelly Pritchett and her colleagues have been looking for answers to these questions by studying the phenomenon of low energy availability (LEA). Simply put, LEA refers to whether athletes are getting enough energy from their food to support optimal health, physiological function, and athletic performance.
A recent CWU study focused on a group of elite athletes with spinal cord injuries, who, depending on their injury level, have a wide variability in body composition, mobility, bone health, and metabolic and neurological function—all of which can impact the energy needs for a specific sport.
“Sometimes it comes down to fueling barriers and knowledge,” Pritchett said. “Maybe, in this population, preparing food is more difficult. Some para-athletes have GI (gastrointestinal) or gut issues that could inhibit fueling.”
Others may have trouble fitting into a race wheelchair or have discomfort due to the position of the body in their race chair after fueling, she added.
“They may have some different barriers to fueling from an exercise standpoint that you may not see in an able-bodied population,” Pritchett said. She pointed specifically to marathons, where wheelchair racers have their hands taped, which makes it inconvenient or more difficult for them to take in carbohydrates during the race.
The research team relied on two tools to determine why LEA was affecting para-athletes more acutely than able-bodied athletes. The first was an energy availability calculation derived from seven-day food and activity logs, which also took into account the athlete’s fat-free mass.
The second was a Low Energy Availability Female Questionnaire (LEAF-Q), which helped identify the risk of low energy availability—disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis—in endurance athletes.
Pritchett said the team found a discrepancy using the calculation, where none of the athletes were at risk for LEA. However, among those who took the questionnaire, 78% of them were at risk.
“That really leads to the fact that we need more validated tools to assess EA (energy availability) in this population,” she said. “And furthermore, the LEA threshold used for able-bodied athletes may not be appropriate.”
In a related study, Pritchett and her CWU colleagues have been researching the benefits of lowering para-athletes’ core body temperatures prior to exercise.
Athletes with spinal cord injuries often face thermoregulatory (cooling) challenges with exercise because they are unable to sweat in the area below the injury. This can cause premature fatigue and limit the athletes’ potential for high performance.
“We did some work where we gave athletes an ice slurry, like a Gatorade slushie, in an attempt to drop their core temperature prior to exercise, allowing them to feel cooler during exercise,” Pritchett said. “We found it was beneficial, and their core temperature was lower during the exercise bout in the beginning.”
Although more research is needed, she said the results were promising for a group of wheelchair rugby players.
“They went in with a cooler core temperature,” Pritchett said. “In theory, it should create a heatsink, allowing them to play longer before they reach that critical core temperature.”