What I learned from running on empty

So, that long run last Sunday that felt like complete crap? It turns out that it could have been none of the reasons that I listed in the last post (or it could have a culmination of all of them together that weakened my immune system).

I don’t normally do training recaps, but here’s a mini-breakdown of how this past week went down:

Despite taking a complete rest day from running, I was still completely wiped out. Mike and I went into downtown Munich and I could barely handle the light walking that we did. I kept taking breaks to sit down and catch my breath. I fell asleep while sitting up at cafes. It was crazy!

Trying to eat anyway. This meal was delicious but it came back to haunt me later. 🙁

TUESDAY: 9.52km/5.92mi
I woke up with a really sore stomach, but felt fine otherwise so I went for a run. It was horrible. I kept stopping and almost turning around. I think the only reason why I didn’t was because I was hoping I could “run off” whatever was bothering me. As the day went on, my appetite disappeared which is unheard of. I thought I was iron deficient or still recovering from Sunday’s long run so I tried to continue eating normally. By the evening, I was in a lot of pain and had trouble keeping anything down.

Sound familiar? It would seem that I caught whatever stomach bug Mike had. The symptoms were eerily similar and since I’ve been with him almost the entire time he was sick, it wasn’t really a far stretch to assume I could get it.

WEDNESDAY: 5.01km/3.11mi
By Wednesday, I was fully afraid of food and ate nothing but white bread and bananas for the majority of the day. At night, we went out for dinner with the family we’re staying at and I ate a bowl of minestrone soup while everyone else ate heaping plates of delicious looking pasta and pizza. I stole a few bites of Mike’s pizza and paid dearly for it by the end of the dinner. I had another sleepless and uncomfortable night.

THURSDAY: 10.37km/6.44mi
I woke up feeling remarkably better. Not totally surprising since Mike progressed similarly. I decided to go for a rest run to see how my body was feeling BEFORE eating breakfast just in case food irritated my stomach. It was another struggle-fest but not because I was clutching my stomach. It was an eye-opening and humbling run because I had zero energy and kept wondering if running was safe given my energy levels. I’m sure it was due to my lack of eating over the past few days – obviously unintentional, but it turned out to be a learning experience for me and a good reminder that I’d rather over eat than under eat when it comes to how it’ll affect my running.

This is how I looked (and felt) while running with zero energy. Proper running form, what?

My whole experience got me thinking about fueling and how it impacts running. Obviously there’s a lot of discussion going on about the topic, but for me, I learn best by doing (or not doing). I would never recommend running while deprived from food, but since it happened that way, here are a few things I learned from the my accidental ‘experiment’:

  • Running on low energy from not eating much SUCKS A LOT. I don’t get how some people do it. It was like my body knew how to move one foot in front of the other to run, but I was stuck on a slow gear and I couldn’t possibly imagine running a second faster. My brain was all foggy and I kept worrying that I was going to trip and fall on my face.
  • But, it is possible to run long on no fuel. That is a scary conclusion. The first few kms were a major struggle and I could barely keep up a conversation even though I was running slower than my long run pace. But eventually, I got into a groove and by the time I hit 10km, I knew that I could have kept continued this very easy running. I could shuffle forever. I don’t think this is safe at all, and it’s scary to me that my body technically would have let me.
  • It’s even more scary because it gave me insight behind all the accounts I’ve read about people who deprive themselves and then do excessive cardio. It’s scary that people could adapt to this and get used to running on “empty”. I’ve struggled with having a negative body image almost my entire life, and worry what I might have done if I had made this connection earlier on in my life.

Running that depleted is something I never want to experience again. I couldn’t imagine pulling off a speed session and I was more afraid of pulling a muscle or snapping a bone than anything. I always wondered if I was fueling too much or too little. I’ve definitely gone down the path of eating too much and gaining weight during training, and there were times when I tried to control my eating too much while training and wound up injured. Finding that sweet spot is probably a lifelong process, especially as my body continues to change. But, at least I know what will happen if I end up on the extreme end of not eating. And I’ve been rightfully scared away from it.

Big smiles after a full day of eating proper meals and keeping them down. Also, our first proper date night in Munich. <3


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5 thoughts on “What I learned from running on empty”

  1. I experienced a very similar fueling lesson recently, but it involved the food I ate the day before. Your description of how you felt running with zero fuel was a good one. You could keep going, but it was a foggy, not very impressive run. I also found what you mentioned about the weight battle while running to be very true for me as well. It’s so hard to balance, but I am trying to accept that quality fuel beats out a pound or two come race day. I seriously think that so many of these things we can read and read about but we have to experience them before we really learn it! Great post!

    1. Thanks, Cathy! I’m trying not to think too much about the weight battle either – I put way too much thought into it a few years ago and it ended really, really badly. I never recovered from any run and I ended up with a stress fracture. I have no idea how much I weigh now compared to back then, but I do know that I feel so much stronger which is really all that matters on race day, right? 🙂

      1. That’s a really interesting insight. I seem to gain more easily the more I run, yet I know it’s when I need the fuel. I think the more runners pay attention to their fuel the more they realize the effect it has.

        1. I agree with you. Back then, I wasn’t paying attention to food to fuel my running – I was trying to keep my portions / calories low to lose weight at the same time. I think that’s what did me in. Now, I’m definitely more concerned about eating to run better more than anything. It’s a constant learning process! I gain more easily the more I run as well.

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