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Less Fat in Diet Linked to Injury Risk in Runners

By Alison McCook

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Female recreational runners who eat an average amount of fat in their diets may be less likely than those who opt for a slightly more restrictive cuisine to develop injuries, new study findings suggest.

These results contradict a "common attitude" among female runners that a low-fat and low-cal diet may reduce the risk of injury, study author Kristen E. Gerlach, a Ph.D. student at the University at Buffalo in New York told Reuters Health.

"The idea is, the lighter you are, the faster you'll run," she said. Moreover, Gerlach noted that some runners believe that a lighter body, which sustains less pounding on the joints, may also protect them from injury.

However, Gerlach and her colleagues found that women whose diet consisted of 30 percent of calories from fat -- a healthy amount, according to experts -- were less likely to be injured during a year of running than women whose diet consisted of only 27 percent of calories from fat.

"So it wasn't a huge difference, but the trend was definitely there for injured runners to be eating less fat," Gerlach said.

"Maybe runners in general, women runners, shouldn't be afraid of a moderate amount of fat intake," she added. "Eating a treat now and then might actually be beneficial to their running."

Gerlach and her colleagues obtained their findings after following 87 adult female recreational runners for one year, noting their diets and whether they developed injuries. The participants ran an average of 30 miles per week.

Fifty-five percent of the female runners developed an injury over the course of the year, the authors reported recently at the annual Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California.

Injured and non-injured runners tended to maintain the same amount of physical activity, but women who developed injuries tended to eat a diet that was lower in fat and calories than did women who remained injury-free.

On average, women runners who developed injuries ate 63 grams of fat per day in their diet, while those who escaped injury reported intakes of 80 grams of fat each day.

Gerlach noted that even runners who adopted a more restrictive diet still ate a quantity of fat that is considered normal for active women.

The researcher said that workouts can cause microscopic muscle damage. And women who ate relatively low levels of fat and calories may not have been taking in enough nutrients to repair that minor damage, she suggested, putting them at higher risk of injury during their next workout.

"These runners probably weren't taking in enough calories and nutrients to recover from a difficult workout," she noted.

Alternatively, Gerlach said that previous research has suggested that a very low-fat diet -- more restrictive than the one adopted by injured runners in this study -- can reduce endurance. Women who adopted even moderately low-fat diets may also have less endurance than others, she said, putting them at risk of a fatigue-related injury.

She said she is not sure whether the findings apply to men, as well, and suggested that the relationship between fat intake and risk of injury in men may not be as strong as it is in women.

Other factors that increased the risk of injury among women runners included a history of previous injury, difference in leg length, and poor flexibility, especially in the calves.