Whether you’re an elite athlete or weekend warrior training for your first triathlon, it can be easy to focus solely on physical training and racing. But from what I’ve seen, the athletes who truly excel know (and act upon the knowledge) that how we recover from that hard work is equally if not more important to reach the top of the podium. This includes fueling with the best products and the appropriate nutrients before, during, and after training/racing.
We all have good intentions, but as Ben Stone, PhD of Sigma Performance (one of the most sought after nutritionists in the country) said in an interview with Vail Daily, “People are not taught how to eat…. I can’t think of anything that will have greater fundamental changes on someone’s health or on an athlete’s performance than their source of fuel” (for more from Stone, see the full interview).
As an elite figure skater growing up and then an NCAA Division I rower, I have sat through my fair share of nutrition seminars and consultations. So I’d like to think of myself as pretty well educated about sports nutrition. However, as I mentioned in my previous post, my (lack of) nutrition led to a race result at Nationals that, while respectable, was less than I hoped for and less than I know I was capable of.
As my coach and I looked at my race performance, we found major opportunities for improvement in my fuel/hydration while training/racing. After a lot of research and extensive discussion, I made the switch to Hammer Nutrition products, chosen because of the science behind their formulas, their wholesome ingredients, and their proven effectiveness in the experience of my teammates.
We then took a step back to look at my day-to-day nutrition. I didn’t have any glaring issues – in fact, I had finally gotten to eating when I was hungry and eating things in moderation after struggling with disordered eating for years as an adolescent/in my skating days. But, we wondered, could there be an opportunity for me to perform even better in my daily training and find a higher level of performance through a shift in my eating habits?
These and other questions spurred me to dig into sports nutrition and begin learning more from my coach, nutritionists, and others about fueling for endurance sports. I’m sure we can all agree that there is A LOT of information out there regarding nutrition – lots of it good, perhaps even more that's junk. I am by no means an expert… yet! ... But I thought I would share a few things I’ve learned thus far in the hopes that they may be of use, whether you’re a seasoned triathlete or just looking to get a bit more fit:
Protein is important, but not a silver bullet for recovery/fueling
Protein is certainly an important dietary component to re-build muscle. That being said, fats and, to a certain extent, carbs are also critical to reach your fitness and health goals. It might be hard to believe when almost every mainstream endurance sports nutrition article I’ve come across emphasizes first and foremost taking in lots of lean protein! But more protein doesn’t necessarily mean more muscle and when taken to the extreme may actually have negative consequences, such as strain on organs, dehydration and (gasp!) bad breath. Here’s an interesting article outlining the risks of taking in too much protein.
Fat is not necessarily bad
I often hear people shooting for “low fat” diets to lose weight. And I will be the first to admit that I didn’t eat egg yolks for 12 years, also thinking that if I wanted to be a lean, mean fighting machine, I should avoid fat whenever possible and focus on protein. However, recent (and compelling) research is showing that a high-fat diet improves metabolic health/efficiency and improves endurance sports performance as the body looks to fat as fuel versus simple carbs/sugars. While I don’t have specific personal data to back it up (yet), I can 100% attest to feeling more steady in my energy during workouts short and long and throughout the day in general. Some of my favorite sources of fats are: nuts, olive oil, avocado, and even WHOLE eggs (gasp!). Here are a couple interesting related articles by the NYT and Joel Friel.
Little changes can add up to big results
So often we think that we need to make huge changes in our diet to see a change. We have long lists of “DO NOT EVER EAT” foods, or slingshot from eating the world to severely cutting calories. Here are a few changes I’ve made this year that have contributed to a significant change in my physical form as well as my ability to perform (paired with consistent training, of course!):
- No more ice cream. Now, you might say, “you just discouraged me from having ‘do not eat’ lists.” BUT this doesn’t mean no dessert! I now mix Hammer Chocolate Whey with peanut butter (1 scoop of whey to every 2 TB of peanut butter) and freeze it with a sprinkle of sea salt on top. This dessert is tasty (I swear!), low in sugar, and high in fat and protein – good for mind, body and spirit! :)
- Nuts instead of chips. I slipped into a habit of snacking in the afternoon, when I would crave something crunchy and salty. This trend has improved as I’ve begun to eat and hydrate more evenly throughout the day (see below), but I still need snacks between workouts from time to time! I’ve swapped out tortilla chips (or, at times, chocolate chips!) with roasted salted cashews, almonds, and peanuts. They leave me more satisfied and less full when it’s time to hit that afternoon run!
- Breakfast every morning. I used to eat very little in the first half of the day for fear of feeling full during workouts, but then I would eat more and more over the course of the day, finishing with a huge dinner and dessert that were high in carbs and sugar. I would still be full when I woke up and the pattern would repeat. My intake looked like:
I now wake up a little earlier each day and start off every morning with oats + PB + a sprinkle of dried cranberries (plus a bunch of cinnamon – of course! – and a dash of sea salt). Pairing this with a lighter dessert, my body normalized over the course of a week or so to a more even eating schedule, like this:
I am maintaining a higher training load now than I ever have before. My energy is more even both in and out of training. It's truly a great feeling!
I can 100% relate to how hard it is between work, training, and life to make and maintain changes like these. But I started with one little change at a time, and every time I am tempted to stray, I think of all the early mornings and hard work I've put in. I don’t want to put those to waste because of less than ideal nutrition, and neither do you!
I will be the first to admit that it’s quite a puzzle to figure out all this nutrition stuff! And when we hear so much “oh you shouldn’t eat this or that,” my question is always, “so what SHOULD I be eating?” I’m still figuring that out for myself, and I’ll continue to share lessons learned as I arrive at them! For now, I’m shooting for 50-60% fat, 20-30% carbs, 20% protein but am averaging about 45% fat, 35% carbs, 25% protein right now (it’s a process!). Already, my coach, teammates, and family have commented that I’m more muscular and lean since making these adjustments to my diet, even though I actually weigh the same! My initial recommendation for people looking to make s change: more nuts, whole eggs, and less bread, processed carbs, and sugar. Start with one or two adjustments and really commit to them – dietary changes like this work best with baby steps! You can do it – we’ll be making the journey to better health and higher performance together!
Have any comments or tips to add about fueling better? I'd love to hear them, so please share!