I'm challenging you today. Take a moment to ask yourself this question:
When it comes to your nutrition habits and performance goals, are they aligned?
In other words, how is that working for you?
As a coach I love to learn. Always learning and applying. It never stops. Reading, researching, and learning from the experiences of the athletes I work with, as well as my own. From time to time I read some articles from current popular triathlon, cycling, and running magazines. Now my reason for reading these is two fold:
1. Firstly, it's important to keep up to date on the topics of interest (gear, training, nutrition, mental preparation, etc.). I know the athletes I work with read this same information and I often get questions about certain articles or information presented so I like to be informed.
2. Secondly, and most importantly, I have found that many of these "articles" often present the same material over and over with these "experts" putting their own spin on ideas that have been regurgitated many times over.
I feel it is my responsibility to help athletes by providing information that helps improve both their health and performance. However, when it comes to nutrition, as a coaching profession we have become lazy and negligent. Just like everyone else, we are choosing the "quick fix" as the "best fix".
Unfortunately, there is a disturbing trend emerging. Convenience nutrition (refined and highly processed food and beverages) are becoming emphasized more than quality real food (e.g., veggies, fruit, water, etc.). In performance nutrition marketing the emphasis has become about speed - in training, racing, recovery, and also eating - finding what ever you need "faster" and nutrition for performance is no exception. Look at most of these sports nutrition products and you will see a heavy emphasis on the words "performance, protein, carbs, energy" and when you really analyze the nutritional quality of these items, it is limited at best. Yet, these products are often marketed as replacements for real food. It has become more common for an athlete who can tell you there favourite sport nutrition brand and all its hyped benefits but struggle with making a simple salad to eat. The basics of nutrition for health and performance have degraded in pursuit of a quicker energy fix.
Here is an example of the ingredients in a popular sports nutrition bar:
LIQUID INVERT SUGAR, GLUTEN-FREE OAT BRAN, CORN MALTODEXTRIN, SOY PROTEIN ISOLATE, COCOA, FRUCTOSE, BROWN RICE FLOUR, DEXTROSE, HIGH OLEIC-SUNFLOWER OIL, GLYCERIN, SALT, UNSWEETENED CHOCOLATE, NATURAL FLAVOUR. CONTAINS: SOY AND MILK.
Oh, and only 25g of sugar?!
So these products are fast, convenient, and they give a boost of energy, what's the problem??
Both Dr. Phil Maffetone and Dr. Paul Laursen have presented articles that discuss the importance of quality nutrition and the over reliance on sugars (i.e., refined carbohydrates) in many athlete's nutritional choices. These choices over time lead to increasing the overall inflammation in the body, decreases recovery time, and poor overall health, despite the perception of being "fit". 1,2 In 2016, the World Health Organization recommended adults and children reduce their daily intake of added sugars to less than 10% of their total energy intake. A further reduction to below 5% or roughly 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day would provide additional health benefits.3
That example sports nutrition bar above contains an entire days recommended sugar intake in one serving.
Now you might be thinking, "What is your point? I'll just burn that off in a training session or race anyway."
This is the common "train to eat" philosophy - I train therefore that gives me a pass to consume as much of these products as I feel are needed.
Well, here is the problem with that thought process. Regardless, if you are training or not, your body still has to deal with the unintended consequences of processing those foods over the long term (e.g., impaired blood sugar management, decreased brain function, increased weight gain, increase of heart disease risk, poor digestive health). 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Here is my counter question - Since you put so much time and energy into your training and racing, why would you sacrifice this by eating poorly and negating the benefits of your hard work while negatively impacting your overall health?
Now this post is not meant to be solely a fear mongering opinion on the negative effects of overconsumption of sugar. There is a place for very limited consumption to assist with your performance in long endurance efforts (>2hours) only on an as needed basis. From my experience, this tends to be in a much smaller quantity than most athletes are currently consuming. Any session less than 2 hours, keep it simple, stick to water with a small pinch of salt and lemon.
Let me give you an example below of what is frequently prescribed and present a different way to approach a common nutritional challenge for endurance athletes.
There was a recent article posted in a popular triathlon magazine about timing your nutrition on a multiple workout day. Now this multi-training session day can be a common scenario for runners and triathletes alike. For example, the training plan calls for a swim in the morning and a strength session at lunch and/or run after work.
So here was the recommended nutrition advice from that article:
Morning Swim - have something to eat 30mins before like complex carbohydrate like whole wheat toast or bran muffin. Hydrate lots before the session and during with water/sports drink.
Breakfast (post session) - granola with yogurt or scrambled eggs with veggie wrap.
8:30am Snack - Pack snacks to have throughout the day. Banana with almond butter, fruit and cottage cheese, homemade soup, or an energy bar like a "Bar X" (sly product plug#1 - the author fails to disclose that they work for a company sponsored by "Bar X").
12:00pm - Have a substantial lunch - focus on carbohydrates, good fats, and little protein. Sandwich with lots of veggies, avocado, and some turkey or noodle beef and cashew stir fry.
5:00pm - Have a snack before your evening workout. At least half an hour before.
6:00pm - Evening run. Bring your sports drink/water to the session. Bring a "Gel X" to have during the workout (sly product plug#2) to ensure you are topped up.
7:30pm - just like lunch plan for a well balanced meal of protein, good fats, and quality complex carbohydrates. Now looking from the above recommendations I would not be surprised if you are confused as to what a "quality complex carbohydrate, protein, or fat" entails.
The estimated sugar content in the prescribed nutrition plan above = 100g - 4 times the recommended daily intake of added sugar! So when you are already engaging in a pro inflammatory activity like exercise what is the benefit of consuming products (energy bars and sports drinks) that add a large amount of sugar, no quality nutrients, and possibly more inflammation to your body which slow your ability to adapt and recover from your training? 9
I feel if we as a coaching profession continue to promote these anti-health nutritional recommendations, not only are we doing a great disservice to our athletes, it's negligent.
It's time to rethink the performance nutrition model and put healthy eating behaviours as the foundation of performance.
Let's look at another approach. Now this comes from my own research and experience with weight loss and performance, helping hundreds of athletes, and nutrition clients as a Precision Nutrition Level 2 Coach. Every person is unique and requires a individual approach to their nutrition plan. However, a basic principle has emerged - performance and health improves when there is a decreased consumption of daily sugar, refined products, and these are replaced with quality nutrient dense foods.
The Strategy: Emphasize Quality Nutrition and the Smallest Effective Dose for Performance
For years, the prevailing recommendation has been to fuel your performance with as many calories as you can tolerate mostly in the form of sugar. Like other unfortunate consequences of the "more is better" mantra, athletes have been made to think it's preferred to eat and drink as much as tolerable while training and racing as it was thought this will prevent the dreaded "bonk".
If you actually observe most endurance events you will see a common theme. Most poor performances are related to gastrointestinal distress due to taking in too many calories from sports nutrition products (i.e., sugar) rather than a result of low blood sugar (i.e., "bonking"). An added benefit by lowering your overall sugar intake is you may become for efficient at using your own fat sources for energy which can decrease amount of sugar you actually need to use during training and racing.
When developing your own nutrition plan I propose the following question - what is the least amount of sugar you need to perform well during your training or event?
This is called finding your own smallest effective dose.
Let take the example of the athlete above who has a morning, possibly lunch, and evening training session. It is assumed that these sessions will not be more than 2 hours in length. Here are some alternative nutrition suggestions using the smallest effective dose concept:
Morning Swim - Upon waking, start your day with 2 cups (500ml) of water (mandatory to replace the fluid lost during sleep). You can add a pinch of salt and squeeze of lemon for flavour and additional electrolytes. Have something minimal to eat 30-60mins before like a banana with nut/seed butter or raws seeds and dried fruit (check the label no added sugar or preservatives - just nuts and fruit). A palm sized portion should be sufficient. During your session you can have a water bottle on the edge - again you can add a pinch of salt and lemon for extra minerals and flavour. Drink as your thirst requires.
Breakfast (post session) - Scrambled eggs (1-2 palmfuls) with chopped spinach and peppers (1 palmful each) OR plain greek/non-dairy yogurt (2 fist sized portions - no added sugar or flavours) with berries (1 palmful) - can add a pinch of cinnamon for some extra flavour. Another option, sourdough bread or sprouted grain bread (palmful) with nut/seed butter can also be a good option. Again, drink water to thirst. Enjoy your morning coffee if you choose :).
Morning Snack (optional)- Listen to your appetite here. If you are hungry, start with a glass of water then decide if you need a small snack like small amount of berries with raw almonds or seeds, homemade soup, or even a few bits of left over supper from last night (see ideas for quality supper below). If you are not hungry, don't worry about eating.
1:00pm (post training session)- Design your own meal plate (see below). For example, chicken or fish (palm sized), vegetables like salad (1-2 hand sized portion), berries (1 palmful), and a healthy fat (extra virgin olive oil - ~2 tbsp). Choose your plate size based on your appetite. Eat slowly (chew your food completely) and stop when 80% full to help digestion. This will help you stay productive in the afternoon and not feel like you need a nap.
4-5:00pm - If hungry, choose from one of the above mentioned snacks (banana and nut or seed butter, dried fruits/berries and almonds/seeds (palmful per serving). This snack is intended to provide an little nutritional/energy boost prior to your pre supper session. Keep it small to decrease the chance of stomach upset. Drink water with the snack and as your thirst requires.
6:00pm - Evening run. Bring your water with added lemon and pinch of salt to the session.
7:30pm - Apply the post workout meal template below to design your dinner. Choose your plate size based on your appetite. Eat slowly (chew your food completely) and stop when 80% full to help digestion. Hey, it's ok too add a square or two of dark chocolate and live a little ;).
Training/racing longer than 2 hours
Now if training exceeds 2 hours or longer from my experience having a combination of carbohydrate (100-200 calories/hr), electrolytes (primarily salt and small amounts of magnesium), and the remainder coming from small amount of protein and fat (40-50 cals/hr) is a good place to start depend on your needs (i.e., your size, intensity/duration of the session). Water consumption at approximately 0.5-1L/hour depending on body size and temperature/conditions10. Try taking in the lower end of the suggested recommendations. Remember, the objective here is to find your own smallest effective dose. How much of each is a n-1 experiment. That is your responsibility to work out. As coaches we can provide guidelines but cannot give you the exact recipe. While we are all just big red meat computers what we can absorb differs in a big way.
When trying to develop your own nutrition plan for training and racing keep these suggestions in mind:
- Your choice of energy source can come in the form of liquids, gels, or even some solid food. Start experimenting with fluid calories first as these are usually tolerated best. Drink as your thirst requires and take in small amounts of calories at a time to make digestion easier. For example, it will be easier to have 4 smaller sips over an hour than trying to put a whole bunch of fluid in at once every hour.
- When choosing your fuelling sources stick with ingredients you know you can tolerate (fewer the ingredients the better). If you are not sure of what an ingredient is on a fuelling product then stay away from it. Keep it simple. For solids, small bites at a time, and chew completely before swallowing to ease digestion.
- If you are exercising intensely for longer than two hours, especially in the heat, do not rely on water alone. This will decrease your performance and recovery. Drink as your thirst demands, no need to over do it. Also, your ability to absorb calories will be limited due to more of your blood volume being transported to the skin to cool the body. So under hot conditions you will most likely have to eat less and slow down.
- It's important to be flexible here and always tune into how your body feels. If you are hungry, eat, if you are thirsty, drink. Avoid ignoring the signals your body is giving you.
How do you know when you have figured out the type and amount of fluid you need for a particular session?
If your energy is stable, and you feel no digestive distress during or after the session, you know you have a formula to work with.
If you experience any of the following symptoms you may need to decrease the amount of fluid/fuel you take in:
- Bloating, swelling of extremities, stomach cramping, nausea, diarrhea, sloshing of the stomach
If you experience any of the following symptoms you may need to increase the amount of fluid/fuel you take in:
- Inability to focus, excessive negative thoughts, cramping of extremities, feeling cold (goosebumps), dry mouth, shakiness, weakness, extreme hunger and/or slight nausea, dizziness, headache, blurred vision, an abnormally elevated heart rate, and feeling anxious.
Complete a few of these longer training/racing sessions. Document the conditions, the intensity of the session, and quantities of what you ate and drank before, during, and lastly, how you felt. Then you will have the information you need to develop a nutrition plan to meet you unique needs.
OUR HEALTH AND PERFORMANCE NUTRITION MANTRA:
Eat real quality food and drink water. Supplement with sports nutrition products only when needed in the smallest effective dose for sustaining performance.
Evaluate and adjust as needed for various conditions by asking yourself:
"How is that working for me?"
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