Discussions of diet and nutrition are often the most hotly debated topics in the fitness world. They can be fueled by emotion, personal beliefs and preferences. Within physical training methods there are many ways to achieve similar levels of fitness and performance (high volume-low intensity vs. low volume-high intensity, for example); the same can be said for diet and nutrition concepts. There are multiple variations that can lead to similar results (meat eaters vs. vegetarians for example). The key point here is that people are different, and different strategies work for different people. There is no right way. Regardless of where you stand on diet and nutrition, there are some key points that recent science and ‘experts’ have established that cross over between all ‘diets’ and are crucial for both long-term health and improved sport performance.
Without argument, athletes can make major breakthroughs in their training and racing performance by incorporating intelligent diet and nutrition strategies.
As you read on, please keep in mind that this is our opinion (Cody & Kathy’s) based on our own experiences and my study as a lifelong elite endurance athlete, as well as over 13 years in the coaching business. I am not a dietician, however I have always had a strong interest in diet and nutrition (for both ‘healthfulness’ and performance) along with a true passion for good food. This passion for food led to a short stint as a coffee shop and catering business owner after completing culinary arts school.
Before we go any further, we should address my definitions of ‘diet’ and ‘nutrition’ within this specific discussion, as by themselves they can carry a multitude of different connotations. I like to break apart daily food intake and the total calories we consume into two parts. Diet is what I refer to here as your daily food intake (what’s on your plate) to get you through the day. Nutrition is referring to your training and racing intake (what you consume pre, mid, and post training).
YOUR DAILY DIET
Without writing pages and pages of nutrition concepts and theories, I want to keep it short and simple with advice on how you might be able to improve your diet, nutrition and performance. As athletes we hear the term ‘eating clean’ thrown around a lot. This term ‘clean’ can have many different meanings based on what you perceive as clean. Clean could mean simply not eating ‘fast food’, or it could mean eating only organic and naturally raised plants and animals, or it could mean a strict plant-only diet. The point is ‘clean’ is a relative term and what is clean to one person may be far from it to another (much like when you ask a typical single man what a clean bathroom looks like and what my wife, Kathy, thinks a clean bathroom looks like…two different bathrooms).
How ‘strict’ you want to be with your diet is up to you, but two focus points I have found to help everyone is to first limit/reduce the quantity of processed foods, and second, to base your diet on eating as many fruits and vegetables as possible. By simply following these two basic guidelines, you can transform an average diet into a very effective one. Processed foods are foods produced in a factory or laboratory. In general, the more humans tamper with ingredients found in nature the worse it becomes for you from a nutritional standpoint. For some reason humans think we can improve nature, and we like to add additional ingredients and make our food ‘man made’. Take for example, butter. Butter was once thought to be bad, so we manufactured margarine as a ‘better’ alternative. Not a good idea, as now we are finding it to cause all sort of problems. Surprise, saturated fats are not what we once thought! Or take the egg; the cholesterol in egg yolks was thought to increase cholesterol in our blood, so we decided to separate what nature designed to be together by creating ‘egg whites’. Sadly, this ‘improvement’ meant we missed out on the nutrients in the egg yolk. This deeply held and popular belief has recently been disproved. Cholesterol in food actually has little to no correlation to cholesterol in our blood and, in fact whole eggs are one of the best foods we can put in our mouths!
Put simply, avoid processed foods and choose to eat as close to what nature provides us as possible, with the base being fruits and vegetables.
A third key concept is to NOT adhere to a ‘special diet’. Your daily diet should not have a name (Paleo, Atkins, Ketogenic, Gluten-Free, Low-Fat, Low-Carb, High-Protein, etc.), rather just a good well-balanced diet based on fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and small amounts of high-quality animal protein (if desired). Conforming to a ‘specific diet’ is not sustainable nor does it create a positive relationship with food. You can agree with concepts of specific diets, but when you begin to strictly avoid certain food groups, you are setting yourself up for a struggle (unless you have a true medically-tested allergy). As athletes we need all three macro-nutrients in our diets (carbohydrates, fats, proteins). Our primary fuel sources come from fat (low-intensity) and carbohydrate (moderate to high intensity) and when you limit your intake of either, your physical performance will stagnate or decline over time.
Depending on your activity levels throughout your training season, you may need more or less of carbohydrate which leads to carbs being the largest variable macro-nutrient. Protein is not directly a fuel source but rather predominantly a hormone-regulating nutrient that is responsible for keeping our bodies functioning correctly. Most first world people consume excessive amount of animal protein in their diet beyond what the body actually can use. Rather than making the ‘meat’ the focal point of every meal, fill your plates first with vegetables, followed by whole grains as needed, and then add small portions and of the highest quality protein (wild, natural, grass fed, organic, etc.) you can afford and prepare at home.
As endurance athletes, it is safe to say that nearly all of us are chronically dehydrated.
The fourth concept is hydration. If you train for 10 or more hours a week and don’t consciously consume multiple glasses of water a day (outside of training) you are in a negative state of hydration. Hydration is not always recognized by our thirst mechanism. Often it is confused with hunger, which leads to excessive calorie consumption. By making a conscious effort to drink large glasses of water throughout the day and before meals you can do your body a world of good.
The final piece of the puzzle and, perhaps, the most important for those struggling with achieving an ideal body composition, is to only eat when you’re hungry and to stop eating BEFORE you feel full. Achieving your ideal body composition has more to do with the “calories in vs. calories out” principle than actually eating healthfully. By eating both healthfully and in the appropriate quantities that your body requires, you will continue down the road towards the lean and powerful body you desire.
DAILY DIET DOs & DON’Ts:
- DO eat when you’re hungry (as frequently as needed)
- DO eat as close to nature as possible
- DO maximize fruits & vegetables (8+ servings/day)
- DO avoid processed foods (chemically altered and/or high in refined sugar)
- DO eat the highest quality foods you can afford (organic, natural, free-range, grass fed, wild, etc)
- DO drink plain water throughout the day (between workouts)
- DO eat small quantities, more frequently
- DO eat pleasurable foods (“treats”)
- DO NOT exclude foods or food groups (unless you have a true allergy, or you just don’t like them)
- DO NOT follow a ‘named diet’
- DO NOT over consume animal protein
- DO NOT over eat (except at Thanksgiving, then go BIG!)
Supporting your physical training efforts with adequate and appropriate nutrition is essential for long term success in endurance sports. The more you train the more nutrition you need to support your training and recovery. Improved sports-nutrition can also lead to improvements in your body composition (ie. increased lean tissue) which is perhaps the most effective way to improve both your speed and endurance for racing.
As mentioned above, our primary fuel sources are fats and carbohydrates (glycogen). Fats are the ‘unlimited’ fuel source for low-intensity activity. Through effective aerobic training we improve our body’s ability to use fats for fuel at higher and higher effort levels. The more aerobically fit you are the faster you can go while using more fat and sparing more glycogen. Training the body to spare glycogen is one of the primary goals of the training that we do as endurance athletes. Glycogen is a limited source, and for longer activities, we must supplement with carbohydrates to spare and help delay the depletion of our stored glycogen for as long as needed to get to the finish line. For this reason, training nutrition revolves around consuming the right amounts of carbohydrates in our daily diet and as sports-nutrition while we train. This is why low-carb diets do not work for endurance athletes when they are in stages of heavy training and/or racing. We need carbohydrates to perform at our peak! During other times of the year, when training volume and intensity are low, reducing the extra carbs is helpful to minimize weight gain (ie. nutrition periodization).
Consuming calories prior to, during (for longer sessions/events), and following training sessions sets you up for success with not just the immediate session but sessions in the days to come. On the flip-side, you do not want to consume any more calories than required to fuel your training. Your muscles require fuel to function and the following are some simple guidelines to consider to maximize your training program.
The calories you consume prior to your training sessions provide the starting point from which you draw energy. For efforts lasting two hours or less you need little more than your regular meal 1-2 hours out from the start. For longer efforts you can ‘pre-load’ with a bit more calories (especially if it’s low to moderate intensity). If it’s been more than 2 hours since your last meal (ie. early morning workouts), you will likely be better off with 100-200 calories of primarily carbohydrate before your session. With proper fueling throughout your day you are less likely to need a ‘pre-workout’ snack or meal.
Workouts lasting 90 minutes or less require little to no mid-session fueling, other than water and/or electrolyte drink. This is especially true if you are well fueled prior to beginning the session. Workouts beyond 90 minutes are best served with 100-300 calories (of predominantly carbohydrate) per hour of training. The fuel source when training at low intensities is best coming from whole foods as much as possible versus ‘sports nutrition’ sources. As intensity ramps up in training, more calories can come from liquid/semi-liquid sports nutrition sources. Beyond 90 minutes, you also want to include electrolyte supplementation through drink mixes or tablets, and plenty of water (1-3 bottles an hour depending on body size, temperature and humidity).
Consuming calories following your workouts is essential for maximizing recovery, refilling energy stores, and readying yourself for your next session. The trick with recovery nutrition is understanding how much fuel (and what type) you burned in your workout compared to how much you replaced while working out. Far too often I see athletes sucking down ‘gels’ in the middle of an hour long session or finish a moderate session and then down a 300 calorie ‘recovery drink’ before going home for dinner and throwing down another several hundred more calories of food. This ‘train hard, eat hard’ way of thinking can make it difficult to achieve your goal body composition for competition. The goal with recovery nutrition should be to consume enough calories both during and following your session to replace the carbohydrates you used in order to refill glycogen stores. Your next meal will address the additional calories (if any) that may be needed to feel satiated. Here are some recovery nutrition guidelines for different training sessions. Keep in mind that your daily training load also affects your calorie needs (ie. the more sessions per day the more accumulation of calorie burn occurs).
- Low to moderate intensity workouts under 90 minutes: little glycogen utilized. All you may need is a glass of electrolyte drink (low-calorie) and your next meal.
- High intensity workouts of 1-2 hours: moderate to high amounts of glycogen utilized. Immediate 150-300 calories recovery drink, predominately carbs and 10-20 grams protein. Follow with next meal an hour after.
- Low to moderate intensity workouts of 2-6 hours: with proper mid-workout fueling you shouldn’t dig too deep into your glycogen stores. All you may need is a glass of electrolyte drink (low-calorie) and light post-workout snack or drink. Followed quickly with your next meal.
- Mid to high intensity workouts of 2-4 hours (races): high amounts of glycogen utilized (possible depletion). Immediate 200-400 calories recovery drink predominately carbs and 15-25 grams protein. Follow with carb-based meal when stomach is ready for it. Follow with potentially a second meal 1-2 hours after the first (more fats/proteins).
- Monster workouts/races of 6+ hours: you’re likely depleted and dehydrated. It doesn’t really matter because you’ll need a few days to recover anyway…drink a lot and eat what ever the heck you want (without over eating!).
Written by Cody Waite, professional endurance athlete, endurance sport coach and founder of Sessions:6 Sport Performance. Looking for help with your endurance sport training? Check out S:6’s Training Plans, Team Programs, and Personal Coaching options created to fit your needs and budget.