#1 - Fat Phobia
Many endurance athletes have a very strong fear of eating any fat calories. Good fats are essential for recovery and are a healthy way of improving the quality of our food experience. When I start working with athletes that have been seeking to lose weight, they are nearly always on a non-fat diet that is high in carbohydrates and low in protein. In my experience, this diet is sub-optimal from both a recovery and body composition standpoint.
#2 - The Protein RutWe all have our training routines and many of us have our nutritional routines. In reviewing training diets, I often see athletes receiving the majority of their protein from one of the following sources: diary, chicken or tuna. Last summer I made a focused effort to broaden my diet to include a broad range of plant and animal sources. As I moved away from a single, dominant protein source, my recovery improved tremendously. I also found that the re-introduction of lean beef made an immediate, positive impact on my training. In 12 months I improved my iron saturation figures by 20% overall without the use of supplements.
#3 - The Benefits of Higher ProteinMost sources recommend a daily protein intake of one gram per kilo of bodyweight (0.45 grams per pound). I've found that most of my athletes tend to perform best at about 0.80 grams per pound. I have found that a higher protein diet leaves me more satisfied, especially when combined with a moderate amount of good fats.
#4 - Breakfast, the Missing MealWhile reducing the size of the morning meal is one option for athletes that are seeking to trim a few pounds, I have been surprised at the number of endurance athletes that start their day on a completely empty stomach. I've experimented with the size of my morning meal and have found that my training quality is far higher when I eat a proper morning meal - for example, four pieces of chopped fruit with a cup of non-fat cottage cheese. I like to use a low to moderately glycemic source of carbohydrates with some protein. In fact, I encourage my athletes to ensure that they eat protein with every single meal of the day as it aids carbohydrate metabolism.
#5 - Know When NOT to Say WhenMost athletes that are seeking to improve their body composition exercise control at the wrong time of their day. Specifically, you must eat and reload your muscles after training. Athletes will not gain weight by eating a healthy recovery meal following training! In fact, this meal is the most important meal of the day and is the source of your energy for the next session (where you will burn more fat). In order to burn fat, your muscles need to be kept full of energy.
Now the flipside is knowing when to ease off. I have found that the most effective time to use mental strength is: (a) in the evening when you have not trained prior to your final meal; (b) on light training days; and (c) during recovery weeks. These are the times when you should make an extra effort to eat healthy and avoid starches and sugars.
#6 - PatienceA few winters ago, I spent a lot of time on my CompuTrainer watching IMH videos. I noticed something about the elite female athletes. Their individual body composition changed significantly through the 90s. Specifically, have a look at Paula, Lori and Joanna over a series of years. These ladies race(d) very lean, but they did not always have the look that we perceive. What's my point? My point is that the body responds gradually to both training stress and effective nutrition. It takes years to get an elite body. Trying to rush your body will result in illness, injury or a decline in performance. In fact, if you experience injuries that heal slowly, frequent mood swings or a rapid loss of weight and power, you should have an expert review your nutrition.
#7 - Focus CyclesJust like with your training, I believe that it is most effective to cycle your nutrition. Most athletes can maintain a strong nutritional focus for two to seven weeks at a time. Within that larger cycle, they can last on a microcycle of two to six days. I have found it to be very effective to run my nutrition counter to my training cycles. In other words, when I am training hard, I allow myself to have treats. When I am easing off the training, I work harder on nutrition. A few times a year, I may ease off on both training and nutrition (say the fortnight after a big race).
#8 - Metabolic RatesI'm not a sports scientist, just a keen observer of what works for my athletes and myself. I have observed many athletes (mostly female) that eat very little, yet seem unable to lose weight. As an athlete that eats a lot and is able to lose weight (when required), I've been at a loss to explain this conundrum.
I suspect that some athletes place their bodies on a "starvation platform". They do this by demanding high-energy output on low-energy input. Most of the athletes in this situation are on the low-protein, non-fat program that I have described above. Personally, my athletes (and myself) have had success by eating along the lines that I have discussed. Athletes that do make changes should remember that there will likely be a transition period where the body becomes used to being properly nurtured.
Slow recovery, persistent fatigue and requiring a long time to warm-up can be warning signs that you are not eating enough. It seems counterintuitive, but you may need to eat more in order to lose weight.
#9 - Key Days and Race Specific PreparationWith the season coming up, many of us are close to starting our race specific preparation. Depending on your base endurance and experience, you are likely to have between eight and 20 workouts that are fundamental to your up-coming race performance. It is important to view these workouts as the key to your season (they are!). Take a little extra time and effort to prepare your workout nutrition (before, during and after). Getting the nutrition formula right will enable you to go faster during the session and recover more quickly for the next workout. If you make a nutritional mistake on a key day, I would make it on the side of eating a little too well.
#10 - B and C RacesAs part of the build up to our first A-priority race of the year, most of us will be racing some secondary events. These are typically the highest intensity efforts of our preparations. Just like with your breakthrough workouts, remember to focus on your post-race nutrition. With the distractions of the race site, it is quite easy to forget to eat until several hours after the event. By planning your nutrition in advance, you can give yourself an easy recovery boost.
These are some ideas on how to eat the right foods at the right times. In a future article, I will offer some tips on how to get down to race weight.
See you at the races,