I used to understand that nutrition was important but not critical to performance and recovery; maybe 20% of the equation. Perhaps due to being young with a high metabolism, I ate pretty much anything without moderation and still competed well. But how much better could I have been applying what I know now? I would rebalance the equation like this:
Performance = 30% training + 40% nutrition + 20% recovery + 10% psychology
In other words, I now believe that what you eat is the most important factor in athletic performance, especially for endurance sports. We all know that diet is important, and every week the media tells us we should/shouldn’t be eating x, y and z. Let’s not forget that nutrition aids recovery, so these two go hand-in-hand. As a trained nutritional advisor, I may not have all of the answers but I am passionate about changing the mentality of those that want to eat healthier. Here are some principles I try to stick to.
- Eat more healthy fats.
Hopefully you’ve got the message: fats are good for you as they provide more energy per gram than carbs and leave you feeling fuller for longer. WHO guidelines are for 40% of your calories to come from fat, but you can go as high as 70-80% to become a fat burning machine (google “ketosis” and note how many top athletes espouse this method). Fats taste good too, so don’t opt for the low-fat options in the supermarket – we don’t feed new born babies anything but high-fat milk for the first months of their lives. I eat a high fat breakfast everyday (eggs and avocado on toast or coconut oil and nuts in porridge) and never crave any mid-morning snacks and rarely eat even before a lunchtime training session.
Here are the top saturated and unsaturated fats to include in your diet: MCT oil (eg coconut), avocados, olive oil, nuts, butter, dairy products, peanut butter, chia seeds. Don’t hold back on any of these: you should eat less bread, potatoes, rice and snacks as a result!
- Avoid snacking
Our bodies are not designed to be constantly grazing on food. Stick to the same meal times, make your body work for the food and, if anything, be a little hungry when it comes to mealtimes. Try not to eat breakfast as soon as you wake, but don’t miss it altogether – it’s still the most important meal of the day! It’s good to have a 12 hour+ fast every day, so eat dinner a bit earlier and don’t break your fast with something highly filling (see above) until you’re at work or later. Never snack after dinner – this will not help with sleep and the calories will simply not get used up. If still hungry after dinner, consider increasing the fat content of your main meal, go for a short, swift walk, have a few squares of dark chocolate (or some nuts), or just try brushing your teeth.
- Prepare your food
It always baffles me that so few people take just 10-15 minutes preparing their breakfast and lunch the night before work. The result is buying over-priced, unhealthy food that you might not even get a choice in by the time you get to the shops. Take the time after dinner (standing and moving aids digestion) to make a ‘packed lunch’ like your mum used to make you. Much like the savings a smoker sees when they give up, think of all the money you will save on £4.50 meal deals or eating out. Making your own lunch is not free of course, but you can choose what you like and make it healthy. Don’t forget to pack cutlery – there’s never enough forks in the kitchen at work!
- Follow the 80/20 rule
It is not fun to be strict about diet all of the time; you will become bored of the same old meals and possibly lose out on variety from eating a wide range of foods. So let yourself have a small treat everyday, or be super-strict for 6 days a week and then have a cheat day, where you reward your hard work by eating and drinking less healthy things (in moderation of course!)
- Eat according to hunger
Some days you’re starving; so eat a bit more. Other days you have less appetite; put a smaller portion on your plate. The body goes through cycles and you are the best judge of how much you need. If you have had a big training day, then make sure you eat more calories or your recovery (and next training session) will be compromised.
As always, feel free to comment or challenge my suggestions, or get in touch if you would like more coaching or nutrition advice.