Good nutrition can be the difference between a good training session, and a bad training session, a good race and a bad race. When I first started training, I ate whatever was nearest (literally) and dearest to my appetite at the time. ? I didn’t think much about the importance of nutrition, but once I started making healthier and more nourishing changes to my diet, I started to notice some of the many benefits of good, smart nutrition. I felt much more energised and training felt … So. Damn. Good. ?
My nutrition has taken years of learning, working with nutritionists, as well as going through much personal trial and error, and I probably still have so much more to learn. But what I do know, is that even small changes can have a huge positive impact on your training. An important thing to keep in mind, is nutrition is very individualised and should be completely specific to you. If you take anything away from this post, let it be this:
Please please please take the time to find out your body’s needs and your own specific nutritional needs.
To help you find those, here are tips on some nutrition topics that have helped me so far:
1. ⏰ Timing is key
The body takes between 2 and 4 hours for food to be digested, processed and absorbed into the system. It’s completely your choice how long before training you eat, but I would 100% recommend having something. Skipping meals is very detrimental, and in terms of energy, it’s like fuelling a car before long trip – you won’t get very far with your day.
A lot of research has shown that training on an empty stomach can lead to the breakdown of muscle proteins, loss of focus and concentration, as well as a drop in the ability to resist fatigue. The more complex your meals are, the longer your body will take to absorb and process the nutrients optimally. So a big lunch would probably take closer to 4 hours to digest, whereas a small snack could take much quicker. Knowing roughly how long your meal will take to digest is really useful when thinking about what to eat before a training session, especially to ensure you feel energetic whilst training, and avoid those dreaded stomach cramps. For example, if you’re up early in the morning training, then having a quick releasing breakfast beforehand will be much more beneficial for your training, whereas if you train in the evening, consuming a combination of slow release foods throughout the day, would be much a more strategic approach.
So have a think and a play around as to what you can eat and how this will benefit you in your training sessions.
And timing is not only about how long before training you consume a meal, but also about regularity.
For example, research has shown that by ensuring you have a regular hit of protein throughout the day, your body has enough to repair itself throughout the night by the time you get to sleep. That’s just one example, but eating regular meals can also help maintain constant energy throughout the day, to avoid those awful sugar crashes and hangry moods, as well as helping to avoid overindulging at main meal times. Regularity also goes for adequate hydration – make sure your sipping on some water constantly throughout the day!
Finally, we can also think about timing after a training session for immediate recovery purposes. After exercise, it’s been shown that consuming a short recovery meal, drink or snack not only simulates protein synthesis for quicker muscle recovery and avoiding muscle protein breakdown, but can also improve your performance for your next training session. This is because you replace the glycogen stores that have just been depleted, much quicker.
So being mindful about when you eat, and how often you do, could be extremely beneficial for your training.
2. ? Counting your calories
You don’t have to. Personally, I think it makes some have an unhealthy relationship with food. Food is your friend, not your enemy. If you’re going to count anything, count the macros you’re consuming, to ensure you’re getting enough carbohydrates, protein and fats for your training needs.
I currently don’t pay very much attention to counting my calories, but in September this year, at the start of winter training, I began counting calories because I needed to put on some weight (very about-to-go-into-winter-hibernation feels, I know ?). I had lost some weight over the summer due to competing so much and not having much of an appetite, so it would’ve been unhealthy to go into a heavy phase of training with low body fat.
But not reaching my “desired” calorie count made me feel almost guilty for not reaching a ‘calorie count’. It put pressure on me to find new foods all at once, rather than a gradual integration of new recipes, and at times, I was eating too much when I didn’t really want to, which made me feel uncomfortable.
When I came to weigh in, my strength coach would make me feel terrible and accused me of not eating enough, expressing that it is “part of the job”, which honestly just made the situation worse! One day I said “enough is enough!” If my body wants to put on more weight, then it will. I stopped counting my calories.
And you know what happened when I stopped counting calories? I actually started to gain weight, because I was eating far more intuitively. I was eating what I wanted, when I wanted. And now, I’m easily maintaining a healthy weight without any calorie counting (which is not an adequate representation of macros/micros). I started to become mindful of what made me feel good and what didn’t.
So just think – eat foods that make you feel good, energised, alive and strong. And eat when you want to.
Focus on nourishing the body with enough macros and micros, rather than how many calories you’re getting. Think about what makes you feel good and what doesn’t, because chances are, there is a direct correlation to what your body needs and what it doesn’t. Focus on getting enough carbohydrates, protein, fats and vitamins and minerals. Then, most likely, you will have everything you need.
3. ?Complex vs Simple Carbs
Okay, first let’s talk about carbs in general.
How many people have heard the phrase – “Don’t eat carbs, they make you fat”. Let’s just contextualise this for a moment.
It’s worth knowing how our body uses carbohydrates before we start drawing conclusions that they lead to this or that. Carbohydrates can be part of a healthy diet.
Carbohydrates are our body’s go-to source of energy. Studies have shown that endurance capacity is diminished when athletes go on a low-carb diet. If you’re reading this and you are an athlete, or regularly run/exercise, or lead a very active lifestyle, I would generally say this: you need carbs.
Our body digests carbs the easiest, it’s the first thing our body can easily process to glycogen, which is our ‘fuel’. Our body processes what we need, turns it to glycogen which is stored for energy, and the rest, is stored as fat. Therefore, if you live a relatively sedentary lifestyle, and eat lots of refined sugars and simple foods, your body can digest it very quickly and store it as fat, because you’re not using it. Then the phrase “carbs make you fat” may actually be true.
However, if you live a very active lifestyle, these carbs will be your main energy source and keep you going. Storing extra carbs as fat becomes limited here, because you’re most likely using it up as energy. Now, if you live a very active lifestyle and constrict your carbs, your body turns to other sources, such as proteins, which limits the amount you have to recover and repair your muscles, and muscle protein breakdown becomes very common.
Now, when it comes to carbohydrates, it’s very useful to know the differences between complex and simple carbohydrates, and again knowing how the differences between them can help you decide your meals.
Simple carbohydrates consist of just one or two sugar molecules, so it doesn’t take much for your body to break them down and absorb them as glucose into the bloodstream. So if you need a quick source of energy just before a training session, then simple carbohydrates could be your go-to, such as fruit, or even a smoothie (especially helpful if you have an early morning workout).
Complex carbohydrates are made up of longer chains of sugar molecules, which makes them take longer to digest, and are usually found in starchy foods, such as root veg, legumes, oats wheats. The healthiest complex carbohydrates are the least processed or refined. A good rule of thumb is to choose foods that are sourced closer to the ground, such as brown rice, quinoa, barley, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, and legumes (peas, beans, chick peas etc). (As opposed to white breads, fruit juices, pastries etc).
As complex carbs take longer to digest, they tend to release energy much slower. So if you’re going to have a big meal 4 hours before training or a competition, for example, this would be the meal in which you would want to include more complex carbs to ensure you have energy later on, as well as helping you feel fuller for longer.
So knowing the difference between simple and complex carbs can help you make better decisions about what your meals can look like.
4. ? Supplements
I had to say something on this, because I just feel that here is so much information out there, it is has become so confusing and cloudy. I personally take supplements, and it has greatly improved my training. And this is based, again, on how I feel. I once met someone who expressed they didn’t take supplements because they could find everything they needed in foods. This is a common view on supplements, and I am by no means discrediting that opinion, because it is a VERY valid point. If you are well nourished, you’ll get everything you probably need.
However, the way I see it, from the point of view of someone who is in a high performance sport, we are pushing our bodies to the limit everyday and therefore, we DO need those nutrients, vitamins and minerals that we CAN get from food, but in much greater quantities. And a supplement is just that – the dictionary defines it as a thing added to something else in order to complete or enhance it. It’s not supposed to replace, but rather improve our diets.
For example, I can get protein from a variety of sources, but after a strenuous training session, I need protein almost immediately, and I’m way too tired to consume a large meal. So I take a protein shake that has my protein requirements (about 0.75g per 1kg of body weight), as well as a quick carbohydrate restoration and electrolytes. It’s these extra things we need to be mindful of.
Here are the reasons for taking the supplements I take:-
- Protein powder – To help build and strengthen my muscles, especially as they are put under so much pressure pretty much daily. I aim for 1.5g protein per kg of body weight, per day, but this can be between 0.75 – 2g per kg body weight dependent on your needs. (I cannot stress this enough!!)
- Creatine – Something your body can naturally produce, and also found in many different meats. It helps increase the production of ATP energy, which aids high-intensity exercise. It also has many other benefits, such as boosting muscle growth and improving muscle strength, power, endurance, fatigue resistance as well as recovery. (100% recommend this supplement for all those sprinters out there!)
- Iron – Helps transport oxygen to tissues (essential for aerobic energy), improves red blood cell count and haemoglobin production, as well as aiding in the reduction of fatigue. Iron is also vital for recovery, as it helps to produce new cells and proteins.
- Magnesium – Also accelerates recovery processes and aids sleep. I take one right before bed (I sleep SO well!)
- Calcium – As the famous kid’s yoghurt, ‘petit filous’ advert once said, it helps my bones grow strongerer! (I’ve actually already grown, so it just helps keep them strong, but same difference!)
- Vitamin C and Zinc – As sports people, we’re pushing our bodies so hard every day, and sometimes, my immune system gives way. This vitamin and mineral supports the immune system, and reduces my chances of illness.
Personally, I take supplements that aid my training and recovery, and figured them out from what I felt I needed for training.
I would so so so recommend figuring out what you feel you need, and doing just a little bit of research on it. ?If anyone is concerned, or needs assurance about what is legitimate to take and what isn’t, the websites www.informed-sport.com and globaldro.com have information to reaffirm your sports nutrition choices.
Now, I know I’ve mentioned it enough already in this post, but I must stress this again – The above is personal to MY NEEDS, and I’m only posting this as a guideline or a starting point to figuring out what you need for your training needs. I am by no means, a nutrition expert, just simply very interested in the ways athletes fuel their bodies! ?♀️
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to comment below, or ask questions in my “ask page” and I will do my best to answer them. ☺️