Food, Nutrition, Fuel
Read the following 2 definitions of FOOD and see if you can spot the difference.
Any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink or that plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth. (Oxford Dictionary)
Something that people and animals eat, or plants absorb, to keep them alive. (Cambridge Dictionary)
The seemingly minor discrepancy between the definitions of Food from the two greatest wordsmiths of the English Language fits with the general confusion around what exactly is healthy, nutritious, and good for your body. Oxford uses the adjective ‘nutritious’, to describe food, while Cambridge seems to focus on anything you eat to keep you alive.
Nutrition then, is the process of taking food into the body and absorbing the nutrients in those foods. (Collins Dictionary).
Nutrition, food, and diet have all become much more complicated than they need to be. What should I eat before a workout? When should I eat before a workout? Should I drink during workouts? Will eating Vegan make me leaner, faster or feel better? Do I need to change my diet before starting my first race? Is beer bad for you? What is Paleo eating? AAAH. The world of nutrition and particularly sports nutrition has exploded over the last twenty years as more and people have taken their health seriously and become involved in physical activity for fitness and the internet has been able to deliver information that was previously reserved for elite athletes, or only found in the dusty science journals or on microfiche at the college library. Information that the top athletes in the world have used to improve and maintain strength, fitness and health is now available to anyone with an internet search engine. With our present concerns about our health and longevity there has also been an increase in the numbers and types of special diets out there, diets that are meant to increase our energy, personal power, stamina and lean mass. Here then, are some common sense nutrition basics - bearing in mind that that special diets, food intolerances and allergies are beyond the scope of this post.
Eating to Feel Well
Still the oldest and most common sense idea in the book is the idea of looking at your body as if it is a fine tuned machine similar to a sports car. The type of gas you use has a direct correlation to how well the engine runs. Looking at food as fuel, the concept is that you want to choose foods that nourish and support your body and the training you desire to do. You can also train to eat, which is also a driving force for many people: they enjoy food, fine dining and sweets, and training is one way to manage their weight and health. For performance I prefer the eating to train version, as it puts the power with you, the individual, to make healthy, informed choices about what you are putting into your body without being obsessive. Over time, the emphasis on good choices leads to overall feelings of wellbeing in training and out, and the habits stick for good, merely because you feel better and your engine runs better. And having fries and a burger one night while out with friends at the pub, isn’t going to kill you because you consistently take care of yourself.
The other aspect to nutrition is portion control: something that North American society has lost almost completely. The rise of fast food, discount shopping in bulk, and mass consumption turned bigger into better for everything, including food. Most people eat too large portions for the amount of energy they expend each day, even active people. Because of the emphasis on eating more, and eating quickly, people have forgotten how to understand when they are full and to stop eating before that point.
Simply put, you only need to eat as many calories as you burn in one day. Eat more than what you use and you gain weight over time: eat less and you gradually lose weight, especially lean muscle. You don’t even have to count calories. A healthy person can listen to their body, know when they are hungry, and can eat accordingly, stopping when they are full. However, to reset our bodies from over eating to moderate eating for health, might require a good Nutritionist and diet plan at first, in order to create the new habits.
Doing exercise is a great way to learn how to eat better. After training, you will often feel hungry, since you might not have eaten for a while and your body is looking for energy to replace the energy it just spent. Making good choices, and fuelling your body slowly and with good quality food, will teach you to listen to your hunger signals and to take care of yourself well.
Good choices: There are many resources out there for nutrition and food choice, but Nutritionists recommend choosing whole foods as much as you can. Fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grain rice and pastas and bread, eggs, lean unprocessed meat like steak, chicken breast, pork and turkey. Food that is as close to its natural state as possible is the rule to follow. The less packaging, and the fewer ingredients, the better. Think a grilled fresh chicken breast, with fresh steamed broccoli and brown rice over a highly processed Pizza Pop. A bagel with peanut butter and banana is a better choice than a packaged cookie, muffin or granola bar.
The basics to eating for energy are to have a general diet that is nutritious, whole, and in line with the energy that you expend each day. I like to add that for most people, sustainability and pleasure should also be considered. Don’t obsess over the perfect diet. Eating a strict diet that restricts foods you love (unless you have a real food allergy that makes you sick) isn’t a whole lot of fun, and takes a lot of energy to plan. I like this article that looks at our relationship with food.
Fuelling to Train
For general training, there are 3 key aspects to sports nutrition: 1. eating and hydrating before workouts, 2. eating and hydrating during workouts, and 3. eating and hydrating after workouts. If you have limited time to train, you want to make the most of each session. Being nutritionally ready to perform is very important. For the scope of most training under 2 hours and for events of under 90 minutes hydration and nutrition are not as crucial to success as they are in longer endurance events like ultras and Ironman where athletes will run into depletion during the course of the event, therefore what follows is general good advice that will be a starting point for the beginner.
Eat before your workouts: You want to start workouts with energy to complete the session, but you don’t want to feel full or have stomach upset from something that you ate. Aim to consume 60-100 grams of carbohydrates between 1 and 3 hours before your workout. (I.e. one energy bar and a piece of fruit or a bagel with jam and a piece of fruit.) Keep the foods high in carbohydrates and low in protein and fat. Your goal over time is find the right foods and timing that work for you as you will replicate this nutrition on race day. Workout timing has to be taken into consideration. Early morning workouts require only an early breakfast taken prior to training, while evening workouts means paying attention to nutrition and timing throughout the day. If you train after work (but before supper) you may need to have a pre-training snack (fuel) about an hour before training, especially if lunch was over 4 hrs prior. Timing your lunch to fall 3 hrs before you afternoon training session is a good practice. You want to avoid skipping breakfast and lunch if you are doing afternoon training sessions. The caloric shortfall to missed meals will leave you depleted and weak in your training. During busy days at work, count backward 1-2 hours from the estimated time you will get to your after work session, and have a snack ready: banana, small sandwich with peanut butter and honey. Over time you will find what works best for you and stick with that.
Hydrate before workouts: it is proven than being dehydrated negatively affects performance. Even a 1% loss in body weight due to dehydration will slow you down, so become friend with your water bottle! Sipping on water will keep your hydration levels up, but sports drink, and even juice, contains electrolytes that are more effective at hydrating your body. 1-2 hours before a training session, ensure that you have drunk about 500ml of fluid. Drinking too much too close to a workout doesn’t give your body time enough to absorb the fluid. Fluid will either slosh around in your stomach and create cramps and a full feeling, or will hamper you with bathroom breaks.
Fuelling and hydration during workouts: For sessions over 90 min or in really hot climates people will need to consume about 200-300 calories per hour for optimal energy to complete the session successfully. A sport gel like PowerBar gel has an easy to use pack of 110 calories and a blend of Carbohydrates and electrolytes that are scientifically formulated for endurance sports. One gel every 30 minutes of exercise, taken with 8-12 oz of water is recommended and proven to be beneficial to sport performance. There are many gels on the market now, in a variety of flavours. Take the time to find the one that works for you and that you like. Drink 8 oz water or an electrolyte drink every 15 minutes for the duration of the session.
Every person has a different rate at which they sweat, and there are 2 low tech (because I'm all about keeping it simple) methods of seeing if you are getting enough fluids.
1. The urine test: if your urine is barely yellow, you are well hydrated. If it is dark yellow, you are not hydrated enough.
2. Weigh yourself before and after exercise. The amount of weight lost is equal to the amount of water lost. For each pound of weight lost, you need to replace with 20oz of water.
How to Carry Liquids and Gels
Walking and running present their own problems as carrying a water bottle in your hands is cumbersome and throws you off your natural balance. There are excellent bottle carrying belts on the market now, ones with comfortable wide waist bands that hold several smaller bottles. For long runs over 90 minutes I recommend taking water with you as it will increase your enjoyment and performance of the session.
A lot of running shorts and tights have small pockets build right into them, perfect for carrying along one or two gels.
Eating Post Workout
Plan for and aim to eat within 15 minutes of completing your workout or race. The food you eat should contain some protein, be high in carbohydrates and 150-300 calories. High carbohydrate foods will replace the glycogen your muscles need in order to repair and recover from the stress they were under during your training session. Refuelling right after a session helps your body recover faster from the session so you are stronger and more ready for the next day. When you are able to train better you will improve faster and will be setting yourself up for success at your race. A common strategy is to have 200-300 calories ready to consume at the end of the session: a smoothie, banana, or small sandwich.
When I was racing full time, I saw the full spectrum of dietary habits. I saw athletes eat barely anything at all, vegetarians who were the pickiest roommates ever, and athletes who survived (not sure if they were thriving) off massive amounts of fast food and slurpees. I roomed with athletes who hated the onerous job of eating and only ate one food group and those who ate everything in sight, including any left over food on my plate. There were athletes who meticulously ate the exact same food before every race, and those that ate whatever was served them. I am obsessed with words and dictionaries more than I’m obsessed with food, and I am not a Nutritionist, but as a retired elite athlete and coach, in the end, I still approach food with common sense, encourage people to avoid fixating about the perfect diet, and to just enjoy the process of creating habits that support their goals.
Writing the Running Life
For 30 years I pursued a high performance career and traveled the world. This blog melds this experience with my coaching and passion to support excellence in others.