I love words, so I looked up the definition of the word FOOD, and found two meanings, with one subtle 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 basic 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.
On a personal note, 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 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 ex 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.
Over the course of my career, there were many times when I didn’t have a coach next to me, giving me cues, or keeping me on track. Endurance athletes seem to have an independent nature yet they still need to develop good decision making skills. I had to learn to train well on my own and I learned like a lot of people, through failure. Once I had failed though, I was pretty determined not to repeat the failure. I learned about training too hard on my easy days in the hardest way possible. I was at the World Student Games in Sheffield, England, and I was a young, enthusiastic runner, excited to be alongside my idols and role models. I was so wrapped up in the experience of the event, my first really big multisport games, that I tagged along for a training run with some of the more experienced members of the Canadian Team. So happy to be just running with the elite, the best of the best, I pretty much hammered to keep up during a 10 mile run at slightly faster than 6 min/mile pace. This run ended up being a strong tempo run, (probably a 4.5 out of 5 on the effort scale at the end of the run) and, being 2 days out of my 10 000m track event, left me with nothing on race day. I will never forget the disappointment of running that championship race on demolished legs. After 6 laps, it was a struggle, and suffering through each of the remaining interminable 19 laps taught me 25 times over to never again throw away a race during training.
The ability to be paying attention to what is happening right now, fully accepting of it, appreciating it, and not wishing for anything more, or for it to be different. Particularly, to not be distracted by ‘thinking’ - by music, your outside environment, or your unhelpful thoughts.
I believe it is really important for people to develop this skill of mindfulness in training for several reasons. Mindfulness brings your attention to what is happening with your body in the moment. When you are mindful, you are more likely to be relaxed and without tension, and this will improve your body’s ability to move effectively. When you are paying attention, you will notice when something isn’t quite right - like a small ache or pain - and you can stop and stretch, slow down or stop before it becomes an injury. When you are mindful you aren’t distracted my multitasking, and this is both powerfully beneficial to your mental health and helps increase your intrinsic enjoyment for training. If you are mindful you don’t ignore a pain that will become an injury.
There is another quality to mindfulness, though, as it pertains to your goals, and priorities. I could argue that during my 10 mile run through the countryside outside Sheffield, in the lead up to the Student Games 10 000, I was entirely mindful. I was so mindful of my effort and my love of running that I totally forgot about my goal of running the track race in 2 evenings hence. If I had been truly mindful about what was needed of myself, as my own best coach to prepare optimally for the event, for which I had travelled across the globe, then I would have been able to run in a relaxed easy manner, for a shorter duration, and been ready.
I feel there is a helpful correlation to mindfulness and learning to train by perceived effort. This is beneficial for beginners to aerobic exercise as it will teach you to listen to your body - and it is simple and gadget free. At first, even a slight increase in pace will feel hard and uncomfortable, but over time you will find that your body is adapting to lactate accumulation and you can go comfortably for longer. The other benefit to training by perceived effort, and not heart rate, is that your body is not a robot. Sleep, stress, coffee, and other environmental factors can affect your heart rate, causing confusion and sometimes stress in athletes trying to attain unreasonable rates of work based on what they think they should do (that is, based on a quantitative system of improvement for the sole sake of compiling data). “I ran this loop at x pace last week so I need to run it at x pace this week, or I did x miles last week and I want to do x miles +n - no matter what). Learning your own effort levels in the absence of a coach is a solid start to training and staying healthy.
As Olympic marathoner Lorraine Moller puts it in her wonderful article about self-coaching called “Becoming a Body Whisperer, “All champion runners can tune in to their bodies' signals to such a high degree that they have the ability to optimally divvy out their effort over the distance required using precise split-second decisions. They don't have the time or mind-space during a race to check their monitor data, make a cell phone call to their coach and wait for him to call back with instructions on whether to increase or decrease their pace after downloading it into a computer. Nor would they want such a clumsy system when their inner technology is so much more sophisticated, speedy and accurate. Although such a scenario is laughable, many runners proceed as if this were the case and fall apart when the race requires them to be self-reliant. By contrast, every champion athlete, almost without exception, is an expert body whisperer whose trust in their internal abilities of gauging effort, pacing and timing is unwavering”.
Spend some time training by feel alone
Training without a watch, or any technology will help you tune into your effort, and help you learn to trust your instincts about pace. Train on your own, without a watch, without HR monitors, music or any gizmos. Choose a route you know will take you roughly the amount of time you need for one of your aerobic easy training days. It doesn’t have to be exactly the 20 or 30 minutes, but close, within 5 minutes. If you don’t feel comfortable training without a watch, because you are new to the sport and do not know your routes, you can wait and do this session when you have some data for the routes that you do often - like in your neighbourhood or around a park. Another option is to do smaller loops - time yourself for one loop. Now you know how long it takes, roughly, to do this loop. Now go do the loop again as many times as you think you need in order to hit the prescribed training time. Or simply go out and back. Wear a watch on the way out, then take off the watch and train by feel and effort for the way home.
Aerobic development is important, but not to the point where you injure yourself.
To walk or run long distances, the development of the cardiovascular system through aerobic endurance sessions is necessary, but also unique to individuals. I learned early in my career, that my heart and desire were far greater and stronger than my muscular skeletal system. While some of my peers were running 150 km/week, I rarely could hold greater than 80 before I broke down or got sick. This limited my ability to be a great marathoner and I stuck with half marathon, 10k, and 5k, and eventually added triathlon to my career - using bike mileage to boost my cardiovascular system. Some athletes can work their way up systematically and gradually and logically into high mileage, some people will always break down after a critical point of volume. Learn to avoid volume for the sake of volume, (which I believe is governed by the law of diminishing returns for anyone not training as a full time athlete, or over the age of 45). Avoid overtraining through too high volume by listening to your body not your training log. Aches and pains that persist 24/7, fatigue, constant injuries to your knees, ankles and hips, and a general feeling (called intuition or gut feeling) that you are not making gains by training so much, means you need to limit your volume, or at least find a way to satisfy your aerobic needs by cross training. Long trail running hikes (where your pace is really easy, and interspersed with walking), hiking hills in the off season and pre-season in order to build aerobic capacity and lower limb strength and resiliency (Mt Doug, Mt Finlayson, Caleb Pike etc), and cycling will all give you the aerobic benefit you need, plus the strength required for fitness walking and running.
Don’t Be a Sheep
One of the greatest challenges to group training environments, is what I call the ‘highest common denominator effect”, where the pace of the group is dictated by the fastest participants. Been there, done that a thousand times. I have warmed up too fast, done long runs way too fast, cooled down too fast and gone out too hard over and over and over again. As a coach, I either encourage everybody to warm up at the slowest pace possible to keep the group together or in the case of particularly persistent ‘fasties’ I let the ‘fasties’ get ahead and learn for themselves that leaving their best training in the warm up isn’t the optimal way to get stronger. I’m know for saying at the beginning of warm up: “No one goes ahead of Coach Lucy”
Good training habits have wonderful application to real life. Really listening to yourself is a huge confidence building skill. Knowing how to tune into your body, and just appreciate its movement and strength, and let the distracting thoughts go is a positive mindset in a world full of comparison and distractions. Learning when to back off without judgement from a too fast pace, a too energetic training partner or a too long long run, is one of the best skills and gifts you can absorb. For one, it is refreshingly free of ego, to be mindful and train at a pace that is right for you, instead of clinging to the idea that you have to ‘keep up’ to count. It reduces anxiety (will be keep up; will I be able to complete this?) and it frees you up for listening to your own body and perceived effort.
And finally, here are my Top 3 suggestions to being your own best coach:
1. Commit to getting good sleep; many studies have shown than consistent sleep and bed time routines enhance healthy bodies and ability to train. Training when energy is high is optimal. At least for key sessions.
2. Pay attention to eating well. Fuel with a good simple diet of nutritious food. Plan fuel for late day sessions.
3. Make patience your mantra; hard work, routine commitment and practice are still the best guarantees to success.
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