Eat to Perform: 6 Simple Strategies for the Busy Athlete
Athletes have a lot to worry about. First and foremost is their sport or task. You need to train, practice your sport, engage in recovery practices, and deal with a host of other issues. Diet is obviously a big piece of the puzzle, but after every other debt is paid, how much time and effort do you have left to put into this?
The goal of this article is to give you simple strategies that will help you create a diet that supports your athletic endeavors without bogging you down and making you feel like food is a full-time job that takes away from your real goal - to be good at your sport.
You can't out-eat a shitty work ethic. You can eat the perfect diet, but you still need to train hard.
The Key Ingredient Is Balance
Most people I’ve seen who are super strict with their diet have no energy left for performance and don’t have the will power left to train hard in the gym. Maybe too much focus isn’t a good thing.
There is also a certain type of person who can focus too much on diet because he or she thinks it will substitute for genuine hard work. But you cannot out-eat a shitty work ethic. You just can’t. Not for performance anyway. So have a balance.
"Each one of us has a different genetic signature, athletic goal, upbringing, and training history. To think we can all eat the same because a book or television show tells us to is absurd."
Everyone is looking for some kind of secret when it comes to nutrition and performance. There is always a new superfood people are trying to take advantage of or some new diet that people preach about. The reality is there is no secret, no magic pill, no special supplement. The best way to govern your eating is to make informed, well thought through decisions that relate to your individual needs and goals.
Diet and nutrition need to be as individualised as training. Each one of us has a different genetic signature, athletic goal, upbringing, and training history. To think we can all eat the same because a book or television show tells us to is absurd.
We all want to make things so complicated, but we often lack the simple resources or will power to follow through. And often, the simplest solution is the best solution. There’s nothing overly complicated in what I’m about to share. Just six pieces of real, simple, sound advice.
1. Eat to Support Your Goal
Your daily caloric intake should be adjusted to suit your goals. This should be a relatively simple rule to follow. If you want to gain weight, eat more food. If you want to lose weight, eat less food. It’s not rocket science, though people tend to overcomplicate this one. They want to know exactly how many calories to eat in order to attain a goal.
Each one of us has different genetics and a different history when it comes to training and nutrition. Some of us have slower metabolisms and some have faster. Some of us have different training volumes and need more or less food. Rather than letting a book or website tell you how much you should eat, why don’t you do some research?
"It may take you a few months to figure out how many calories you need to ingest, but personally, I’d rather invest the time and do things the right way to suit my individual needs then take the easy way out and set myself up for failure."
Track your calories for two weeks. Don’t eat any differently than how you eat now. Record what you put in your mouth and when. After two weeks, look at your logs and make note of your daily caloric average.
From there, make changes, but don’t do anything extreme. Intensity is the inverse of duration. Do too much too soon and you will set yourself up for failure because your behaviour won’t last. Start slow. If your goal is to lose weight, cut calories by 100-200 per day. Do that for a few weeks and see what happens. Conversely, if your goal is to gain weight add 100-200 calories and note what happens over two weeks.
If you aren’t losing enough weight, cut another 100-200 calories. If you aren’t gaining enough weight, add 100-200 more per day. Follow this pattern until you find your optimal intake. It may take you a few months to figure out how many calories you need to ingest, but personally, I’d rather invest the time and do things the right way to suit my individual needs then take the easy way out and set myself up for failure.
If you want to be strong, you need to fuel your muscles.
2. Eat Real Food
Ask yourself one question: would you put junk fuel into your brand new sports car? So how about keeping your engine clean so you can perform well, especially when it counts.
Food today isn’t real food. It is genetically modified, filled with preservatives and chemicals, covered in pesticides, and injected with hormones. The bread you eat isn’t the same as the bread people ate 200 years ago. The milk you drink isn’t the same either.
"Ask yourself one question: would you put junk fuel into your brand new sports car? So how about keeping your engine clean so you can perform well, especially when it counts."
If there were only one rule I could tell people to follow, it would be to simply eat real food. Look at ingredients and make better choices. I would strongly advise you to read labels, stay away from chemicals, and buy organic when you can.
Here are a few simple rules to follow to help guide you to make better choices:
- The closer to nature your food is the better.
- The fewer hands that touch your food the better.
- If you can’t pronounce the ingredients don’t put it in your mouth.
- If you can kill it or pluck it from the ground, it is fair game.
- If it was made in a lab, it is off limits.
- If it wasn’t food 100 years ago it isn’t food today.
- If you can visualise the ingredients, the food is okay to eat it, but if not, then it doesn’t go in your mouth (i.e. I know what a tomato or garlic looks like, but have no clue what a soy lecithin looks like).
3. Eat a Good Balance of Carbs, Proteins, and Fats
Protein is a building block. You need it for numerous bodily functions. Make sure you eat enough good quality protein. You can’t do without it.
Eating fat doesn’t make you fat. In fact, the more fat you give your body, the more efficient it becomes using fat as a fuel source. Fat also helps make you feel full. Mono and poly unsaturated fats are necessary in many bodily processes.
You do not want to be on a no-carbohydrate diet. You will be constantly flat and low on muscle glycogen, so make sure you eat enough carbs. Choose from fruit and vegetable sources when you can and eat sources high in fiber. Potatoes and rice are also fine choices. And as long as you don’t have a gluten issue, don’t be scared of a piece of bread or a bowl of pasta. Remember, you need to keep your glycogen stores at full capacity.
"Each meal, just make sure that protein, fat, and carbohydrates are well represented from high-quality sources. As a staring point, I’d recommend about a third of your calories from each source."
When it comes to assigning percentages for macronutrients, people often get into weighing, measuring, and calculating. While this can be valuable for some, it ends up being a burden for others. Also, until you have a handle on eating real food and your calories are on point, then you don’t have any business worrying about the difference between 25 and 30 grams of protein.
Each meal, just make sure that protein, fat, and carbohydrates are well represented from high-quality sources. As a staring point, I’d recommend about a third of your calories from each source. A simple rule of thumb (assuming you have consumed enough calories) is if you are hungry two hours after eating, then your meal was too high in carbohydrates. If you are hungry three or four hours after eating, then your ratios were about right.
4. Eat Frequently
People often overeat at a single sitting. They go too long without eating and then, when they do eat, make poor choices and overindulge. A good way to manage how you eat is to eat small meals throughout the day. This will boost your metabolism, remind your body that food is plentiful, and help you make better eating decisions. Many bad food decisions are made when you are starving.
Some people complain it is difficult to have food ready at all times, but really how hard is it to throw a good meal replacement bar, a snack like an apple, or a little container in your purse, backpack, or briefcase? It just takes a little bit of planning. If you find this to be too much work, then perhaps you aren’t as dedicated as you think.
It isn't that difficult to make good choices when you are hungry - it just takes planning.
5. Allow Yourself the Freedom to Enjoy Yourself
The more restrictive the diet, the harder someone eventually falls off the wagon. Weighing, measuring, and only eating certain types of food that your dislike or eliminating food you love will lead to eventual failure. People will follow diets religiously for months and then when they come off them, find they have no self control left, eat everything in sight, and end up in worse shape than when they started.
"All I am saying is that you should have the freedom once in a while to eat something you enjoy. Who wants to be miserable?"
I don’t think you need to completely restrict yourself to have a good diet. You should feel free to enjoy the odd drink, dessert, or other food you enjoy. That said, I’m not giving you free license to eat whatever you want. Remember, your talk should be consistent with your actions. All I am saying is that you should have the freedom once in a while to eat something you enjoy. Who wants to be miserable?
Some will assign a day of the week as a cheat day, others will have a favorite cheat meal they eat when they have earned it, and others will just indulge when an opportunity to eat really good food comes along. Manage yourself. You know the right thing to do.
6. Individualise and Listen to Your Body
Just like you shouldn’t follow someone else’s training program, you shouldn’t follow someone else’s diet. Each and every one of us has individual needs. Some of us can’t tolerate gluten. Others are fine with it. Some of us have an issue with dairy, and for some of us it causes no issues at all. Some of us need to go to bed on an empty stomach and some of us sleep better on a full belly.
"The best judge of whether something works or not is you. Educate yourself, make your own decisions, and be your own person. Just make sure you have high standards."
The big point here is - do what works for you. Pay attention to your body. Note how it responds to certain food choices. Note how you feel. No book can tell you how you should feel and yet there will always be some pencil neck with a pocket protector and a calculator to saying you are doing things wrong or that they know a better way.
Don't forget to have a little fun.
The best judge of whether something works or not is you. Educate yourself, make your own decisions, and be your own person. Just make sure you have high standards, make your talk consistent with your actions, and make choices that influence your goal in a positive way.
That is it. Nothing revolutionary. Nothing complicated. Just straightforward real advice. So go train hard, eat, and enjoy.
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- Eating to Recover: How and What to Eat Post-Workout
- The Progress Puzzle: 5 Pieces You Might Be Missing
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Photos courtesy of Gym Jones.