An athlete’s diet is one of the most challenging aspects of a healthy lifestyle, and it is over complicated by the fact that there is no shortage of conflicting nutrition advice. The debate goes on as to what approach is best. Paleo? Low Carb? High Protein? There is strong support for all of them.
The truth is, however, that just like in physical training, each person is unique in how they respond to a variety of stimulus. The same is true with nutrition. An effective nutrition plan is highly dependent on the individual and their tolerance. As is true with our coaching philosophy at Extra Life, it is important for an athlete to know their body, understand what works for them, and know how to adapt. This is a vital part of holistic health and fitness, and success in endurance sports. I can’t stress it enough. Know yourself! You can’t rely on someone else to tell you exactly what will work for you! In this regard, a good coach would guide an athlete on their journey of self discovery, rather than simply tell their athlete to eat more bananas.
Unless an athlete want to employ a highly qualified, highly capable, and highly expensive nutritionist, they will need to experiment to nail down their nutrition (and will likely still have to experiment even with the advice of a nutritionist). The important thing to note is that this experimentation should be methodical and purposeful, as opposed to random and unreasonable. Don’t just try a new diet simply because a friend said it works for them. That is a recipe for disaster (see what I did there?). As the experimentation takes place, it is important to adjust one variable at a time to see how it affects you, and to allow that change to take place over a significant time frame so that your body can adapt. This doesn’t have to be a daunting task. As long as you stay conscious about how your body, mind, and performance reacts to different dietary stimulus, the process can become quite efficient and effective. Here are some simple steps you can take to nail down your perfect diet.
Before I begin the list, I want to mention that if you do suffer from certain allergies, food intolerance, eating disorders, or other conditions which may be negatively impacted by a change in diet, you should consult a doctor, nutritionist, or other professional before making any changes.
Start with a clean diet: All too often, people are quick to jump into fads, trends, or gimmicks. They will go from the “fast food” diet to a low carb diet, or a paleo diet and become overwhelmed by information. Additionally, they may be disappointed after their diet du jour doesn’t work for them. Why overcomplicate it? Keep it simple, and you won’t get overwhelmed. Simply start by eating healthy! Cut out all the refined sugars, processed foods, and bleached products, and start shopping at the ends of the grocery store where the colorful fruits and veggies are. Stop eating foods that come out of boxes, and start eating foods that come out of shells (nuts, eggs, etc). A simple “clean” diet serves as a perfect baseline from which to begin adding or subtracting different types of foods. The concept is simple: Eat foods with natural ingredients, the closer to their original packaging the better. This includes eggs, meats, nuts, seeds, grains, fruits, vegetables, etc. For many people, this is all the change they will need, and it will make a dramatic difference to their health, fitness, happiness, and performance. If you are coming from a less than clean diet, expect to spend some time detoxing, which can cause irritability, fatigue, or even illness. For this reason, I would advise sticking with it for at least a month before adding or subtracting different foods.
Track your calorie and macronutrient intake: Apps such as MyPlate are great for this. Simply add the foods in the amounts you are consuming and determine how many calories in the form of fat, carbs, and protein you take in on a daily basis. Most people will hover around 50-60% carbs, 20-30% fat, and 15-20% protein. You may be higher or lower in some areas, and it may give you an indication on what you should adjust going forward. The key is to gain insight into what you are consuming and how much. From this knowledge, you can discover how each type of food affects you. Knowledge is power.
Make minor adjustments to your diet and monitor the effects: Does it seem like eating too much fat is causing you to feel sluggish throughout the day? Are oats giving you stomach distress? Try cutting out certain foods that you think are causing you issues, one at a time and monitor the effects over the course of a couple weeks. Alternatively, you can start adding foods to see if they become a benefit/detriment (are you craving breads? Heck, why not give them a try for a couple weeks?). Try not to cut out too much at once and/or add new items to the diet at the same time or you will confound your data. Over time you will begin to know what items are good for you and what are bad, and you will begin to hone in on YOUR perfect diet.
Timing: Do you operate better by eating a large breakfast and smaller lunch or dinner? Are you more energized by smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day? Do you turn into a Gremlin if you eat after 7 pm? These are all questions you can answer by getting to know how you process food throughout the day. If you find that you get hungry late at night, that is a good indication that you didn’t eat enough during the course of the day. If you are tired at 2 pm, it may be time for an apple, or you may think about having a more substantial breakfast/lunch. Generally, it is good to have a healthy and complete breakfast, smaller meals over the course of the day separated by no more than a few hours, and no eating too close to bedtime. All of this is very individual, and it’s worth getting to know how the timing of your meals affect your mood, fitness, and performance.