If you’re a regular reader of our blog or if you’ve listened to our podcast, you’ve probably picked up on our biggest value as a business, which is enjoying life outside the gym. We believe that pursuit of optimal athletic performance, especially for action sports enthusiasts, doesn’t have to mean 2 hours per day, 6 days per week in the gym. We structure many of our training programs around the idea that we are working with very active people who are spending at least 2 days per week doing some sort of recreational or competitive activity outside of the gym. We support that lifestyle and believe that our training protocols can actually help you maximize your time in those activities, rather than leave you fatigued, sore, and unable to perform to your potential. However, if you’re interested in making the most of your time on the bike/board/trail/slopes/mat there’s another aspect of performance that you have to pay attention to: nutrition.
At the risk of sounding like every other strength coach who’s ever written anything about nutrition, the first thing you should understand is that, like many things in life, what you put into your body is what you will get out. Now, that’s a very broad and simple statement to describe what is actually a very complex idea, so let’s unpack it. How does what you eat affect your athletic performance? How do you know what to eat to support better performance? What are some actionable steps you can take to start improving your nutrition today?
You probably already know that what you eat and drink has an impact on your athletic performance. What you might not know is just how much of an impact. One excellent example is water. As little as 2% dehydration can decrease aerobic endurance, increase heart rate and body temperature, and increase reliance on carbohydrate as an energy source during athletic activity. Basically, that means you’re going to become fatigued and feel fatigued faster. Not ideal. Another example has to do with your carbohydrate intake. Without going into too much detail regarding energy systems, suffice it to say that, if you do not consume enough carbohydrates between training sessions, you may not fully replenish your glycogen stores. That can lead to an inability to perform at your best, especially during intense activity, as your body is forced to rely on less efficient energy sources. Your overall protein intake is also an important factor. Insufficient protein deprives your body of the basic building blocks it need to repair muscle tissue damaged during intense exercise, potentially contributing to muscle soreness and jeopardizing strength gains from your training session.
Eating in a way that supports performance doesn’t have to be hard, but you do have to take the time to educate yourself on what foods you should be consuming (most of the time) and which ones you should avoid. Some of this is intuitive and aligns with what you’ve probably heard through mainstream media. For example, you shouldn’t be eating much of anything that comes out of a deep fryer. Partially because of the overall fat content that comes with anything cooked in oil, but also because of the quality and type of fat used in most commercial deep fryers. Another good general rule is to avoid highly processed foods. There are several mental shortcuts you can use to quickly figure out if a food is highly processed. The easiest might be to look at the ingredient list. The longer the list, the more likely that you are looking at a highly processed food. If the food’s not in a package, then you can apply the “caveman” test – if a caveman wouldn’t immediately recognize it as food, it’s probably highly processed. For example, an apple is a relatively unprocessed food. It can be directly picked off of a tree and eaten. An apple pie is processed. It contains apples, but they’ve been sliced and cooked, had sugar and spices added to them, and been encapsulated in a buttery, flaky crust…mmmmmm. There are a variety of reasons to avoid processed foods, but one the most important is that they typically contain refined sugars or other additives that, at best, do not support optimum athletic performance and, at worst, can seriously hinder it.
So, what are some good “rules of thumb” and actions you can take to start down a path towards eating habits that will support your athletic activity?
This might be the most important and often-overlooked thing you can do to support better athletic performance. If you’re not adequately hydrated going into your training session or competition, you’re not going to perform to your potential, period. Hydration is all the more important because it’s so easy to do. Buy a reusable water bottle and just sip water all day during work, school, or whatever your daily activities may be. Make sure to continue drinking small amounts during training/competition and a little more than normal afterwards. Though it’s not a problem for most people, there IS such a thing as overhydration. Luckily, our natural “thirst” mechanism works very well at telling our body how much water we need. Don’t continue to drink past the point of quenching your thirst, and you should be OK.
2) Get Enough Protein.
There are several different schools of thought on what constitutes “enough” protein and specific recommendations for individual athletes are well outside the scope of this article. What we do know is that dietary protein is absolutely vital to proper recovery after intense physical activity. Training is a deliberately destructive process. We are reaching slightly past our body’s comfortable physical capacity in order to force it to adapt and become stronger/better conditioned. In order to ensure that adaptation takes place, we have to provide both the stimulus (training) and the tools for recovery. Adequate protein is part of the latter. Without getting into weighing and measuring your food (which will always be the optimal approach) you can start by just trying to eat some amount of protein at every meal. Protein sources vary in quality, so focus on things like lean meats, fish, eggs, legumes (beans), or yogurt (greek style, if possible). If you are concerned about your overall protein intake, you can try adding a protein shake after training. There are a variety of options available, including vegan, dairy-free, organic, etc. To get specific recommendations for how much protein you need, consult a nutritionist, particularly one who specializes in sports performance.
3) Refuel After Intense Activity.
This one is simple, but also often overlooked. While there are different viewpoints on which nutrients to consume and how long after training to consume them, it is safe to say that you need to eat after training. Try to get some protein (see #2) and a good dose of simple carbohydrates. After training, your body is primed to process carbohydrates, and the bulk of what you put in will likely go towards replenishing your glycogen stores to prepare you for your next session. Simple carbs are things with a higher glycemic index like white rice, oatmeal, potatoes, etc. If you are going to eat refined sugars, like candy or something (which we still don’t recommend) immediately post-workout is the time to do it.
4) If Can’t Kill It or Grow It, Don’t Eat It.
All of the smartasses reading this right now are saying “Well, pizza is made from flour, which comes from wheat, which you can grow, so pizza must be ok!”. No. You have to apply a little common sense to make this one work. Don’t overthink it. You can’t go out into the woods and kill a pizza and you can’t plant a pizza seed and grow a slice. That Nick Offerman video is fake…sorry to crush your dreams. This is really just another mental shortcut to steer you away from processed foods and towards “whole” foods that are richer in micronutrients that support athletic performance.
5) Meal Prep.
If you want to stick to these rules and see a significant impact on your performance from these changes, you should start preparing your own meals. This helps you control and know exactly what is going into your meals, saves you money, and also ensures that your aren’t tempted to eat junk because “there was nothing else around”. If you prepare your meal beforehand, that excuse goes away.
If you’re looking to truly optimize your performance, you need to get a plan from a qualified nutritionist. These 5 best practices are just a good way to get started down the road to eating for better performance. If you don’t have a training plan yet, set up a free intro consultation to learn about what we offer and how we can help you make the most of your life outside the gym.