The Food Blog
As a professional athlete, I get asked the question “what do you eat?”. A lot.
“what do you eat before races?”
“what do you eat after races?”
“What do you eat before training runs? Before workouts?”.
“ What DON’T you eat?” .
Although I’m health conscious, I’m not on a specific diet and pretty much approach food from a standpoint of high efficiency and minimum effort. I realize that many people don’t have as boring a relationship with food as I do, and that food can be a hobby or passion to some. I also understand that diet and training has always been a somewhat delicate topic as eating disorders are prevalent in a sport that not only puts a premium on lightness but has a tendency to attract the type A personality. I won’t delve into the topic of eating disorders, as I’m not qualified and I realize it’s a complex issue that often goes deeper than trying to get race-lean.
What I am interested in is highlighting the difference between what many serious athletes in high school, college and beyond think about training diets and what some of the best athletes in the world practice and seeing if this dispels any misconceptions about the way we may approach nutrition and training.
what I’ve realized is this: based on observations of world class athletes from a variety of countries, it’s not so much specifically what you eat (or what you weigh, for that matter), it’s more your attitude toward diet that can help your training, racing and fueling go harmoniously hand in hand. Most of the highly successful runners from all over the world that I am fortunate enough to know have 3 general things in common when it comes to their training diet attitude:
1.) Many Top Runners Aren’t Too Strict or Restrictive
Barring the few athletes I know with a true food allergy or sensitivity, most of the really good runners do not follow diet fads and have a diet that incorporates: carbohydrates, meat, (especially red meat), wheat, dairy and whatever other foods are common in their cultures. It’s hard enough to quickly rebuild and refuel your muscle fibers and glycogen stores from day to day, so to eliminate a food group if it isn’t completely necessary makes it even more difficult. Imagine a major construction project trying to finish on a timeline, but only having access to half of the tools and materials. It’s going to require more time and effort and may even result in a substandard product. Having some flexibility with a diet is important to accommodate race situations where there is not a lot of control over what you may be eating. For example, at some of the European based Diamond League meets the meals are all provided for the athletes and are usually great food. However, the pre race “snack” is sometimes, inexplicably, cookies, cakes and coffee. Admittedly, I’d usually bring my own snack of a PB and J or energy bar, but I definitely have gotten smashed by athletes who went the cookie route. This is not because I didn’t have the cookies, but because they were way more fit than I was, cookies be damned.
2.)The Pros Eat for Performance, Not Just for Health
Is going Vegan or Vegetarian great for your cholesterol levels, blood pressure and heart health? Most likely! Ideally, I may one day eat this way, but right now I’m trying to offset the high muscle breakdown rate of intense training and recover as quickly as possible to do it all again the next day. As highly competitive athletes, (and this includes some high school and most college level runners on upwards), we place a specific and unique load on our bodies, so it helps to eat with this in mind. It makes sense that we can’t eat the same way that our lovely yoga instructor does or our spry 80 year old grandma does or even how our friend who runs occasionally but doesn’t do intense speed work does. While healthy eating and eating for performance often overlap, I’ve noticed a few specific distinctions.
ex.) cue high tech graphic:
These two example groups overlap, yet focus on different outcomes and differ mostly on what is excluded rather than included. Neither group is a good or bad diet, one is just more specifically geared toward refueling athletes more efficiently than the other.
3.)The Best Athletes Don’t Overthink It
There is a lot of mental energy needed to focus on competing and goad your body into riding the red line of lactic eruption for an entire 800,5k, marathon,etc. I have noticed that in most cases, obsessing and stressing about food related choices is another draining decision making process that takes from the pool of willpower you’ll need to tap into to compete. (So too does being hungry, so make sure you are eating enough!) I would bet that lot of serious distance runners come from mildly obsessive personalities (or just me…), so it’s natural that diet can fall into this same hyper-planned and highly scrutinized area the way that training does. In this case, it helps to prioritize what matters most in regards to training and racing. For example, staying injury free by way of whatever methods work best (such as foam rolling, physical therapy, chiropractor, etc) may seem obsessive when you are doing downward dog in an airport terminal, but not getting hurt pays off more in regards to performance than a few slip ups in a strict or complicated diet.
Of course there are basic guidelines for avoiding a terrible diet that are worth factoring into daily food choices no matter what your goals are. For example, to steer away from highly processed food towards whole and natural foods, for the most part, is a winning strategy. Also, eating enough fruits and vegetables and not too many fried foods or desserts is also important. Probably not drinking a ton of alcohol is a good plan.
These observations aren’t scientific, but they did show me a trend followed by some of the best in the sports biz: focus foremost on training and a diet (and lifestyle) that helps you train hard again as soon as possible by way of recovery, gaining strength and staying healthy. I don’t know about you but I felt some relief to let go of the food talismans I may have associated with successful racing, because as I believe Eleanore Roosevelt said, “it’s one less thang.”
chart sources and overall interesting reads:
1. protein requirements for endurance athletes, Tamopolsky, M., Nutrition 2004 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15212749
2. nutrition for athletes, J.Anderson, L.young, S.Prior Colorado State Extension, 2010 http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09362.htm
3. effects of recovery beverages on glycogen restoration and endurance exercise performance , Williams, M., Raven, PB., Fogt, DL., Ivy, JL. J Stregth Cond Res 2003 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12580650
4. The Role of Red Meat in an Athlete’s Diet, Susan M. Kleiner, ph.D., R.D., Gatorade SSE #58, vol 8, no.5 ,1995. http://www.gssiweb.org/Article/sse-58-the-role-of-red-meat-in-an-athlete’s-diet