If you only follow 10 rules of diet for maximum health and performance, follow these 10.
Imagine you have an identical twin, also a triathlete, with whom you train every day. The only difference between the two of you is that your diet and sports nutrition habits are careless, whereas your twin’s diet and sports nutrition habits are based on sound principles and the latest knowledge. Who will have better results?
Science tells us: Your twin will perform better in workouts, recover faster from workouts, gain fitness faster, develop a leaner body composition, be able to handle a heavier training load, get sick less often, suffer fewer injuries, and not least of all, kick your butt in races! And if you don’t wise up and start eating and drinking as your twin does, he or she will continue training and racing strong long after age slows you down, and will even outlive you. That’s how important it is to learn how to fuel your body properly.
So, how do you feel your body properly? It can all be boiled down to the following 10 tips.
1. Eat your fruits and vegetables
If you had a nickel for each time you were advised to eat more fruits and vegetables, you could buy a new tri bike every year. Well, I don’t have enough nickels for everyone, but I’ll go ahead and throw my own voice behind this old but good advice. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables is the most effective way to nourish your body for fitness and overall health. The reason is that the human species evolved on a diet consisting mainly of fresh fruits and vegetables, so we are genetically dependent on these foods for optimal functioning. Scientists estimate that, prior to the agricultural revolution (8,000 B.C.), humans got approximately 95% of their daily calories from non-grain plant foods.
I’m not asking you to eat quite that much. The USDA now recommends that adult women eat approximately 2½ cups of vegetables per day. Men should aim for 3 cups. (Note that salads count for only ½ cup per 1 cup you eat.) Men and women alike should aim to consume at least two cups of fruit per day. Fresh, canned, frozen, dried, cut, and pureed fruits all count toward this total, as do 100 percent fruit juices (although these lack the fiber that’s in solid fruit).
2. Eat a balance and a variety of foods
There are seven basic categories of food (see table). Each category delivers different specific types and proportions of nutrients than the others. Eating a balance of foods from each category is the best way to ensure you get enough and not too much of all the nutrients your body needs. There is no perfect formula that can tell you precisely how many servings from each food category you should eat daily, but you can’t go wrong by following these general guidelines, which are informed by both nutrition science and our cultural preferences.
Recommended Servings per Day
Legumes, Beans, Nuts & Seeds
Lean meats, poultry, eggs
3-6 (per week)
It’s also a good idea to eat for variety within each food category, and especially within the vegetable and fruit categories. Different fruits and vegetables often have very different phytonutrient profiles, so the fewer types you eat, the more phytonutrients you miss out on. Color is a good guide, because phytonutrients give plant foods their distinctive colors. The more colorful your diet is, the better. Variation within the other food categories is not quite as important but still highly beneficial to the goal of achieving optimal nutrient balance. So, the meat you eat should not always be chicken, your grain should not always be wheat, and so forth.
3. Limit your consumption of “unnatural” foods
Like the two preceding tips, this one is also based on the fact that our species is genetically adapted to the diet our ancient ancestors maintained, so that, in order to achieve optimal health today, we have to maintain a fairly similar diet. Our bodies are not designed to make good use of various types of processed and otherwise unnatural foods that are popular today. I wouldn’t ask you to eliminate them from your diet, but you should limit them.
First, minimize your consumption of processed grains and foods with added sugar. When eating grain-based foods, choose ones made with whole grains whenever possible. They are far more “nutrient-dense” and less “energy-dense”, meaning they provide more nutrition per calorie. Second, minimize your consumption of fried foods and foods containing processed oils. The damaged, “trans fats” in these foods clog arteries and are linked to a host of other health problems. Third, choose organic fruits, vegetables, and other foods instead of non-organic alternatives whenever possible. They are more nutritious and don’t contain poisons such as certain pesticides and fungicides. Finally, minimize your consumption of artificial additives and preservatives, and most especially the following: artificial colors Red No. 40, Blue Dye No. 1, and Yellow No. 5; artificial sweeteners (especially Aspartame); preservatives including nitrites, nitrates, sulfites, MSG (monosodium glutamate), aluminum, BHA, BHT, and TBHQ; and hydrogenated and brominated oils.
4. Optimize your body composition
One of the most effective ways to boost your triathlon performance and overall health is to optimize your body composition—that is, to achieve a body fat percentage that is close to the minimum your body needs. Obviously, your nutrition habits play a major role in relation to this objective. By heeding the other nine nutrition tips in this article, and training smart, you will gradually shed any excess body fat you may be carrying.
In addition, you should consider purchasing and using a body fat scale such as the Tanita Ironman and use it to measure your body fat percentage regularly. As the saying goes, “What gets measured gets managed.” In other words, simply quantifying and paying attention to your body fat percentage on a regular basis will influence your eating and workouts habits in ways that help you lower it.
5. Customize your nutrition to your unique body
Each human being is genetically unique. Consequently, each of us has a unique set of nutritional needs. The same foods may have very different effects in different bodies. For example, some people function best on a high-carbohydrate diet, others on a moderate-carbohydrate diet, and still others are able to adapt to either. Some people can tolerate a higher rate of nutrition intake during exercise than others. Some people are unable to digest dairy foods properly, and others are. Some people tend to store excess fat very easily, while others seem able to eat all day and still stay lean. And so forth.
You can’t truly optimize your nutrition for your body by following general guidelines. The guidelines will take you most of the way, but to finish the job you have to pay attention to how various foods and eating patterns affect you. One helpful way to connect nutritional cause and effect in your body is to keep a food journal. Record everything you eat throughout the day and also note how you feel and function after each meal.
Dietary self-awareness can also be enhanced with tools such as a Calorie Scanner (www.trainingpeaks.com/caloriescanner), a key chain-size device that records the nutrient content in a serving of every food you eat by reading bar codes. I began to use one these devices recently and it really opened my eyes to some imbalances in my diet that I was not aware of, such as how much sugar I eat.
It’s also very important that you experiment with different nutritional practices before and during workouts. Figure out which pre-workout meals, ergogenic aids (sports drinks, etc.) and fueling schedules work best for you. Then do what you know works best on race day to avoid the nutritional mistakes that too often sabotage race performances.
6. Eat early and often
If you’re at all concerned about your body weight or body composition, eat breakfast every day and eat five or six times per day. Calories eaten in the morning are more likely to become heat energy than stored fat as compared to calories eaten later in the day. Starving yourself in the morning also tends to result in overeating in the evening. A study from the University of Texas, El Paso, found that the fewer calories subjects ate early in the day, the more total calories they ate.
Eating smaller meals frequently also tends to result in less fat storage than eating large meals infrequently, because the amount of energy in a small meal is sufficient only to supply the body’s immediate energy needs, whereas a larger meal provides excess calories that are not needed immediately and are therefore converted to storage fat.
Frequent eating also benefits performance in workouts and everyday activities by keeping your energy level fairly consistent throughout the day, especially if each meal and snack includes some carbohydrate.
7. Obey your thirst
Drinking during workouts and races is proven to enhance exercise performance by keeping blood volume higher and core body temperature lower. Sports drinks are always a better choice than plain water because they are absorbed faster and retained better, and they provide energy for muscle contractions as well as fluid for hydration. Contrary to popular belief, the best way to determine how often and how much you drink during exercise is thirst. No study among the dozens performed has ever found an advantage to forcing oneself to drink more than thirst dictates compared to drinking “ad libitum”—or when you feel like it.
8. Eat and drink for recovery
Nutrition is the foundation of post-exercise recovery because it provides the raw materials with which your body can make physiological adaptations in response to training. If you take in the right nutrients, in the right amounts, at the right time after workouts, you will recover far more quickly and thoroughly than you will if you don’t practice proper nutritional recovery.
One of the most important sports nutrition discoveries in recent years is the fact that timing is essential with regard to post-exercise nutrition, because your body is primed to sponge up needed nutrients during the first hour or two after working out than at any other time. The most important nutrients to take in immediately following each workout are water and electrolytes for hydration, carbohydrate to replenish muscle glycogen stores, and protein to repair and rebuild muscle tissue. Sports drinks formulated especially for recovery take the fullest advantage of the “muscle recovery window” due to their fast absorption.
Indeed, cutting-edge research has even shown that you can accelerate post-exercise recovery by consuming protein immediately before and during exercise. For example, in one study, cyclists who consumed protein during an exhaustive stationary ride experienced 83 percent less muscle damage than those who did not, and as a direct result performed significantly better in a workout undertaken the following day.
9. Don’t be a race-day glutton
In my experience, triathletes are far more likely to overdo nutrition during races than to take in too little. Our bodies really weren’t designed to take in nutrition during exercise, so the ceiling is fairly low in terms of how much we can consume before we begin to encounter absorption problems. The average triathlete can absorb no more than a liter of fluid and 100 grams of carbohydrate per hour while cycling and about half these amounts while running. This is very easily done without any special effort to cram nutrition down your throat. In fact, you can get all the nutrition you need to fuel even an Ironman with a sports drink alone. I’ve done it, and so has Triathlete nutrition columnist Kim Mueller-Brown.
Each person is unique, so I won’t guarantee that what works for me will work for you. But as you proceed through the trial-and-error process that each of us must experience to find the optimal race fueling strategy for ourselves, I urge you not to assume, as most do, that every problem is a result of taking in too little of something. More often than not, it’s the opposite.
10. Supplement selectively
Nutritional supplementation is not necessary for general health, but a few key nutritional supplements can provide benefits for athletic performance that no real-food alternative can match.
Based on exhaustive research and extensive personal experimentation, I regularly use the following nutritional supplements for the following benefits: 1) a post-workout carb-protein recovery drink for rapid muscle recovery; 2) a creatine supplement to enhance the muscle strength and power benefits I get from resistance training and high-intensity intervals; 3) a beta-alanine supplement to enhance my muscles’ ability to buffer acid production during high-intensity exercise; 4) a whey protein supplement derived from “immune milk” to enhance joint tissue repair between workouts; 5) a glucosamine/chondroitin supplement for the same purpose, and 6) fish oil for cell membrane health and anti-inflammatory prostaglandins.
Good nutrition article