Eat to perform
They say that how you show up in training, is how you show up at work, and at home. This statement could niggle a few people and perhaps a little self-reflection is required. I say this, because I have had to do a lot of this over the last few years and work harder on practising what I preach. So I am putting my hand up first, I’ve had my butt kicked by poor health for the last two years and the light at the end of the tunnel was not shining bright.
The day you decide to start training, is the day you become an athlete and with time and experience you will figure out what kind of athlete you are. I know many athletes who under eat, and also over eat, and both of these behaviours are reflected in their performance and indeed their “vibration”.
It is true indeed that “hangry” is a thing, and an under-nourished athlete will start to dwindle in their training outcomes, they start being grumpy in their relationships and become so food obsessed that they are less of a joy in their own life, building a pressure cooker of poor self-esteem, body weight obsession and training statistics. One day, this all comes to a head, and the athlete does poorly at work, can’t show up for training or is lagging in training, they lose their period (or become irregular) and on many occasions start to gain weight; the opposite of their intention. I have had athletes with 15% body fat show me their muscles online and pinch their bellies, showing me 1 cm of “excess skin” that “needs to go”. This is when alarm bells go off and these athletes become depressed, start to try and overachieve, they hate their lives and blame everyone else in it. It is sad, distressing and upsetting to see.
Training in “high vibration”, with positive thoughts, good feelings about your body’s performance and ability and seeing yourself hit those numbers that you’ve set for yourself (or your coach has set for you) is an amazing experience. If the athletes around you are of similar mindset, also training and living in high vibration then your chances of improvement and wanting to succeed in your efforts is highly likely.
How can all of this go wrong? When athletes are malnourished and reach a state of low-energy availability (LEA) the body starts a battle to support itself. Hormone production becomes suppressed, and the thyroid is the first function to go, and then the estrogen and progesterone become disrupted, as do the appetite hormones and consequentially our bone formation. It is known that 55% of female athletes are sitting in this low energy state, and what begins to happen is that the desired body composition changes are then impaired.
The athlete begins a state of low vibration, is worried about lack of weight loss, and also then loses the ability to accept how much “energy” she will need to eat to perform and then has a massive reduction in energy for her life processes, such as getting to work, waking up in the morning, stretching, brushing her teeth, doing a school run or helping someone else with theirs, presenting at work and in general, “showing up” in a high vibration.
So what happens next?
The athlete goes into training mode, trains longer, harder, in the hope that the body composition will shift, she isn’t sleeping well (life processes) so trains even harder in the hope that she will be so tired she will fall asleep at night, exhausted, thinner, and therefore, more of an athlete. Food becomes an enemy, a chore, she will decline nights out, socials, and her whole training life becomes dysfunctional. In turn, so does her job, her relationships and her endocrine system. Social acceptance in the athletic realm becomes a goal and slowly her self-esteem, value and confidence decline.
Eat to Lose Weight, Eat to Train
I have said to so many of my athletes who desire to shift a few kilos, “you need to eat to lose weight”. A properly fuelled body covers a baseline requirement for good health. With good health, you can train, perform, sleep, and live in that high vibration that you started with. If you underfeed yourself, and your endocrine system begins the path of dysfunction, you will stop seeing training responses and adaptation. Your performance will decrease, and not just your endurance, but the longer you keep this up you will have a metabolic disruption as well. With metabolic disruption the quest for lean body mass becomes unattainable, you will have an increase in bone injuries and a decrease in your bone mineral density.
You keep getting sick, you have gut issues, and then decreased neuromuscular coordination. You don’t have to be underweight to have LEA either. To mitigate this problem, (or undo it), you need to increase your energy intake in and around exercise and also assess your daily intake. Try using a food app for a couple of weeks (not forever, we are trying to avoid obsession). Start with a minimum amount of calories for survival, which is about 35 calories per kilo of lean body mass. So if you weigh 70 kilos, and have 25% body fat, you need a minimum of 1560 calories a day just for baseline health. However, those calories need to serve you well. (One “1500 calorie piece of cake and that’s all I’ve had” – is not going to cut it ladies!) On days when are you resting you won’t need as many carbs as you would on a day of exercise, so “cycle your carbs” to suit your needs.
If you are pre-menopausal, try working on a split of 195 grams of carbs, 117 grams of protein and 65 grams of fat. If you are peri/post menopause, you will need a 163/143/65 split. Note that older women need more protein and the fat requirement is the same. If you have teenage daughters who are struggling with food then this could be fun exercise to do, get a spreadsheeet going and get them to research food they can eat and what the macro content is (carbohydrate, protein, and fat). Email me for a template email@example.com . Some athletes have said that it is too much like hard work to do this, however, week to 10 days of tracking gives you an excellent idea of what is going in, and you can really discover where are you going wrong and why you are carrying excess weight. All the supplements in the world will not help you if you are not eating correctly. (And here is where you decide, what kind of athlete do you want to be?)
Start with this, and on a day where you do an hour of training (premenopausal), add another 35 grams of carb and up your protein and fat by 15 grams. Menopausals will be the same except add a bit more protein, about 7-10 grams more. Pre-menos, on a hard training day you can get really stuck in, and add another 100g of carb on to your baseline and a whole chicken breast for example (30 g protein) and menos up to 65g of carb on top of your baseline plus another 15g of protein (you can get this from most protein powders, seitan, tofu, edamame). There is more bioavailability per gram in animal protein than plant protein. 100g of low fat Greek yoghurt, with some berries and a dab of nut butter can be very satisfying post training and you get that protein hit.
Make All Foods Fit
One of the issues with an “athletic diet” is that some athletes become obsessed with restriction, and feel they need to be gluten free, lactose free, sugar free etc. Unless you have been diagnosed with a specific intolerance, eat from the earth. Personally, I am not an egg-white omelette athlete as I enjoy my food and occasional treats. Life is very short, and it is to be enjoyed and grabbed with both hands.
Eat wholegrains, vegetables, avocado, olive oil/olives, and fill a quarter of your plate with protein, such as a big chicken breast or chicken leg, a steak, a piece of fish. Try to vary your diet a lot for good gut health and a focus on being “plant forward”, so eat and fruit and vegetables in abundance. Colour your plate!
If you are out at the weekend at a social, count your glasses of wine or beverage of choice (even mocktails can be very sugary) and add them to your food diary and your carb calculator. You will be more mindful of your intake over time.
Lastly, relax. Enjoy your training and try mix it up a bit. Walking, hiking, sea swimming, are all active recovery disciplines and also allow yourselves a proper rest day (I take two a week). It is during recovery where you get your gains.
Credit for the macro calculations goes to Dr. Stacy Sims.