Nutrition Basics in Daily Life

What you eat in your daily life has an impact in how well your body will be able to perform in training and on race day. Many athletes we coach are either trying to lose a few pounds, looking to optimize their performance, or simply seeking a healthy, well-balanced diet. This article outlines some key nutrition information and builds from very basic to slightly more intermediate levels. At the end, I also address some common misconceptions that I see causing confusion.

Level 1: Quantity and Calories

At the most basic level, we can think of food in terms of quantity which is most often measured in calories. Calories are a unit of energy. Food provides us the energy our bodies need to survive, move around all day, complete workouts, and build muscle after workouts. We need to keep our total caloric expenditure (everyday life + workouts) in balance with our total caloric consumption (how much we eat). Or, if you’re trying to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than your total caloric expenditure. If you find yourself eating more calories than you’re expending, you’re likely going to gain weight.

Level 2: Macronutrients

Protein (target 10-25% of your diet): Protein is used to build muscle. The best times to eat protein are during meals, after a workout, and just before bed. You do not need to eat protein during most workouts since it is not used as energy to fuel workouts. Small amounts of protein can be beneficial during longer exercise (over about 3 hours).

Carbohydrate (target 40-65%): Carbohydrates are used for immediate energy, with higher intensity exercise, over shorter duration. Your body is still burning carbohydrate for energy during longer, moderate and low intensity exercise, but it becomes the secondary fuel source. The best times to eat carbohydrates are shortly before, during, and after exercise and during meals. You should avoid eating carbohydrates in the couple hours before bed since you’re about to be sedentary. When your body consumes carbohydrate, it immediately converts it to glycogen and stores it in your muscles. Our bodies have a limit to how much glycogen they can store (typically around 1200-2000 calories), and any carbohydrate you consume beyond that limit will get converted to and stored as fat.

Fat (target 20-30%): Fat is used as energy in longer, moderate to low intensity exercise – it’s the main fuel source we use in endurance sports. The best times to eat fats are during meals. You should avoid eating fats shortly before and during exercise as it can cause GI issues. It also takes your body 10-12 hours to metabolize fat, so keep in mind that the fat you eat now won’t be ready to fuel exercise for 10-12 hours.

Level 3: Simple and complex carbohydrates and their impact on blood sugar/glycemic load

Blood sugar (glycemic load) is just that, the amount of sugar in our blood. Our blood sugar levels will naturally fluctuate throughout the day as we eat, digest, and exercise. Our goal needs to be to try and keep those fluctuations gradual and small instead of rapidly rising or falling to extreme high or extreme low levels. Carbohydrates are sugars, so we need to focus on what types of carbohydrates we’re eating in order to manage our glycemic load.

Simple carbs: Simple carbs are high glycemic foods which means they are digested quickly and cause a very fast and very high rise in blood sugar levels. This is a bad thing, so we want to avoid simple carbs in our diets. Simple carbs include foods like desserts, table sugar, soda, candy, white bread, and others.

Complex carbs: Complex carbs are low glycemic foods which means they are digested gradually, so they cause a slower rise in blood sugar and also a lower overall rise in blood sugar. These are good things, so we should try to pick complex carbs for our carbohydrate needs. Complex carbs include whole grains, whole wheat bread, potatoes, sweet potatoes, brown rice, beans, chick peas, and more. Although at a molecular level, some foods like fruits and milk are simple carbs, you can think of them as being in the same category as complex carbs since they act more like complex carbs because they have plenty of vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber which results in the same gradual blood sugar increase that you get from true complex carbs. 

Glycemic response

In practice, this can actually get pretty confusing because it’s not entirely black and white as to which category a given food falls into. It’s probably more accurate to think of simple vs complex carbs as a spectrum rather than two distinct buckets. Some clues to look for are the amount of fiber and how refined/processed the food is – you want more fiber and less refinement/processing (ex. choose whole grain breads with visible grains, seeds, nuts, etc. instead of white bread which is highly processed). Also, if you stick to natural sources of carbs like fruits, vegetables, and dairy, you’ll be good.

Read more on simple and complex carbs here.

Level 4 and beyond

There is more beyond this information! Keep in mind that additional information builds on this foundation – it does not replace this foundational information. It’s just like how we all learned math growing up. First you learn basic addition and subtraction, then you learn your multiplication tables and long division, eventually maybe you continued to more advanced topics like algebra, trigonometry, calculus, and beyond. Each new advanced topic builds on the knowledge from the prior grades. If you can get the information outlined here correct though, you’re going to be doing pretty well. Then if you want to continue to learn more, that’s great too!

Common Misconceptions: Fad Diets

We need to be careful about chasing fad diets. Fad diets typically follow the outline of, “Only eat this, never eat that.” Typically, what happens with fad diets is that when someone starts the diet they see initial success and weight loss. This is primarily because of the ‘never eat that’ part of the diet’s rules. By cutting out a significant part of the dieter’s food intake, the diet will be successful in getting that individual to initially lose weight. In the long term though, many people end up struggling with fad diets because the diet is either too restrictive or because the person finds replacement foods that technically follow the guidelines of the diet but still end up giving the person too many calories overall.

Common Misconceptions: Calories

“Counting calories alone is not enough” vs “Calories don’t matter” / “Calories aren’t a thing”

It is absolutely correct that counting calories alone is not enough if you are trying to watch your weight. Countless individuals struggle to lose weight even after significantly reducing their caloric intake because they still have a poor mix of macronutrients or are eating lots of simple carbs.

However, “Counting calories alone is not enough” is a very different statement than, “Calories don’t matter.” The first is correct while the second (calories don’t matter) is most definitely not correct. This is an important distinction to keep in mind for two reasons. First, an endurance athlete (and by endurance athlete, I don’t just mean professionals – I mean anyone completing and training for runs, bike rides, triathlons, etc. at any pace) typically follows a training plan that consists of both an off season where your volume is relatively lower (say 20-30 miles per week for a runner) and peak training season where your volume gets significantly higher (40, 50, or even more miles per week). With this type of training, your body needs fewer calories during the off season and more calories during peak training. If you aren’t able to adjust throughout the year, you’re going to find yourself either gaining weight in the offseason because you’re eating too much or struggling through workouts during peak season because you’re eating too little and your body is out of energy. Second, even if you are eating an appropriate diet of the right foods (complex carbs, healthy fats from plants, etc.) you can still gain weight if you’re eating too much of it and your caloric intake exceeds your caloric expenditure.

Common Misconceptions: Carbohydrates are the enemy

The trend right now is that carbs are the enemy. Carbohydrates are not the enemy and not all carbohydrates are bad for you. You need to include complex carbohydrates in your diet – especially if you are an endurance athlete (again, I mean all levels of endurance athletes, not just the pros). You do need to keep in mind your overall balance of macronutrients to make sure you’re not getting more carbohydrates than you need, but carbohydrates are a part of that balance.

Simple carbohydrates are the enemy. This is true and this is what experts actually mean – it just gets misstated by many other individuals. Unfortunately, simple carbohydrates are abundant in our culture. They’re hard to avoid if you eat out much, so you’re better off preparing your own meals where you can ensure you’re not dumping extra sugar in everything like many restaurants do. If you do eat out, try to be conscious of where you go and what you order.

Low carb and no carb diets are also catching on right now because the average American leads a pretty sedentary lifestyle – they drive everywhere instead of walking, they don’t get much or any exercise, and they sit in an office job all day. If you’re an endurance athlete (again, I mean all levels of endurance athlete), you’re not the average American leading that sedentary lifestyle. The average American does not run marathons, complete Ironmans, or participate in century rides. Endurance athletes of all ability levels need carbs – you don’t need to go overboard with them, but you do need them.


Sources: USA Triathlon, RRCA, Jesse Kropelnicki

Fuel Up!

What and how much to eat during a workout

In this week’s Cheetah Chat, we’re going to talk about how to fuel your body appropriately for a long workout. I always try to keep things in layman’s terms but one of the terms I use here is calories. Don’t be scared of it. A calorie is just a unit of measurement like a minute or a mile. Instead of measuring distance or time though, calories measure energy. The calories you eat become fuel for your body to use and the calories that you burn are the energy that your body spends.

How many calories will I burn?

When talking about fueling your body appropriately for endurance athletics, the first and most important thing to learn is that when working out, you will burn more calories than your body can consume. Your body can only process about 240 calories per hour, but even leisurely exercise burns more than 240 calories and intense exercise like running at a fast pace can burn well over 1,000 calories per hour.

You’re probably wondering where your body gets the rest of the energy to complete your workout. Your body relies on getting the remaining energy from your body’s fat stores – and yes even the skinniest of runners have plenty of fat stores to fuel their workouts. Here’s the trick though: in order for your body to burn the fat that it already has stored, you need to consume new energy in the form of carbohydrates.

How much should I eat during a workout?

Remember, your body can only process about 240 calories per hour, so that should be your target. It is best to spread that out over the entire hour. Eat at regular, smaller intervals like every mile or every 15-20 minutes. Spreading out the energy you consume helps to regulate your energy levels (blood sugar levels) so that you have a nice, steady, consistent stream of energy. This is better than consuming large amounts of food all at once which would result in dramatic swings where your body goes from having lots and lots of energy to no energy and then back to lots and lots when you eat again.

What should I eat during a workout?

During a workout, you should be eating almost entirely carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are key because your body needs to consume new carbohydrates in order to access the energy stored in your fat. In workouts over 2-3 hours, you can also try to consume a little bit of protein, but just a little. Protein is most important to consume after a workout to help your body repair your muscles.

Do not eat foods with any fat in them during a workout. Your body takes as much as 12 hours to process fat. That means you can consume fat at dinner the night before a race or big workout, but you shouldn’t consume it during the workout because your body won’t be able to use that energy and in fact it can cause GI distress.

There are a number of different options available for you to eat during a workout including granola bars, sports drinks, gels, and a wide variety of other things that you can buy in the store or make at home. A lot of it comes down to personal preference, so try some different foods to see what you think of them.

Here are some suggestions to help you get started.

Sports Drinks are one of the most common and best things to eat during a workout. They’re great because it is easy to spread out how much you consume. For example, you can find a bottle that has 240 calories in it and easily drink 1/3 of the bottle every 20 minutes and viola, 240 calories in an hour! Just watch out for drinks that claim to be sports drinks but actually have way too much sugar in them.

Granola Bars are also great because they’re high in carbohydrates, are easily digestible, come in a variety of flavors, and most of the time don’t melt. Do watch out for bars that have a little frosting or chocolate in them because those can turn into a melted mess on a hot summer day.

Home made recipes are another great option because you control everything that goes into it. You can control the portion sizes so that you get the appropriate number of calories in each portion and you can control the flavor so that you make it taste great. You’re in charge, so find a great recipe that you enjoy.