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

Race Day Hydration and Nutrition Planning

A complete race day hydration and nutrition plan is crucial to an endurance athlete’s success. With the right nutrition plan, you can enable your body to reach its full potential in order to perform your best on race day.

The most important thing to stress before you start to build your plan is that this gives you a starting point. From there, you need to try it out in training and make adjustments as necessary.

I break my race day nutrition plan up into 3 components: hydration, electrolytes, and calories. Follow along with this handout to start building your plan.

Hydration

As you are working out, your body sweats to cool itself. You need to replenish this water so that you stay hydrated and maintain performance. This is the most important part of the hydration and nutrition plan. Proper hydration allows your body to maintain central nervous system function – literally your brain sending electrical signal to your muscles to fire. While it is true that athletes can actually lose 2-3% of their body weight due to dehydration before their performance starts to decrease, for practical purposes and from my experience with numerous athletes, we still need to aim to replace all of the sweat that you lose. That means that we want to try and drink enough water to replace the sweat that you lose.

To determine how much you need to drink, you can calculate something called your sweat rate. Your sweat rate is the amount of weight that you lose through sweat in one hour. To calculate it, weigh yourself before and after a workout to determine how much weight you lost. Weigh yourself nude both times and dry off for the post-workout weigh-in. Divide the weight lost by the duration of the workout. In order for this to be accurate, don’t eat or drink anything during the workout and don’t use the restroom. Your sweat rate will be different for different sports and based on the weather (heat and humidity). For the most accuracy, try to calculate your sweat rate a few times for different sports and at different temperatures to get a complete picture.

Follow these steps to figure out how much water to drink.

  1. Sweat rate

Sweat rate = (pre-workout weight in lbs. – post-workout weight in lbs.) / Workout Duration in hrs

  1. Drink rate.

Drink rate = Sweat rate * 16 fl oz

Electrolytes

Electrolytes – particularly sodium – are necessary to ensure that the water you drink can be absorbed properly and again to maintain proper electrical signals in your nervous system. Sodium concentration varies dramatically from one athlete to another. There are a couple ways you can determine the sodium concentration in your sweat. The first and most accurate way is to go to a lab and get it tested. The second way is to estimate your sodium concentration based on observing yourself. This is less accurate, but most athletes can actually estimate this relatively well. To estimate it, ask yourself if you finish workouts with salt crystals on your skin and if you crave salty foods. Then put yourself into the low, medium or high category and follow these targets.

Low: 500 mg of sodium/hr    Medium: 1000 mg of sodium/hr        High: 1500mg of sodium/hr

Calories

Calories are fuel. As we compete in any sport we burn fuel. Race cars need to refill their gas tank during a race and endurance athletes need to take in more fuel too. There are two elements to this equation: the number of calories you burn and the number of calories you consume. Here’s the catch though, during a workout or race, you do not need to consume as many calories as you burn. The reason for this is that your body already has calories stored as fat that will fuel you through your workout. During endurance activity, you are primarily burning fat for energy. Primarily, but not only. You also are burning carbohydrates. You need to consume new calories in the form of carbohydrates in order to allow your body to burn the fat that you need to fuel the entire workout. Here’s how to calculate the number of calories from carbohydrates that you should consume during a workout.

1.27 x (body weight in lbs.) = calories/hour to consume during a workout

*If you are doing an ultra-distance event (ultra marathons, Ironman triathlons), you can increase that up to 1.81 x body weight in lbs.

If you consider yourself to be on the slower side of things, you may not actually need this much. Consider how many calories you are burning per hour and if this equation has you eating a significant amount relative to how much you’re burning you will probably be fine consuming less. This is where testing out these targets in your workouts comes into play.

Put it all together

Now that you have hourly rates for everything, try to break it down into servings every 15-20 minutes. It is better to take smaller servings more frequently than to take large servings less frequently. Take a look at the nutrition info on the nutrition products that you want to use and start to plug them into your plan. Use this handout to help you write down your plan.

Remember, this gives you a starting point. Try it out in your workouts and adjust accordingly. You may find that you need to eat or drink more or less. You will also need to experiment with different nutrition products to find out what you like and what sits well for you.

Nutrition in Action

One of the most common topics of concern from athletes doing long distance events is nutrition. Athletes constantly come to me asking questions about what to eat, what to drink, and how much to eat and drink. Let’s start to answer some of those questions.

The most important part of a complete training and racing nutrition plan is actually the hydration. Water. A lot of people skip over that and go straight to the latest and greatest bars, gels, gummies, or whatever else is out there. Water! Water by itself, or water in a sports drink. It has been shown that your central nervous system actually fatigues before your muscles fatigue. That means that your brain sending a message to your legs telling them to run breaks down before the muscles in your legs are actually tired. Proper hydration allows the signals in your CNS to continue to function. For more on hydration, check out this article on sweat rates to figure out how much you need to be drinking.

The second piece of a complete nutrition plan for training and racing is calories. Calories provide the energy that your body burns for fuel during exercise. During an endurance event, your body primarily relies on fat for fuel. This fat is already stored on your body – and yes, even the leanest endurance athletes have fat to burn. In order to access those fat stores, your body first needs to have some carbohydrates (stored in your muscles as glycogen) to burn. What that means for you is that you need to eat a little bit of food during exercise that is entirely made of carbohydrates and that will allow your body to burn its fat stores for the rest of the energy it needs. If you’re getting into ultra-distances, you can also add a little protein to that (5-10%).

For more on the differences between fats and carbs as well as protein – the third macronutrient – check out this article.

How many calories to eat

The number of calories to shoot for is dependent on your body weight. Smaller athletes need to consume fewer calories and bigger athletes need to consume more. Also, ultra-distance athletes can try increasing their consumption. Follow these guidelines.

Most race distances:

1.3 x Body weight in lbs. = calories per hr.

Ultra-distance:

1.8 x Body weight in lbs. = calories per hr.

Once you get these numbers for your weight, compare that to the number of calories you’re burning per hour during exercise. Most people can find that pretty easily by using any of the many workout trackers that are out there. Make sure that the number you’re targeting to eat is less than half of the total number of calories that you’re burning. If you’re on the slower side, you may be able to cut back on the number of calories these equations predict.

What to eat

What to eat is an extremely personal question. I say that because what your stomach can tolerate is different than what my stomach can tolerate and is different than what your friend’s stomach can tolerate. As long as you follow the guidelines above in terms of carbohydrates and the number of calories, the rest is up to you when it comes to what to eat. In fact, Sarah often jokes with me that she’s going to try eating Nerds on her long runs. I don’t think she’s actually tried it yet, but at a basic level Nerds are really not that different than some of the sports drinks out there. You can probably pick something a little better than Nerds, but you get the idea.

Also keep in mind that I say this as an athlete and coach with no affiliation to any sports products. I don’t have any sponsors whose products I’ve agreed to promote and I don’t sell any products myself. There are a lot of sale reps out there that will tell you their product is the best for you and have a lot of reasons why. Try their samples, try some other samples, and figure out what works for you. The key is to find something your stomach tolerates and also tastes good to you.

Modifying the Plan for the Conditions

Fast forward to race day. You’ve been training and practicing with the nutrition plan and things are going great. Now you find yourself on race day and it’s 20 degrees hotter than what you’re used to, what do you do? This is the most common scenario that I see with endurance and ultra-endurance athletes. Especially for those of you doing Ironman, it’s going to be hot by the time you start that run. What do you do?

The most important thing is to drink more water (and more sodium in proportion). In extreme heat, you’re going to be sweating more and you need to stay hydrated.

You do NOT need to eat more calories. There is a limit to the rate that your body can metabolize calories. Do not eat more calories than what we already planned on. In fact, if it’s so hot that you find yourself slowing down and slowing down significantly to the point where you’re walking on the run, you can cut back on the number of calories you’re eating. At that slower pace, you’re burning fewer calories so you can cut back on your intake as well.

The final thing that I want to say about a nutrition plan is that all of this data and all these calculations gives us a starting point. It’s important that you find this starting point and then start experimenting with it during your longer workouts. What works, what doesn’t work? What changes can you make? Listen to your body and watch for the signals that it’s sending you and you’ll be ready for race day!

Eat Your Broccoli! Why?

What are healthy foods?

What’s good for me to eat?

What’s bad for me?

I find that in today’s world, there’s a lot of confusion around food. People often times want to eat healthy, but they don’t know how. One week it feels like they read an article that tells them to follow one approach and the next week they hear from a friend that a different approach is the way to go. Amidst all this confusion, I challenge people to ask, “Why?”

Why is this new great approach better for me? Why is this food considered healthy? Why is this food unhealthy?

I believe you can answer those basic questions with just a little basic knowledge on food. Namely, calories and macronutrients. Before we go any further, I will add this disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist. I am not a food scientist. I have taken the initiative to educate myself on food and specifically how food relates to athletes and athletic training.

So, let’s start with calories. Calories are energy. Energy is fuel. For an athlete, you can look at a given workout and determine how many calories you burn per hour. You can also count the number of calories you eat in your food. At the most basic level, if you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight. On the flip side, if you burn more calories than you eat, you lose weight. Don’t forget to factor in your basal metabolic rate (that’s the number of calories you burn throughout the day just being you). Sounds simple right? Yes and no. It’s actually really hard to accurately count calories – both burned and consumed. Plus, it is true that not all calories are created equal.

That brings us to macronutrients. There are three macronutrients: fat, carbohydrate, and protein. Fat and carbohydrate are sources of energy meaning that they can be used for fuel during exercise. Protein is used to build muscle. The differences between fat and carbs are that carbs are meant to be an immediate source of fuel and are also used in higher proportions during higher intensity, shorter term (under 5 minutes) exercise.  Fat on the other had can take up to 12 hrs. to metabolize – eat an avocado now and you’ll be able to burn it for energy during your jog tomorrow morning. Fat is also used in higher proportion is longer duration (over 5 minutes) exercise and lower intensity. Finally, carbs can be converted to fat and stored for use later. Protein on the other hand cannot be converted and stored as fat.

Let’s see how much of this you got and think some of these questions through.

Why is it good to eat a little protein before bed?

Remember, protein is used to build muscle. While you’re sleeping, your body is at rest and it takes that opportunity to rebuild your muscles. Giving your body some protein right before sleep is a great way to kick start that process. Immediately after a workout is also a great time to get a little protein.

Why is it bad to eat fat during exercise?

Fat is used in higher proportions in longer duration, lower intensity exercise. That might – mistakenly – lead you to believe that you should eat fat during your 45 min morning jog. Remember though that it takes a long time to metabolize fat, so you don’t want to consume it during exercise. Instead, focus on consuming a small amount of carbs during exercise. This small amount of carbs actually enables your body to burn the fat that it already has stored for the majority of the energy that your workout requires.

Why are carbs bad? Are they really bad?

No! Carbs are not bad for you. Hopefully you caught the part about carbs being used as fuel for athletes. As an endurance athlete, you need to eat carbs. Please, please, please do not go on a low-carb or no-carb diet as an endurance athlete. Yes, it is true that you burn a higher portion of fat during long distance exercise, but it is not entirely fat – it’s still a mix of fat and carbs.

Low-carb and no-carb diets are a hit in the US right now, because the general population eats more carbs than they need and doesn’t exercise much or at all. For a person with a relatively sedentary lifestyle, you really don’t need many carbs because you’re not doing exercise to burn that fuel. When it’s not burned, it’s stored on the body as fat. Think of it like filling up the gas tank in your car. If you go to the gas station every day and buy 10 gallons of gas, but then don’t drive anywhere, your gas tank is going to overflow every time you fill up.

I hope this was helpful to give you a basic introduction to food and how it relates to athletes. I’m going to publish more in the coming months on more specifics of nutrition and how it relates to athletic training including putting together a race day hydration and nutrition plan and more.

Macro Nutrients

The basic building blocks of food

Macro nutrients are the basic building blocks of all food. It is crucial to understand the types of nutrients that are available to you, how each works, and when to eat them – and when not to. Also keep in mind that we need to get the basics right before we can move on to more advanced nutrition topics.

Macro nutrients

Carbohydrate

Carbohydrates (stored in your body as glycogen) are an athlete’s immediate source of energy. Carbohydrates are a modest source of energy with 4 calories in one gram of carbohydrate. Your body can store 800-2,000 calories at once. Your body can burn through that relatively quickly when we’re talking about endurance events so you will need an additional source of energy for workouts beyond 1.5-2 hours. If you consume more than 800-2,000 calories of carbohydrates, then your body converts it into fat.

Think of carbohydrates as kindling in a bonfire. The kindling gets the fire started and can burn relatively brightly, but it also burns out relatively quickly. The main use for kindling though is that it helps get larger logs lit.

Fat

Fat is the body’s long-term source of energy. In workouts lasting over 3 minutes, this is the main source of energy. Fat is a dense fuel source because there are 9 calories in every gram (more than twice that of carbohydrates). There are two important caveats to keep in mind about fat. First is that in order to access the energy stored in fat, your body needs to burn new carbohydrates. Second is that it takes your body 12 hours to digest fat before you can use it for energy in a workout – that means that it doesn’t do any good to eat something high in fat such as peanut butter during a workout.

Think of fat as the logs in a bonfire. The big logs burn for a long time and can get very hot. In order to get the logs burning though, you first need to light the kindling.

Protein

Your body uses protein to build and maintain your muscles. This is very important for recovery after completing a workout so that your muscles can build and repair. Protein is not a substantial source of energy during workouts so you should try to eat it primarily in meals and in a recovery snack immediately following a workout.

Think of protein as the fire pit itself. You don’t actually burn the fire pit, but instead the fire pit gives a strong foundation so that it will support a bigger, stronger fire.

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.