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Fuel for Performance, part 1.

November 22, 2013

-A mini series on eating for training and performance.

Last weekend when I was doing my weekly staples shopping I decided to do a mini series on eating for fuel. It’s taken me awhile to finalise this first part as I had a busy last week, but better late than never, here it is. Over the last few years as a trainer, I have had a lot of clients ask me what I eat/what are some good options and ideas of healthy and convenient food choices. I thought to do a post on what I eat more or less just in case it’s helpful to those of you who need new ideas.

As a general rule I don’t give my clients actual meal plans, i.e. for breakfast, lunch and dinner eat such and such, etc. For starters everyone has different food preferences. I also believe that learning to plan your own nutrition is key and important if you want to make changes for life, rather than just short-term changes. But seeing as I have gotten lots of good ideas from others over the last few years, I thought I would share for what works me in case it might be beneficial to any of you.

To start off, I pretty much eat for performance. What I mean by this is, rather than eating primarily for enjoyment or even body composition reasons, I mostly eat what I find best helps to fuel my training, as I train quite a lot and doing well in my training and competitions is a priority for me. I have been following eattoperform.com recently and have benefited a lot from their website as well as Mike T. Nelson’s book Metabolic Flexibility. This e-book explains how your body uses what you do and eat to affect your performance. It’s awesome.

By eating for performance, I reap the benefits of being properly fueled, maximizing muscle growth, aiding recovery and replenishing glycogen stores, and I have the energy and endurance to power through my workouts and athletic endeavors. Competing in CrossFit has helped me learn how food affects my body and my performance. When I don’t get enough food or carbs, my energy and mood reflects it, my joints start to ache, and my performance and strength goes down the drain. When I eat too much junk food, my body reacts adversely with skin breakouts, energy spikes and plummets, and sluggishness after a few days.

Here are some diet tips I’ve found have made a huge difference in my performance:

Increasing carbohydrates:

I do CrossFit, and it’s a commonly shared idea amongst the CrossFit community that the paleo diet is the best way to eat. While I agree that for some people doing the low-starch, paleo-mode might work for them, for me it doesn’t work. I need a lot of starchy carbs to fuel my training. I don’t eat much gluten, but I do eat a lot of starch.

Some of my favourite sources of carbs are: white rice, rice noodles, oats, sweet potatoes and other root vegetables. I also eat rice cakes, Greek yogurt, and plenty of fruit and vegetables.

While cutting down carbohydrate consumption is often seen as the best way to decrease body fat, a combination of high intensity training and low-carb eating can actually cause problems, raise cortisol significantly and negatively impact immune function. There is also a possibility that very low carbohydrate diets suppress thyroid function. So if you’re regularly doing high volume, high intensity training like me, and want to avoid symptoms of over-training stress, don’t skimp on the carbs!

Here’s a quote from Mike T. Nelson (who I mentioned above, author of Metabolic Flexibility:)

“It seems that many people are afraid of carbs. The media has convinced them that they are bad. I disagree. Remember that the media once said all fats were bad too, so are eggs, milk, etc. Bah! Carbs are the preferred fuel source for high intensity exercise. It is a bioengertic fact that you can NOT produce the same levels of power by only using fat as an energy source. This is in every basic exercise physiology textbook. I am a big fan of having some carbs before training if at all possible. I know some lift in the AM fasted as it is impossible to get anything down beforehand, and that is fine. If you have time though, take in some starchy carbs before your training session, starting at around 50 grams. Good choices are sweet potatoes, bananas or prepackaged carb sources like Vitargo. Not only will you have the fuel to use during training, they promote the release of insulin by your body. Insulin is not the devil it has been portrayed and higher levels of insulin actually push the body to use more carbs. This is exactly what you want to do during training.”

Another person I follow is Nate Miyaki. I like his style. He eats for performance, and he eats primarily whole foods, but he is not dogmatic about his food choices either. Here is an excerpt regarding eating carbs from one of his blog posts:

“However, exercise creates a unique metabolic environment, an altered physiological state, and changes the way your body processes nutrients both during activity and for up to 48 hours after completion of a training session. If you exercise intensely 3 or more days a week, than your body is virtually in a recovery mode 100% of the time. It is in an altered physiological state beyond pure resting conditions 100% of the time, thus its nutritional needs are completely different than sedentary populations. And low-carb diets combined with consistent high intensity activity can have a lot of metabolic, hormonal, and physiological drawbacks including impaired thyroid production, low testosterone and sex drive, decreases in metabolic rate, muscle loss, skinny-fat syndrome, insomnia, depression, irritability, and general foul mood.”

Another great article from Eattoperform.com, which explains everything so well. Please make time to read it: Carbohydrates: Whole foods and supplementation

And one more, by Joy Victoria (A good read for you ladies who are carbaphobes especially!): Why lifting weights allows you to eat more carbs, and all about metabolism

My stance on white rice:

I eat a lot of white rice. I absolutely love it. It sits well with me, digests well and fuels me well. When I first started CrossFit a couple years back I tried to go “full paleo” which meant giving up white rice, and that did not agree with my body. The thing is, I was born and grew up in Thailand. Jasmine rice has been a staple my whole life. I never had problems with it; never had weight issues, health problems or low energy, so when I thought about it logically it did not make any sense for me to just randomly cut it out of my diet. I eat it all the time again now, and I feel great on it.

You may not do well with rice yourself, but my point in bringing this up is that unless you have a good reason to cut something out that has been working well for you, why cut it out? Just becomes someone told you to? Think about it. Why do we follow the trends of others? How do they know what will work for your body? Do they have good enough reasons? Do your own research and think logically when it comes to these things. That is what I have been doing with everything. I make my own choices when it comes to food because I know my body well. I don’t stop or start eating something because someone else told me to.

Here’s another one of my favourite articles from the awesome Nate Miyaki: In defense of white rice.

Nutrient Timing: When I eat the bulk of my carbs:

I try to have the bulk (if not all) of my starchy and/or sugary carbs within a few hours of my workouts each day. Nutrient timing is not usually a deal breaker for most people, but because I do a lot of volume and high intensity training, I’ve found my body better utilizes carbs around my workouts and it seems to help my recovery as well.

I also eat carbs in the evening seeing as I usually train in the morning. I do both weight training and metabolic conditioning in the morning which calls for very high energetic demands. I notice a big difference when I add carbs in the night before, as I don’t usually eat much when I first wake up.

If I am going straight from training into a few hours of non-stop work (which happens almost every day for me) and won’t have a chance to eat, I try to get a shake in with some fast absorbed carbs (i.e. dextrose) and good quality protein. I will include more information on that and my other supplements in the second part of this series.

Eating enough to support your training:

Training for me is NEVER about burning calories. I work out build more muscle so I can be stronger. That in itself burns more calories while you rest. And you need FOOD TO BUILD MUSCLE. New muscle doesn’t just appear and grow magically. So if you are training hard and often, eat the damn food! You need it.

My food choices:

I eat whole foods probably about 85-90% of the time. Although everyone likes to argue the clean/dirty food debate and some people have obsessions and disorders with clean eating and take it too far, I think most people know what I mean by eating whole foods or unprocessed foods. Of course I have treats as well, and I am not strict paleo or anything like that. I have absolutely zero guilt when it comes to having a massive pizza or some frozen yogurt, or going out on the weekend and having a nice big Mexican or Italian feast. When it’s time to enjoy myself I don’t hold back. I love food. I even think that having big feeds and extra treats helps out sometimes when you need to get in more calories, especially after long and hard days of training. Everything in moderation.

But there is a big difference with being obsessed with your diet/using your paleo or low carb or IIFYM or whatever "diet" to hide your eating disorders whatever they are vs. plainly and clearly caring about what you put into your body for performance and health reasons. I'm not part of any diet 'bandwagon'. I am not in a diet cult or group of people. I am not a super strict paleo eating clean eater who looks down on everyone else’s diet (I don’t care what other people eat--unless they are my clients and are paying me to care, lol). I genuinely just love eating good quality food, and I eat a lot of natural food, vegetables and fruits. I also eat lots of meat and carbs! It makes me feel good, perform better, and stay healthy.

My mindset is, “I am a healthy person who eats healthy foods that build and nourish my body”. I give no power to any system. I don’t eat anything unless it’s absolutely delicious and I certainly don’t obsess about food.-Maximus Mark

As far as performance, the times when I have gotten lax and eaten a bit too much junk food over a period of a few weeks for whatever reason, I always notice my performance massively drop, and my fitness levels lag. I also get sick when I slack on my diet and getting sick kinda hinders my performance too. It’s a very real thing for me. You certainly are what you eat and drink. Your body and digestive system doesn’t know the difference between a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ food or whatever names we decide to put on our foods; it doesn’t give a shit about labels and diets, cleanses or fads. But what it does know is when it’s not getting enough micro-nutrients and vitamins to function properly. When that happens, your immune system drops, your energy levels plummet and your performance starts suffering. Feed your body well and it will work well for you.

Be moderate by all means, but having moderation is very different than thinking you can get away with eating and drinking "junk" all the time, and still reach close to your 100 % performance potential...IF that is what you are aiming for. It just ain’t gonna happen. (See down further where I talk more about trade offs in life and how something always has to give when you choose what is a priority for you over something else.)

This goes without saying I firmly believe too much alcohol to be a determent to performance. I’ll have a couple drinks every now and then, but I save the binge drinking for rare birthdays/Christmases etc, rather than continued weekly/weekend occurrences.

Speaking of drinking, make sure to drink plenty of water (at least half your body weight in ounces, more if you’re really active). Dehydration is not fun. I get “cotton mouth” sometimes when doing very high intensity training, and I always know that’s when I have not drunk enough water. Your workouts will suffer when you are even slightly dehydrated. I pretty much have a water bottle next to me 24/7. It’s my baby.

So...what the hell do I eat?:

I like to buy weekly staples. Making sure you have a kitchen stocked with nutritious, whole foods is one of the best ways to make sure that you eat enough food when you are training hard. It also helps so that when you’re hungry, you don’t make bad decisions and go for fast food/junk food.

There’s a big difference between binging on a slow-cooked piece of roast with some sweet potatoes, and eating a whole bag of Doritos. Real food will satisfy you whereas junk food will typically make you hungrier sooner. When you are eating well and training hard, don’t be afraid to eat when you’re hungry! Feed your engine!

I am a bit of a brand whore; I have no brand loyalty. I just go for what is on sale and cheaper at the time. I also tend to go for convenience with some things, like getting individual packages of frozen vegetables or rice, rather than buying in bulk. Sometimes it’s worth paying a little bit extra if it means you will actually eat it because you don’t have to worry about preparation. I pick my battles: saving money where I can by buying things on sale, etc., but then also buying things that are convenient that I know I will actually eat when I am rushed for time, as opposed to just not eating because I'm too busy to prepare a time-consuming meal.

Speaking of easy/staple proteins, I often slow-roast a big piece of lamb or steak in my slow cooker over-night (or for about 10 hours) on the weekend, and I break it up in small containers and put it in the fridge to have for lunches. It lasts me the whole week and is always so tender and yummy.

I also like to cook with ghee a lot, which is another good fat source.

I am a BIG fan of smoothies. I will write more about some of the supplements I add to my smoothies in my next post. It’s a great way to get your calories/macro/micronutrients in. I also make a lot of vegetable juices in a juicer but if you do this, make sure to eat enough fibre as well.

For vegetables I like buying frozen veggies in individual sachets for convenience. You can get these from most supermarkets. It's a little more expensive, but so convenient. I often mix a can of tuna, with a pack of frozen vegetables (which you can cook easily in the microwave) and a bowl of rice with sweet chilli sauce.

I also buy babyfood sachets for convenience. These are 100 % natural ingredients and good sources of quick, fast digesting carbs and nutrients. Good for pre-and-post workout purposes.

Last but not least, have moderation and decide what trade offs you are willing to make:

Remember that although it’s important to eat foods to fuel your body, fuel your workouts, and keep you healthy, food is also meant to be enjoyable. Don’t forget to enjoy yourself, relax a little and have treats every now and then, without necessarily ALWAYS thinking about whether something will affect your performance or not. Life is meant to be enjoyed.

For most of us, there is a crossover where good health, performance, aesthetics, and an enjoyable lifestyle all kind of intersect. It’s like our individual “sweet spot” and it’s healthy to have a good balance with all those things. For me personally, I have performance goals (which I work hard for), so I do make some sacrifices in regards to my diet (not with limiting calories but more with being aware of my macros and food choices and getting all the right amounts of nutrients in) and I don’t just let myself eat whatever. But I definitely relax every now and then and enjoy food that’s just really yummy and tastes good but maybe doesn’t have as much nutritious value as other foods I eat.

When you have very specific performance goals, exercise and diet becomes more than just having a better quality of life; and that’s sometimes when the little things start to matter more, things like: food choices, nutrient timing, supplementation, etc. If you have a big goal in mind, like competing at a higher level in whatever your chosen sport is etc., then you probably will find in order to meet your goals you will need to make more sacrifices and trade offs, even something minor like putting more thought and attention into your diet.

You are, in essence, choosing performance over lifestyle, and if that’s what you want, then go for it. But remember, any physical activity done at a high level comes with a price. So first of all, you need to figure out what you want and what you are willing to sacrifice for it. Decide what it will take to get there, and then decide if it makes sense for your lifestyle and fits in with the rest of your life. But if your main goal is to simply feel good, be healthy and look good, then balance is key.

Stay tuned for part 2!



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