Nutrition for Everyday Athletes

First, we’ll define what it means to be an athlete.

Athletes come in all shapes and sizes, and it’s likely you already are one. 

Here are two signs you’re an athlete:

  • You challenge your body on a regular basis – Being an athlete is a mindset. Those who seek to challenge and change things from within are athletes in their mind. For some, this means getting out of bed and making it to the gym. For others, it’s getting a couple of training sessions in each day in prep for competition. There are more similarities than differences, and the needs of the two differ only by degree of intensity, not by type of workout. 
  • You pay attention to your body and find ways to make it improve and work better – Like a well oiled machine, you know that your body must be treated well to function at its best. So you spend time exercising, you pay attention to your recovery, and you fuel your body only with what it needs to perform. This level of care is the hallmark of an athlete. 

If you do either of these things on a regular basis and make an effort to do each one better, this article will help you get some good results.

NUTRITION IS THE FOUNDATION

In the CrossFit Methodology, there is a theoretical hierarchy of athletic development. Based on observation, this pyramid was created to understand what comes first, in order of importance. Every time, in every experiment, Nutrition was the deciding factor. This means that in order for all of your skills and talents, to work best, nutrition has to be in check and having more discipline with your eating habits will lead to a better outcome on the training grounds or competition floor. 

FOOD CHOICES

In days and weeks leading up to competition, experiment with certain foods before and after your workouts. Note how certain foods affect the way you feel. 

Low-inflammatory foods are preferred. Inflammation does have its place in the diet, and many foods we consume that are produced naturally cause varying levels of inflammation within the body, some of which helps to protect and heal the body from infection and injury. However, too much inflammation in the body can have adverse effects such as weight gain, chronic disease and pain.

Leaning toward low-inflammatory foods can help your body heal itself and remain at peak performance, and, if you are experiencing pain or soreness you will find that adjusting your diet will help to start the process of recovery much more quickly than rest alone.

Some low inflammatory foods include:

  • Berries
  • Good fats 
    • Fish (high in omega-3)
    • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
    • Avocado
  • Mushrooms
  • Tomatoes
  • Leafy Greens
  • Turmeric
  • Dark Chocolate

Fish oil – Omega-3

We’re going to get nerdy here. Omega-3 Fatty Acids are one of very, very few nutrients your body requires from outside sources, usually as a dietary supplement in pill or liquid form. There are few supplements I would recommend unless required due to deficiencies. If you believe you are deficient in anything, get a blood test and see what your doctor or dietician says. If you’re not actually deficient it’s very likely you’re spending unnecessary time and money with all the powders and pills. Anyway…

The body produces fatty acids naturally. The two we’ll talk about are the Omega-6 and the Omega-3. In our current world, due to the over processing of foods, dirty oils, and preservatives, the body produces far more of the Omega-6 than is truly necessary, especially if you have lived off the Standard American Diet. The result? There is an abundance of Omega-6 fatty acids in the body (a typical ratio of 20:1). This great amount of the pro-inflammatory Omega-6 and very little amount of the anti-inflammatory Omega-3 causes bone decay and fat accumulation. These things are not caused by aging, rather, they’re caused by mismanagement of your diet as you age. 

To offset this, we supplement. Because our bodies were not created to have such an abundance of Omega-6 there is no internal mechanism to balance out the equation and it would be extremely difficult to get enough Omega-3 from food alone (commonly found in fish and eggs).

The desired ratio would be no greater than 4 parts Omega-6 to every 1 part Omega-3. Think of this like making a cake, with only a set amount of water. Too much flour (Omega-6), and your cake will be too thick, hard to mix, and produce a very tough to eat cake. Just the right amount of flour to water (Omega-3) and your cake is light and fluffy. You can have your cake, and eat it too! Just use the right amount of flour, or add more water. 

On competition day, stick with foods and supplements you have had before 

Everyone has their rituals and unique cocktails of things that “work” for them on competition day. I remember when I was training to run the NYC Marathon back in 2013. That year I had run about 2 dozen other races, and had my nutrition dialed in. My typical breakfast was something along the lines of wheat toast, avocado, 2 hard boiled eggs, and some kind of fruit. I’d eat this about 2 hours before I’d have to run and I usually felt great. 

I remember getting to Marathon day. This would be the longest I’ve ever run continuously. I was nervous and anxious as anyone would be. They do make a big deal of this event and the process of just getting to the starting line had multiple steps. The night before, my friend and I had a big bowl of pasta (we’ll discuss this separately) and did our best to go to sleep early. I slept poorly due to the anxiousness. Then we woke up later than anticipated, and I grabbed some fruit and a bunch of Gu energy gels, chewable carbs, liquid energy supps, and went on my way. Until this point I hadn’t tried these in my training, let alone in a race. 

I crushed a gel before the race because that’s what it said to do on the package. It also said to drink it with a cup of water, and each successive one with a cup of water. I negated the directions and took just a quick sip so I wouldn’t have to pee mid run.

So we started to run the 26.2 miles and my body was already dehydrated and getting worse. I am convinced that I ran the first half on pure adrenaline, making the half marathon point in about an hour and 50 min, a personal record at the time for me. I looked at my watch and gave myself a nice pat on the back. 13.1 to go. I was already feeling some effects of the dehydration. Usually, the body will use up excess water stored within 90-120 minutes of vigorous activity such as running. I was running on reserves and still fueling with this electrolyte/sodium dense energy gels and very little sips of water. After all, who wants to stop and drink a cup of waster when you just PR’d? 

Shortly after this point the muscle cramps and fatigue kicked in. It was barely mile 14 when I had to stop and walk. Previously I had trained and ran 20 miles in one shot. What’s an extra 6? I thought. I hurriedly chewed on an energy gel and finally drank a large amount of water. It was too late. 

I finished the marathon that day, nearly 2 hours behind my projected finish time at the halfway point. Because of my lack of preparation, experimenting, and cockiness, I suffered. Never made that mistake again!

In the days and weeks leading up to a competition or an event where you are going to push out a certain amount of effort and are working toward a desired outcome, plan your nutrition and hydration. Consult a nutrition coach if you can so you can learn exactly what your body needs. If you’re going to add anything in, do it well in advance and try to replicate the competition day environment by going to sleep and waking up at the same time, and operating your desired intensity. Remember to stick to the plan!

How much food do I need?

It depends. And we can tell you.

Assume that usually, your body craves the exact amount of food it needs. There are a lot of variables here. Unless there are metabolic or genetic abnormalities, it’s likely your body self regulates. Meaning eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full. Your self regulating system will adjust based on activity. Have a tough workout? Your body will crave more carbs. It’s a normal thing. 

The hack here is using science and math to determine your metabolic rate, then the amount of micro and macronutrients you require to perform at your absolute best. 

The most important aspect of knowing how much you need is the ratios of P:C:F. If you can maintain the ratio from meal to meal, it will keep your body functioning at this high level, perpetually. 

PERIODIZATION

Occasionally you may need to vary the volume and timing of your meals. Some reasons for this might be:

Excess activity. If you have a day of training that you can consider “unusual”, it might benefit you to take in extra calories. Similarly, if you’re coming off a heavy day and have a recovery day next, you may want to alter your intake or change your ratios. Put simply -> A “Heavy Day” of lifting (greater than 8-9/10 RPE* for consecutive sets) means you want to take in a few more carbs post workout, and your following day or two can be protein dense, assuming you fundamentally changed some chemistry in your body by breaking down muscle tissue that it requires extra fuel to properly recover.

All this being said, carb loading the night before an event is more of a myth than a solution. 

The idea of carb loading is commonly shown in movies and tv as people scarfing down bowls of spaghetti the night before a big race. The ideas here are valid, though it’s missing some crucial information. 

Carb Loading is built on increasing the amount of glycogen in your body. Glycogen is essentially a mechanism that helps to store carbohydrates for use as energy. Naturally, we have a limited amount of energy storage, usually around 90 minutes worth before our “energy stores” are depleted. Once depleted, you’ll need to recover and consume more energy. 

Endurance athletes use a hack called carb loading. This process begins about 1 week prior to competition day by increasing the volume of complex carbohydrates to about 8-12 grams of Carbs per kilogram of Bodyweight. This an adult male weighing 170 lbs (77 Kilograms) would ramp up Carb consumption to up to 924 grams (per day) of Carbs AND decrease the amount of Fat intake significantly to balance out the calories. For reference, This example is using my current weight, and I currently eat between 300 and 350g of carbs per day. I would have to double or triple my current intake of carbs per day, for several days leading up to competition.

Yes, bloating will occur. And yes, you’d still want these carbs from low-inflammatory foods. 

If you’re curious about how your body would react/feel from this you should give it a shot. Chat with our nutrition coach to get an accurate number and plan to ramp you up. 

The result of this is a higher than normal amount of carbohydrates being stored in the body for a longer period of time. This is what allows people to exert an incredible amount of energy for a long duration. Think Ironman Triathlon kind of energy

*RPE = Rate of Perceived Exertion. This is a purely “by feel” way of understanding intensity. 3-5/10 on the RPE scale is a recovery pace, where you can hold a normal conversation with a slightly elevated heart rate.  6-7/10 is a moderate intensity where you can speak in short sentences and your heart rate is steady and high. 8-9/10 is a very high effort, where you can   mutter a word or two at a time, and your heart rate is at its threshold. 10/10 is for the 1RM attempts and can/should only be used sparingly as there is a high chance of error and the recovery required is greater.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Coach Matt is a Certified CrossFit Trainer (CF-L3) and an Active Life Professional. Over the years he’s competed at different levels in endurance sports like running, swimming and triathlons, as well as Olympic Weightlifting and CrossFit. As a coach, he’s helped many athletes get started and stay motivated, and others go on to compete and win at the national level in both Weightlifting and CrossFit. His goal is to help people overcome their self-limited  beliefs to become the strongest and truest version of themselves.

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