When seeking peak performance or health, we tend to analyze every little bit of our training programs, trying to squeeze in more volume or more practice where we can, switching programs, coaches, gyms to find that one thing that will work. Often times though, most athletes or clients have forgotten the most important part of their training: Nutrition. It’s true that consistency, volume, intensity..etc. will all move you forward, but you first need a foundation of good nutrition.
Like in training, it starts with consistency. Most adults understand the importance of 3 solid meals per day, but student athletes have to be encouraged to do the same by their parents. They need to be eating good quality breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. I’m not going to get into the whole intermittent fasting deal because that is more of an advanced concept and not one I recommend for athletes or most people anyway. Start with 3 good meals every day of the week for weeks and months, and then go from there.
What does a good quality meal look like?
Lets forget about pre and post workout nutrition for a minute as we will discuss that later. For simplicity’s sake meals should consist of high quality proteins like meats, eggs, and fish; green vegetables like broccoli, zucchini, kale; and fats like coconut oil, butter, olive oil, nuts. This is just skimming the surface and of course there are numerous options in each category, but to be consistent, meals should look something like the above. These foods prevent inflammation, and aid the body in recovery and repair. We are seeing food intolerances and allergies skyrocket due to all the crap in processed foods and our environment, so for optimal health and performance, it’s best to stay away from them.
Once we have a consistent diet of solid, good quality meals of meats, veggies, and fats, how do we then scale that to match our activity?
Simply put, we need to add in the right carbohydrates at the right times. For elite athletes and growing teens, I say put carbs in at every meal perhaps with the exception of breakfast.
How many carbs do you need?
Carb amounts will vary based on individual tolerance. For example I have seen males who can eat upwards of 800 g per day and I have seen males who can only tolerate 200 g per day so I am going to give a good starting point. Student athletes or elite athletes should be eating about 2x bodyweight in lbs. So if you weigh 200 lbs. you want to be eating around 400 g per day of carbs. Athletes should aim for this intake on most days, even rest days, to help their bodies repair. For adults who are training, but not as elite or competitive athletes, your carbohydrate intake should match your activity that day. For example, a hard training day (think lots of squats, assistance work, and conditioning) you will want that 2x bodyweight amount. On moderate days perhaps just bodyweight in grams, so if you weigh 150 lbs. then 150 g. of carbs. On rest days, keep carbs low if at all, especially if your goal is fat loss. If not, you can add in a little more.
When to eat carbs?
Like I said earlier, I think most high school/college and professional athletes can eat carbs all day, especially if they are training in the early morning or twice per day. If not, a high protein and fat breakfast will serve their minds best for the school or work day. Sending kids to school after an apple or a bowl of sugary cereal is setting them up for failure. Other than that, carbs should be placed around workout times. I generally think around 15-20% of carbs should be placed pre-workout. I’m also a believer in intra-workout carbs for those who are training very intensely so about 30% during the workout. Another 30% about 40 mins-60 mins post-workout. The other 20% can be placed in other meals of the day. If you workout at night place the last 20% at bedtime. If you workout in the morning the last 20% would be around dinner time. Just a note here: you want to keep your fats lower in the pre and post-workout meals so as not to slow the absorption of the carbs. Eat a majority of your fats in your other meals.
What carbs to eat?
I mentioned above including vegetables in the base diet plan, and vegetables are carbs, but they provide very minimal amounts of glucose and it’s hard to get 200g of carbs from vegetables alone. By “carbs” I mean mostly starchy sources of carbohydrates and some grains if the body tolerates them. Most people tolerate white rice well so I recommend placing white rice post-workout, especially since the glucose content is high. Other sources include potatoes, squash, oats, brown rice, and fruits. For intra-workout (during workout) carbs I like sugary sources like Gatorade or Koolaid but if you want to stay cleaner you could use a supplement like Vitargo (I just don’t think it’s worth the money).
What about the cheat meals and dirty carbs??
Use them moderately and sparingly and place them post workout or at night. A lot of people are into doughnuts right now but I just don’t like them post-workout because along with the carbs you’re getting a lot of fat. If you’re going to have them, try to keep it to once per week after a heavy training session. Be smart about your choices and as long as 80% of your foods are good quality, you can get away with 20% of whatever you want.
Sample Meal Plan
I wanted to lay out a day of eating so you get the idea. The basic template is below, followed by real food examples. I will use myself as an example, a 140 lb female who is moderately active. We will give an example of a HARD training day with the following macronutrient goals: 140g protein, 250g carbs, 85g fat. We will say that I’m training around 5pm after work.
Breakfast: 20g protein, 30 g. fat
Lunch: 30g protein, veggies, 15 g. fat.
Pre-workout: 20 g. protein, 8 g fat, 50 g. carbs
Intra-workout: 20 g. whey, 75 g. carbs
Post-workout meal: 30 g. protein, veggies, 8 g. fat, 75 g. carbs
Bed-time: 20 g. casein, 20g. fat, 50 g carbs
With real foods (macronutrients may vary slightly):
Breakfast: 1 egg, 2 egg whites; coffee with 1 tbs. butter, 1 tbs. almond butter.
Lunch: 4 oz. chicken breast with 1 c. baby spinach and 1 c. asparagus, 2 tbs. guacamole.
Pre-workout: 1 c. crisp rice cereal or 1/2 c. oats with 3/4 scoop whey protein and 1/2 c. almond milk. 1/4 c. dried coconut chips.
Intra-workout: 3/4 scoop whey with 3 capfuls of koolaid mixed with water.
Meal post-workout (40-60 mins): 3-4 oz. 99% lean ground turkey breast, 1 c. broccoli, 1 c. white rice, 1 tbs. ghee (in the rice).
Bed time: 20 g casein mixed w/ 1/2 c. almond milk, rice cereal, and 1 tbs. almond butter.
Take home message: If you want to perform well, you need to eat well. It does take some time to prepare meals for the week and lay out a structured plan but after about a month you get used to it and you don’t think about it so much. If you care about your health and performance, you will make diet a priority. You ALWAYS have time, you just have to prioritize.