By Matt Dixon, coach and founder of Purple Patch Fitness
The vast majority of athletes taking on the challenge of IRONMAN are doing so in the midst of also looking to maintain or improve health, performance in the work place, as well as being the best version of themselves for their friends and family. In short, they’re looking to perform well in IRONMAN and in life.
Yet seldom do coaches and athletes connect the dots between their fueling and eating habits, and how they can positively or negatively impact daily life. There is a subconscious mindset that whatever is done in training, and the fueling around that training, is suddenly put aside and irrelevant when they head to work. This is an approach that is a gateway to performance peril in many ways.
I encourage a more integrated mindset to ensure that we not only fuel for performance gains and recovery in training, but facilitate energy management and vibrancy in daily life. Let’s investigate.
Fueling vs. Nutrition
For educational and adherence purposes, I encourage athletes to view fueling and nutrition as two different things.
Their fueling consists of the calories taken in during and immediately following fitness, with their nutrition being daily meals and snacks. The coaching reason for this is to drive appropriate performance habits, and for athletes to understand that their quest and food choices have slightly different roles under each focus.
Under the banner of nutrition, the athlete’s food choices should be focused on obtaining the building blocks of life — with nutrient-rich foods that support recovery, healthy living and the quality foods that most of us understand as “good eating”.
In other words, your daily eating is your platform of health. On the order hand, calories during workouts or immediately following are primarily focused on maximizing performance and providing the body with fuel to train well and to optimize recovery.
The Role of Fueling
If calories are for performance fuel, then we must understand what this truly means – because consuming calories during and following workouts has much greater influence on performance than simply looking at how many watts you’ve turn out:
Performance During Your Session: I don’t think you need me to inform you that some training sessions require caloric support to optimize performance. Having said this, there is no need to pump sugar into every session. It is only longer duration, or very high intensity sessions, that require caloric support. In general, anything under 75 minutes seldom requires additional calories.
Recovery from Training: A second role of fueling is to facilitate recovery from the training, hence maximizing the physiological adaptations from your hard work. You cannot rebuild and adapt in the absence of calories.
Minimizing Stress Carry Over: When we train we have suitably higher cortisol and other stress hormones circulating, which is a good thing for session performance. With this said, we don’t want to carry these high stress hormones into the rest of the day. Your natural method to lower these hormones is to consume calories, particularly protein.
Facilitate Healthy Eating Habits and Portion Management: As you will read lower, to manage daily energy it is important to avoid starvation, as well as gluttony. Your only path to facilitate control over the types and amounts of food you choose in the rest of your day is if you fuel appropriately post-workout. You are much more likely to choose appropriate foods - and in fact, crave appropriate foods - if you fuel post-workout.
- Stabilize Energy: Training can be hard, but we hope to minimize the effect of that training on your ability to perform, retain focus and make smart decisions in the rest of your day. Post-workout fueling will be your gateway to create a platform of stable and consistent energy.
From reading above, it is easy to understand why I insist that proper eating habits and daily energy management both start with an appropriate training program, as well as smart post-workout fueling. Without either, you will run into energy and performance challenges.
The Impact of Daily Energy
If you nail down sustainable and smart fueling habits you are a lot closer to not only maximizing your training performance in a single session, but also optimizing physiological adaptations and weaving a fabric of training consistency and predictability. Powerful words for the high performance athlete. And as mentioned before, the impact extends far beyond your training.
With these habits locked in, you’re also a lot closer to predictable and consistent energy management throughout the day. You will have avoided a symptom that I refer to as “athletic starvation”, and won’t be overcome with cravings for big meals, fatigue-inducing sweet and starchy carbohydrates, and are set up for daily success. The key is now executing eating habits that carry through this potential.
Eating to Sustain Daily Energy (and the Role of Afternoon Tea)
If you have successfully integrated positive fueling habits, then you should have consumed calories to allow performance during the session, and provided enough calories to lower stress and refuel the muscles. This means that your focus in the rest of your daily eating can emphasize a platform of health and stable energy. Some of the keys to do this include:
Eat Regular, Smaller Meals: The body doesn’t respond well to excess — in the form of gluttony or starvation — and both will lead to swings in energy and the ability to focus. Avoid major feeds; instead spreading eating over multiple, regularly timed meals.
Skip the Sugar: Sugar has a role to play in a few training sessions, and certainly in supporting your racing performance, but has little value in daily living. Reduce the contributing amount of sugar in your daily diet, without being obsessive. Any cravings for sweets should be reduced if you fuel well, but there is no place for sweets in the middle of the workday, as they will make you sleepy.
Focus on the Building Blocks: Most of your meals should have plenty of carbohydrates (in the form of vegetables), as well as some protein and a healthy contribution of fats. If training is heavier, then feel free to add some starchy carbohydrate to allow enough caloric support of your heavy training. Yes, you require all three macronutrients - always.
Remain Hydrated: Dehydration is often a cause of two symptoms in daily life — fatigue and hunger. Remain hydrated to continue optimal recovery and cellular health, but also to fend off the resulting sleepiness from becoming as shriveled as a dry sponge.
- Get Warm: If you experience the afternoon slumps, don’t reach for the energy drink or coffee. A contributing fatigue to the afternoon fog is likely a dropping core temperature associated with your circadian rhythm. Your fix-all is, if life allows, a very brief ten-to-twenty minute nap, but also a hot, non-caffeinated drink. This will elevate core temperature and bring back vibrancy in no time.
High Load Days — Low Load Days
A final consideration in your energy management is retaining a pragmatic and sensible lens of your training load on each day, and each week of training.
On days or periods of very heavy training you will require an increase in total caloric support, as well as a greater contribution from carbohydrates to support that training. In contrast, very light days or rest, as well as phases of recovery and lighter training, can allow an emphasis shift toward “building block” nutrition mentioned above.
Don’t make the mistake of under-eating on the harder training days, then aim to play catch-up (often with cravings) when training load drops. You’ll get asynchronous with your eating relative to training and will not only be under-fueling and recovering, as well as limiting positive adaptations, but you’ll be adding unnecessary stress to the system. A byproduct of this will be lethargy and life fogginess.
If you follow these simple habits and rules and you’ll be well on your way to not only maximizing the return on your hard training, but also in establishing repeatable and predictable energy throughout the day. This is all part of the integration of this wonderful sport into a big life — to achieve your goals, and also maximize your life performance.
Matt Dixon is a world-class triathlon coach, former professional triathlete, elite swimmer and exercise physiologist. His Purple Patch coaching community is based in San Francisco, but his athletes span the globe.
His professional triathlon squad has amassed more than 300 Professional wins and podiums in IRONMAN and IRONMAN 70.3 races, including the 2016 World Champion. He has qualified more than 250 athletes to the Hawaii IRONMAN World Championships, with multiple Age Group World Champions, but he is equally known for his groundbreaking work successfully creating performance in sport and life for time-starved individuals. He guides many leading CEOs of major companies, including well known tech industry leaders.
Matt is the author of the Well Built Triathlete, as well as the new Fast Track Triathlete, an IRONMAN U Master coach, global hydration advisor for Camelbak and a much sought performance expert and speaker.