Don’t get too wrapped up in all the rules—just eat
There’s a lot of noise out there when it comes to eating for optimal performance. Eat this. Don’t eat that. Eat this at this time. Don’t eat that at that time. Advice can be laced with black and white recommendations that may not work for your lifestyle. Is it really necessary for it to all be so intricate?
Here are four easy pieces of advice for proper fueling.
Consider your training. Are you in the pool or doing dryland workouts? When are you training, how long are you training, and how intense do you anticipate training will be?
Determining how much to eat can take a little practice, but ultimately you should rely on hunger and fullness cues to guide timing and amounts. Your body should guide you appropriately to spread food throughout the day to give you energy before training and replenish nutrients after training.
There are some caveats to this principle, such as if you don’t usually feel hungry before a training session (this often happens for those early morning sessions); you don’t commonly feel hungry after a training session but training is intense and/or for a long period of time; you’re looking to gain weight and build lean tissue and therefore may need to eat more than what feels natural to you; or because of the duration and intensity of training you require food during your training session too (most people don’t feel hungry while they are exercising). In these cases, you may need to eat just to eat if you want to elevate your performance.
Simply stated, if you have more than an hour before training, take advantage of eating a bit more. Include carbohydrates, fiber, protein, and fat. If you’re eating within an hour of exercise, consider food that’s mostly carbohydrate and lower in fat and fiber so that the fuel will be available to your muscles quickly. During exercise, stick to carbohydrates that you can digest quickly, unless you’re working hard for more than a couple of hours, then include protein. After training, eat a well-balanced meal. If you’ve been training hard, you might need to eat more than once.
You want fluid consumption to be just right. Not too much and not too little. If you find that you’re thirsty, or your urine is dark yellow and concentrated in volume, or has a more pungent smell, you’re not drinking enough. If you find yourself running to the bathroom frequently and your urine is mostly clear, you’re likely drinking too much (or too much too quickly). Your goal should be to prevent thirst. To do this, sip fluid throughout the day. Don’t chug a bunch at one time. Your urine is your best gauge. If it is light yellow to nearly clear and you aren’t always running to the bathroom to pee, you’re probably doing it right.
For training, simulate race day conditions as best as you can. The environment, including altitude and temperature, will affect your fluid needs. The intensity, duration, and the volume of your training will also shape your fluid needs.
If you’re completely lost determining how much to drink, start by taking your weight in pounds and divide it in half to get a target number of ounces to drink per day. However, this is just a starting point. Ideally, you should also determine your sweat rate to ensure adequate hydration is achieved during training and events. Even though swimming takes place in water, you still sweat. Although the majority of sweat is water, electrolytes such as sodium are also lost in sweat. Inadequate hydration and failure to replace electrolytes can be dangerous. If your sweat tastes salty, if sweat stings your eyes or burns in any open cuts, or if you have white lines on your skin or clothes after training, then you’re likely a salty sweater and should include foods that contain sodium throughout the day. Shake table salt onto your food or eat pretzels, crackers, salted nuts, or canned soup to add sodium to your diet.
Put together a game plan for training. Strategize fueling, refueling, and supplements for the ultimate race day plan. Throughout training, you can perfect your plan so that when race day comes you can feel at ease. This planning, practice, and refinement helps you be successful on race day. It’s important to recognize that there are many factors outside of your control that may suggest a change to your plan. What if you’re competing in an open water race and the water is much warmer than you predicted? This can vastly upset your original plan. What if you’re attempting your original plan and it just isn’t working? You shouldn’t completely improvise race day nutrition, but fluidity is vital to your success.
Put together a plan and practice throughout your training. Race day is not the day to try that new sports drink or experiment with a new supplement. However, if conditions change, be ready to evaluate and adjust accordingly. Having a strong-willed personality might be a great attribute as an athlete, but an unwillingness to compromise might lead you to lose.
Evaluate How You Feel
If you’re fatigued, not recovering well, are frequently sick, have lingering injuries, or if your performance is declining, you’re likely overtraining, not eating enough, or both. Listen to your body. No one else knows your body like you do.
Performing at the top of your class takes effort and sometimes precise nutrition, but any advice that seems complicated and extreme probably is. For the majority of athletes, performing your best doesn’t require that you agonize over your nutrition. In fact, letting go of rules and complex formulas can be liberating and you might find that you can spend that energy doing something more satisfying.
- Health and Nutrition