Part 2 of 3: Form a few good habits and be patient.
I want to hit on what I think are the essential habits of a successful athletic lifestyle. There are a couple of schools of thought on nutrition and fueling as an endurance athlete. The best way to make this point is to give you a real-world analogy.
The engine that powers the human body has a lot in common with two kinds of fires. A cooking fire remains hot and can boil water or fry fish in minutes, but that only works if you constantly add fuel to the fire. It never has big flames but provides a reliable, predictable output. A bonfire is different from a cooking fire. In the beginning, you a lot of fuel to a bonfire, but then you step back (way back, in some cases) and watch it burn down to nothing. In the beginning, you get incredible amounts of heat and light. In the end, you have a mess to clean up!
The end products of both fires are different. A cooking fire has a small pile of white ashes as its leave-behind, and they are quickly scattered the following day by a kick with your shoe. A bonfire will have many half-burned logs on the perimeter, and beneath the ashes will be some hot coals that smolder for a day but provide no light nor much usable heat.
Lifetime fitness has more in common with a cooking fire than a bonfire. Your goal is to have a cooking fire for a metabolic engine, not a bonfire. Continual and thoughtful fueling separates a good endurance athlete from everyone else. Here are some recommendations to help you form good habits that help you have a cooking fire, not a bonfire.
Plan ahead for your mid-day food, not just your dinner
Mapping out your dinner in advance is something even non-athletes do. We all look forward to a good restaurant and having friends over for dinner at the end of the day. However, the mid-day meal often has a more direct determination of reaching your athletic goals than your best-scripted dinner plans. If you skip your mid-day day, you will have a larger meal later at the end of the day. Unfortunately, few of us have workouts after a late dinner, and we start a bonfire with no benefits.
Instead, have a great lunch, so when dinner comes, you are only adding to what you had for lunch and don’t feel a need for seconds and thirds of food that you will not burn until the following day.
I often try to time the end of my workouts at or around lunchtime. Usually, I shower first and have an ultimate sandwich afterward that includes a lot of protein and carbs. I will drink a caffeinated drink that I make myself. The sandwich takes about 5 minutes to eat, but the glass will last an hour, if not more, as I sip it throughout my recovery. I never try to eat a salad as a post-workout meal, as that would be counterproductive for my goals of becoming faster and stronger. Salad for dinner? Yes. Salad for lunch? No! I am an athlete who is trying to get better. A salad for lunch makes no sense.
Address your protein intake. You probably need more than you are getting.
Repeated research studies demonstrate that glycogen is the essential fuel source for endurance athletes. We are often tempted to fuel with carbs while idle to the same extent we do when we are exercising. It is a fact that the body is most effective at creating usable energy from glycogen, so our thinking is correct, but we need to prioritize protein consumption. That deficiency is the endurance athlete’s typical shortfall.
Most of us don’t get enough protein. Protein is required to build and maintain muscle mass. Get 20 grams of protein several times throughout the day, and you will get better and faster if everything else is equal.
Some tricks I use: I like keeping hard-boiled eggs in the frig. They are a fast and easy snack that I can eat alone or with some seasonings on a cracker or ten, I mean two.
I also add a big scoop of peanut butter to my cutting board when I slice up an apple as my mid-afternoon snack.
I add a scoop of whey protein to my morning oatmeal.
I have cheese and meat with my wine in the evening.
I have found that eating last night’s leftovers for breakfast is a great way to ensure I am getting enough protein. The American diet is rich in protein, but only at the end of the day. Why not eat steak and potatoes for breakfast?
Lastly, protein is typically the most expensive of all the macronutrients, and it has the shortest shelf life compared to carbs or fats. As such, we buy protein in bulk and freeze it to save money. We get our beef from a local farmer, one-quarter of a cow at a time. That means we spend $750 on beef yearly, and we need to have a giant freezer to support all the food. However, we have 100 to 200 pounds of delicious ground beef available whenever people stop by for a visit, and we need to cook fast. We can also have a good sirloin without taking out a second mortgage. We have stew meat, ribs, and other various cuts to choose from at any time, and we need not base our decision on current market prices or what is available at the meat counter at the store. If you can find a farmer where you live, you should do so, and you should buy directly from him and cut the grocery store out of the chain.
Eat throughout the day. Don’t get duped into intermittent fasting during a training macrocycle.
Intermittent fasting gets meaningful attention these days. I, too, will occasionally fast, as it is part of a healthy lifestyle. However, your cooking fire requires fuel to remain hot. As I write this, it is Tuesday. I have already gone running. Soon, I will lift weights and spend 20 minutes on the Stairmaster carrying a backpack full of medicine balls. I will eat both before I do that workout as well as afterward.
You can still compete and enjoy competition, even if you choose an alternative eating system to get your body the energy needed to compete. I focus on what studies consistently show as the most effective fueling strategy for the endurance athlete. It is not some law, “do this, or you are wrong!” mentality. I have personally lost shorter races to folks who fuel with fat and ketones, and I will sometimes go through cycles where I reduce my carbohydrate consumption. This is a recommendation with the assumption that maximum success is your intention. Do your thing if it works for you!