(Re)learning how to eat as an athlete

A passion of mine is helping athletes adopt a more real food diet. I don't think I need to discuss the many benefits of eating real food, grown from nature, to support your health needs as you train for your fitness/athletic goals.

For many athletes, there's a lot of confusion as to how to eat as an athlete vs. as a non-athlete. Yes, all human beings should adopt a more real food diet but for athletes, there are many times throughout the year when your lifestyle is not normal, and you need to relearn what "healthy eating" means as an athlete.

You see, as an athlete, your body processes food differently than your sedentary counterparts and you need a lot of it. You burn more calories, your body requires key nutrients, at certain times, to help assist in metabolism, protein synthesis and glycogen resynthesis and food is not simply consumed for health but it is also your fuel.

Far too many athletes think they are eating healthy but in reality, they are underconsuming calories (often 500-1500 calories less than what you should be eating), eating too much fiber before workouts (causing GI issues during the workout), not taking advantage of post workout nutrition (this is where you actually become a better athlete) and not spreading out total calories, with balanced meals, throughout the day (thus initiating overeating in the evening due to not feeling an appetite during the day or intentionally underfueling during the day). If this is you, there's a good chance that your idea of a healthy diet may actually hurt your health as you stress it with training.

Many athletes struggle with this concept because they struggle with food and weight. Despite burning an excessive amount of calories on a daily basis, you don't understand why you are training all the time but can't seem to get the scale to go down. Athletes often email me, concerned about their inability to lose weight despite working out all the time and they assume that eating less is the strategy to weight loss or that being lighter will automatically improve performance.

The best way to change your body composition is by unintentionally trying. When you put all of your energy into your daily diet as an athlete, you will not only adapt better to your workouts, but you will instantly notice more energy, a favorable change in body composition (stronger body) and sleep better, with improved mood throughout the day.

My message to athletes is that weight loss, performance gains or keeping your body in good health relies on your ability to support your workouts with your daily diet. Seeing that every workout and every day is different, you may never properly adapt to training if you don't learn how to eat as an athlete.

But, it's not as hard as you think, for there are many guidelines and recommendations that are easy to apply and follow. 

For many athletes, there can be an underlying disconnect as it relates to how much food an athlete needs to eat to support training, specifically endurance athletes. For any athlete who has spent years of dieting, restrictive eating or relearning how to eat a more real food diet, I understand how you may be very confused as to how to eat as an athlete, and still eat healthy, maintain a healthy relationship with food and perhaps, meet your body composition goals.

Due to much conflicting information, athletes need to understand that strict eating restrictions, "clean" (no processed food) eating, calorie control and improper food/nutrient timing can make it difficult to perform during workouts but also, you may be sabotaging any forward progress with body composition changes, alongside slowly damaging your health.

You see, as athletes, we have similar nutritional guidelines as the normal population but because of our training demands to intentionally change our physiology to adapt to training, there are many circumstances in the training season when a typical healthy diet will not work in our favor.

Consider the below examples:
  • No appetite post workout
  • Two a day workouts
  • Very early morning training
  • Very late evening training
  • Long workout 
  • Intense workout
  • No time to sit down and eat a meal 

Unfortunately, many athletes are so committed to eating the standard "healthy" diet (if there such a thing) that the above examples can actually compromise your health and delay gains in fitness if you don't create a different style of eating to support your training. In other words, your training regime and the affects that training has on your body, energy needs and appetite, can make your definition of a "healthy diet" turn unhealthy.

I see it a lot as athletes will come to me with issues with the following:
  • Adrenal fatigue
  • Thyroid issues
  • Inability to lose weight
  • Low energy
  • Stress fractures and other chronic injuries (tendon/bone/muscle)
  • Anemia
  • Menstruation and hormonal issues
  • Inability to gain muscle
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Moodiness, low motivation
  • Chronically sore muscles
  • Inability to get through long or intense workouts
  • Disordered style of eating
  • Body image issues
  • Lightheaded, dizzy, low blood sugar
By understanding an athletes thoughts about food, his/her typical diet and training regime, along with getting to know the athletes "normal" life routine, I can understand if an athlete is eating "too healthy" (often restricting food groups, counting calories, underfueling, etc.). As you can see, sometimes your good intention to eat healthy can bring out health issues which negatively affect performance.

Now consider this:
-When you have no appetite post workout, is it ok to just not eat? What about maximizing recovery after your workout?
-Did you think about how your energy is affected when you don't recover or fuel properly throughout the day on two workout days?
-If your morning workout is a key workout,  don't you want to get the most out of your body during the morning workout?
-If your workout is in the evening, you don't want to affect your digestion before bed but you still need to recover from the workout.
-When your long workout takes up many hours of your day, have you considered the big responsibility that you now have to replenish your glycogen, rehydrate and repair damaged tissues. Don't assume that you can train for many hours and neglect eating post workout and throughout the day.

For athletes, in order to support the demands of training, the daily diet will likely include foods that may not be advocated in a "healthy" diet. But, as athletes, we need eating strategies that will keep our body in good health as we place intentional stress on the body, to change physiology, and to stay consistent with training (while still functioning well in life).

So while I strongly endorse and advise a real food diet, we must consider that processed food, like cereal, sport nutrition or pretzels or learned "unhealthy" food, like juice, potatoes, pancakes with syrup, raisins or saltine crackers, has a place in an athletes diet under certain circumstances. As great as it is to eat whole foods, thriving on vegetables all day is not performance enhancing. 
A rewarding part of my job as a sport dietitian is helping athletes relearn "healthy eating". There's often some resistance at first because many of the foods I suggest to eat around workouts or on higher volume workout days, are viewed as "unhealthy". Therefore, it's important that throughout any session with an athlete, that I fully understand all past and current eating behaviors and thoughts around food to discover any underlying fears about changing the diet or how/why the current diet was created. 
Keep in mind that a diet doesn't have to be perfect to improve performance and to keep the body in good health. If you are holding too strong onto your defined "perfect diet", it may be working against you as you work hard for fitness gains or a change in body composition. 

Fore more info on this topic, PopSugar intervewied me on the topic. While this discussion is more in depth than what was shared in the article, I hope that the information helps you understand your current eating patterns and food choics that may be sabotaging your health, performance and body composition goals. Perhaps, just maybe, you are trying to eat "too healthy"???

When to eat processed food?

Still confused on this topic? Let's work together so that your diet enhances your health, performance and body composition and improves your overall quality of life.
Nutrition services


Kona Edge Podcast interview - successfully failing

In mid October, I dedicated a blog post to recapping our 2016 season of triathlon racing. 
If you missed it, you can read about it here: 2016 season recap. 

Looking back, 2016 was a very successful season for me and Karel. 

I fulfilled a long time goal of placing on the podium at an international Ironman, where I finished 2nd AG and 4th female amateur (10th overall female) at Ironman Austria. It was also my highest ever overall placing in an Ironman since winning the 18-24 AG at IMFL in 2006 (my first Ironman). Only this time, 11 Ironmans later, I finished 54 minutes faster than at my first Ironman (10:06 at IM Austria vs. 11:00 at IMFL). 

I placed overall female at the Lake James 50 triathlon. 

Eight days later, I was leading the race by several minutes with 1 mile to go, at Rev3 Knox, until a pink arrow lead me and several others off the bike portion of the race course. Due to a 6+ mile detour, I tried to make up the 15+ minutes that I lost on the bike and missed the win by less than a minute. Bright side - I had the fastest female run split of the day (running frustrated and on a mission!).

And to conclude the season, a win at Lake Logan Half which was the result of a very strong performance on a very tough race course, and one of my best executed bike performance. 

And, let's not forget Karel's 3 very successful Ironman finishes (IM Austria, IMMT, IMKona), 3 overall race wins, an IM podium (and Kona qualification) at IMMT and the fastest male amateur run split at IMMT. 

While successes are worth highlighting (it's good to acknowledge when you are doing something right), it would be wrong for me to not mention the many, MANY lessons, mistakes and failures that have occurred since I started racing in endurance events back in 2006. 

  • I'd like to bring up my horrible decision in 2007 when I decided to race my first Kona with an injury. No running for 30 days due to hip issues and a quick-fix, please heal me, approach to every doctor that I saw, only to try to get myself uninjured before race day, results in extreme damage to my body during and after the race. With a stubborn head, I finished (and made it onto the NBC Kona broadcast coverage - yep, I was one of those athletes falling across the finish line) and it negatively affected me for several years (like 6!). 

  • I'd like to bring up 2011, where I didn't race a single triathlon for the entire year, except IM Kona in October, due to another 3 months of no running (hip/back issues) and a time-consuming dietetic internship that took up every hour of my day (10+ hours a day of interning and school work) for 10 months. 

  • I'd like to bring up the 3 months that I didn't run before IM Placid in 2013 and managed to get myself into as good of shape as I could, to feel prepared for that race, with only 8 weeks of consistent running. This also occurred during the time when my dad was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic cancer. Somehow, I managed to get to the start line and qualify for Kona with a roll down slot. 

  • I'd like to bring up the 6 years that I suffered from chronic hip/back issues, which caused many days of frustration, tears and anger toward my body. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to quit the sport of triathlon throughout those 6 years and how much time was spent on PT, doc appointments and anything and everything to try to get myself healed. 
  • And let's not forget Karel's recent issues, with a tear in his plantar fascia just 5 months before his first Kona in 2015 and then a diagnosis of a labral hip tear this past May and painful back issues leading up to IM Austria.
  • I should also mention the passing of my dad, three days before my birthday in 2014. This is something that I deal with on an ongoing basis. I don't think you ever get over the loss of a loved one, especially a parent. 

You see, failure is a step to success. Actually, it is the road to success. 
Perhaps you have followed us for many years or you are a new Trimarni follower. Regardless, it is important that you understand that our successes are not without failures. 

I don't know that I will ever be able to document my 10 years of learning into one blog post but I will continue to document my journey on this blog, with the intention of inspiring you and motivating you to never ever give up on your dreams.  If you don't give up, you never fail. You just keep on learning. 

Sure, we can call it a failure when we get injured, race poorly or make some kind of bad decision in training but failing is an opportunity to learn....that is, if you see it as a valuable opportunity to learn. 

The way I see it, I have successfully failed to get to where I am today.

As a sport dietitian, coach and still developing triathlete, I have 10 years of formal education with 10 years of endurance training and racing behind me. I have learned a lot in 10 years and I don't believe I'm even close to reaching my peak performances by my boy. I think Karel, even at 40 years of age, still hasn't reached his best. He's getting faster, stronger, more efficient and smarter as an endurance triathlete with every season. And next season will only be his 6 season of endurance triathlon racing. 

Thanks to Brad Brown with The Kona Edge, I was recently given a special opportunity to share some of my lessons learned along my successful (and not so successful) journey. 

We had such a great conversation talking about all things triathlon, Kona and coaching, as well as discussing my thoughts on race weight. I hope you enjoy hearing about some of the mistakes that I've made over the past 10 years as an endurance triathlete.
Although this podcast may be about me, Brad wanted to make sure that this podcast interview was also educational, so that I could discuss practical advice to help athletes move closer to reaching personal athletic goals, without compromising health.
Thanks for listening.

If you enjoy The Kona Edge podcast, you can leave a rating and review for The Kona Edge podcast on iTunes.


Quinoa pasta with sauteed veggies and tomato sauce

Before I share with you my latest creation, made with Supergrain Pasta Spaghetti (corn and quinoa flour), I'd like to tell you the reason why I don't label my creations as "gluten free" "Metabolically efficient" "Paleo" "Whole 30" or by any other name than what's in the recipe.

I'm on a mission to help athletes learn how to have a better relationship with food. Far too many athletes have a dysfunctional relationship with food and this can create resistance to eat enough of the right foods, at the right times to meet training demands.

Labeling, worrying or feeling guilty about food makes it quite difficult to eat according to your personal dietary needs. Combine that with issues with your body image and you will constantly struggle to meet your health and energy needs.

Of course, I find great value when a recipe is labeled gluten free, dairy free, vegetarian or vegan, as I work with many athletes who need to follow a restricted diet (ex. personal, ethical, religious, medical, etc.) and this makes ingredient deciphering much easier. And let's be honest, 99.9% of the recipes on this blog are vegetarian because I am a vegetarian, so maybe you come to this blog to see vegetarian recipes (even if I don't label them as vegetarian).

It's unfortunate, but true, that many people need permission to eat something by a diet name.
Don't believe me...... 

How considerate. ✓ - Paleo approved foods
Whole Foods gives you permission to eat anything on this salad bar if you follow a Paleo diet. Since I don't follow a Paleo diet, am I allowed to eat from this salad bar? Is this salad bar healthier than the other salad bar? I see carrots but am I allowed to eat paleo carrots?
What makes carrot paleo? 

Outside of the context of eating a restrictive diet, for the reasons I mentioned above, giving yourself permission to eat something simply because it doesn't fit into your "bad food" or "off limit" category is no way to foster a healthy relationship with food.

Take this quinoa pasta as an example. 

If I titled my recipe "Gluten free pasta with sauteed veggies and tomato sauce" would you suddenly assume that I am endorsing this pasta as a more healthy option than the regular alternative?
What's makes it healthier if the calories, carbohydrates and protein content is relatively similar?
Because it's made from quinoa?

What about this pancake mix? Is it healthier because it's gluten free?

If Quinoa is on your good food list and gluten is on your bad food list, and you have no allergies or intolerance's to gluten, you are have created a list of bad foods, which limits your ability to eat a varied diet.

So does this strategy of eating according to a good food vs. bad food list work when it comes to improving your health or performance as an athletes?

In your quest to improving your relationship with food, unfortunately no, it doesn't help.

When you select foods simply based on a diet trend, you are learning to eat per food rules and not according to your own needs. A diet doesn't understand your physical needs and many times, a diet leaves a void in your life as it pertains to eating for pleasure. And with constant restriction comes the risk for overindulging.

With rules comes guilt if you break those rules.
With a diet, you create a style of eating that can not be broken, or else it causes frustration, anxiety, fear and failure.

It's time to stop the diet mentality.
I give your permission to eat without food rules.

So why did I select this quinoa pasta over regular pasta?
Well, why not? Isn't it fun to try new foods, made with different ingredients, to excite the taste buds and to make your tummy happy? 

Quinoa pasta with sauteed veggies and tomato sauce

1 box quinoa pasta (or pasta of your choice)
Water, salt, oil for cooking pasta
1 small can tomato paste w/ garlic, oregano and basil (or add your own herbs)
1 medium yellow bell pepper (chopped)
1 small white onion (sliced)
2 cloves garlic (chopped)
Olive oil

1. Cook pasta according to the package directions. 
2. While pasta is cooking, sautee chopped pepper and sliced onion and chopped garlic in skillet with olive oil on medium heat.
3. When veggies soften after a few minutes (toss frequently to evenly coat), add 1 can tomato pasta + 1 can water. Cover the veggies in the tomato paste.
You can also use tomato/marinara sauce.
.4. When pasta is finished cooking, drain and rinse under cold water. Reheat in microwave if necessary to bring pasta to your preferred temperature.
5. Dress your plate with pasta along with veggie filled sauce and top with shredded cheese.
Enjoy and don't forget to yum!