How do I become a Fitter, Faster, Better Cyclist or Runner: weight, diet and nutrition?
Weight, diet and nutrition
The subject of this chapter involves three related concepts that are important to consider if you want to take part in competitive sport.
Whilst you won’t achieve sporting success as a direct consequence of your weight, diet and nutrition, it is certainly true that not eating properly will reduce or even negate your chances of success. It is for this reason that I have devoted a chapter to discussing some ideas about nutrition.
A bit of philosophy
People take up sports and exercise for various reasons; some of the best athletes started out jogging to lose a bit of weight. It is also the case that people relate to sport in different ways and that the committed nature that goes with hard work and training can lead to obsessive and unhealthy behaviours; this is particularly the case when it comes to food.
It is hard to resolve the benefits of being thinner with the need to eat and fuel our bodies; there is always that nagging thought about whether being that bit thinner or lighter would be better. In endurance sport there is often a drive to be lighter since it is more efficient, i.e. it takes less energy to carry less weight, but of course we can’t perform if we are too thin because our bodies stop working.
Combined with this efficiency is the drive to look the part, particularly when wearing the skimpy clothing associated with many sports, whether that be for men or women but probably more so for women in our culture. I think this is very much a personal thing and although it is often hard to realise, how we look is secondary to what we do in all walks of life.
The ideas of optimum weight, losing weight while exercising and indeed how effective exercise is in promoting weight loss are all things that are part of peoples thoughts and the media, irrespective of whether relating to competitive sport or not.
Perhaps partly for these reasons, a significant percentage of my clients have had unhealthy concerns with food and weight. These clients have also gone on to find that refocusing their energies on their sport has enabled them to overcome or at least control their debilitating anxieties relating to food, weight and diet.
It is also very common in sport and exercise that one can exercise for a while and see really good improvements but then for no apparent reason start getting tired, be forced to take it a little easier, get more tired and end up in a downward spiral to a point of sometimes complete exhaustion. This is often a repetitive cycle, frustrating and depressing; particularly as the training and exercise is often fulfilling such an important part of the lives of those concerned. I think that this phenomenon is often at least partly a consequence of not meeting the nutritional demands of exercise in some way.
How to get it right
As with the physiological side of training it is important to establish some baseline values and some goals to work with. Once you have an idea of where you want to be it is relatively easy to take steps to get there, although this may take time since losing weight and not muscle takes time, as does gaining lean tissue (muscle) if that is what you need to reach your goals.
What is the best weight
In sport it is very difficult to establish the optimal weight. The norms of top athletes often do not match the guidelines proposed for the general public and there are a number of complex variables at play.
In general however, if your Body Mass Index, often referred to as BMI, is within the normal range (18.5 to 25) it is unlikely that you are at an unhealthy weight and this is a good starting point; although if you are concerned or those around you are showing concern you should see your GP (ideally one who understands sport) to check you are a healthy weight.
You can calculate your BMI using the tool here.
If your BMI is below the ‘healthy range’ you may be underweight, although many healthy endurance athletes have low BMIs.
It is important to note that although others may have a low BMI it is not a sign that it is right for you and that it should be a goal to be below the ‘healthy range’. If you are below the healthy range it is a good idea to see what your GP (make sure your GP understands sports so they can make an informed assessment) or a good sports nutritionist thinks. This is particularly the case if you are feeling tired a lot and suffering from frequent illnesses. A low BMI isn’t necessarily an indication you are underweight but it is worth checking it out.
At the other end of the spectrum, an athlete with a BMI higher than the ‘healthy range’ is not necessarily an indication of being over weight. Athletes commonly have more muscle mass than the general population and may have low body fat but a high BMI. Once again, use some common sense. Look at other athletes in your discipline and if you want a definitive answer, see a sports professional that can measure your body fat percentage and give sensible recommendations.
I do not recommend taking body fat percentages from machines such as weighing scales that say they give this type of data. The results are necessarily based on general algorithmic guidelines applicable to the general public and in my experience are often grossly inaccurate, providing a relative measure at best.
In summary then, calculate your BMI:
If you are within the normal range of BMI it makes sense to assume you are a healthy weight until you have an indication otherwise such as a measurement of body fat percentages from a sports professional;
If your BMI is below the recommended healthy range it makes sense to get it checked out to make sure you are not underweight. If you are underweight you are unlikely to perform at your best and may make yourself very ill; and
If your BMI is above the recommended healthy range this isn’t necessarily an indication you are over weight so use some sense checks before you make a final decision to lose weight and if you do decide to lose some weight, make sure that you lose weight slowly to avoid losing muscle mass.
If you want an accurate assessment of your best training and competition weights then see an appropriate professional to get your percentage body fat measured and accept their recommendations.
Now you have your weight and an idea of whether you want to stay the same, gain weight or lose weight. Based on this you can calculate your nutritional needs.
I tend to base my thinking on the guidelines in Anita Bean’s excellent book: The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition. Nigel Mitchel, who I worked with at British Cycling, wrote an excellent book: Fuelling the Cycling Revolution, which I often use for guidance and the occasional recipe. Both provide very practical guidelines that are easy to read and understand.
It is important to consider your nutritional needs in combination with the demands of your sport since athletes have different needs to non-athletes. This makes sense since athletes train hard and need to adapt and build fitness in response to training stimuli.
In particular, Anita Bean’s book recommends a higher calorie intake than diet trackers such as MyFitnessPal and also a much higher protein intake for people doing a lot of exercise. She also provides guidelines for weight loss and these are much more gradual than the usual norms so that body fat is targeted without losing muscle mass. It is very easy to lose muscle if calories are restricted too much and this is likely to be counterproductive. Of course too few calories will also result in poor recovery from training and possibly a consequent downward spiral to a state of chronic fatigue that can take months or even years to recover from.
Diet trackers can be used to give a good measure of calories as well as the amounts of basic nutritional groups and vitamins in your diet. Also be aware that keeping a track of your calorie and nutritional intake can help with losing weight in either a healthy or unhealthy way and can become an obsession or an aid. This can also give a good indication of what is happening with your existing diet by tracking what is going on if you input what you are eating. This helps in seeing where positive changes can be made.
I wrote a spreadsheet to make it easier to calculate your nutritional needs based on Anita Bean’s recommendations; you can download a copy from the Members Area if you like. To get MyFitnessPal to track your sports nutrition needs it is necessary to adjust the goals in the App to match the recommendations in the book, the spreadsheet, or other nutritional targets if you choose something different. Changing the goals is easy to do so don’t worry. Note that if you use any of the tools provided or recommended you should make sure the numbers make sense. The philosophy throughout this ebook is to help you take responsibility and control of your own goals and needs.
Good hydration is clearly very important and a small level of dehydration can have a negative impact on performance, both physical and mental. It is therefore important to drink enough fluids and keep an idea of how well hydrated you are. One of the easiest ways to check your hydration is to look at your urine, you can find colour charts on the internet. Here is the NHS one, with some guidelines to help you understand. In general, if your urine is clear you are hydrated and if it is dark you are not.
Sports drinks work well in my experience, although it is quite easy to mix your own from cheaper ingredients to good effect. If you choose to use sports drinks in either training or racing then make sure you use them according to the instructions; a lot of effort now goes into the design and development of these products and to get the best out of them it is important to use them properly.
Of course, some products will not agree with some people and it is therefore important to properly test that a given product works for you before you use it in an important event or training session.
Eating certain things at certain times relative to training can also help. This is a complex subject but in general it is good to make sure you take a source of protein and carbohydrate with every meal. A snack or drink containing both protein and carbohydrate after a training session has also been clearly demonstrated to aid recovery.
I’m convinced that proper nutrition is fundamental to successful sporting performance. In my experience, implementing positive nutritional guidelines makes a fundamental difference to whether you can exercise more and progress in your sporting (and life) goals.
I am not a nutritionist and therefore the details here are referenced to sources that I have tested and found to be good for me and also worked for athletes I have associated with. However, for this reason I haven’t included detailed recommendations but provided practical guidelines to help you develop and track your diet and nutritional intake. It isn’t complicated and weight, diet and nutrition aren't the most important factors – just keep an eye on them and don’t get hung up.
I hope you find this blog useful and if I can help in any way please get in touch, leave a comment, email me or fill in the contact form.