How to Get Faster and Feel Better with Food

Nutrition Tips from CRYSTAL ANTHONY, Liv Racing Athlete

Growing up in a big, active, and pseudo-Italian family meant food has always played a central role in my life. While we always had enough to eat, being a clan of five boys and two girls definitely created a sense of urgency at meal times for “claiming” our portion of the food. Even though we later discovered we were more Welsh, Lithuanian, and Armenian, we always glorified and identified with our food-loving 1/8 Italian. No sooner did we dig into one meal before we got about planning the next one.

In my younger years, food prep was not necessarily a highlight of my existence. When you’re 13 and you are pushing one of three overflowing shopping carts during family grocery trips, you’re not as impressed by your mother’s feat of organization. It wasn’t until I moved to Honduras in my early 20s that I started to make friends with the supermarket. The supermarket was the one place there that felt just like home: air conditioning, familiar labels, the appearance of plenty, and time to myself without ransacking my brain for the right tense of verbs from my one semester of Spanish.

Just when I started to enjoy shopping for food, I also started to get more serious about my athletic pursuits. When I moved back to the US, I started training in earnest with a coach for the marathon. After I missed qualifying for the Olympic trials by just 16 seconds in the marathon, mostly due to ignoring my nutrition during the race, the impact of food and fuel on my athletics really struck me and I realized how important it was to pay attention to that relationship.

Nutrition for High Performance

Over the years, I’ve noticed that food plays a huge part in performance, both physically and mentally. Fueling well during a race to avoid bonking is a fairly obvious connection between food and performance. To sustain hard efforts, we need to figure out what amount of electrolytes, water, and macronutrients we need to take in and how often during exertion. Additionally, what we choose to put in our bodies daily can either help keep us in a good training and racing rhythm or take away that rhythm. Feeling satisfied, having energy, and being resistant to injury and sickness are physical benefits to eating well.

When I was teaching full time while also racing at the international level, focusing on eating whole foods and avoiding processed foods helped me stay healthy despite an extremely demanding schedule. I could count on one hand the times I missed training due to sickness over those dozen years, which is pretty miraculous for a teacher! Eating a variety of whole foods guarantees we’re getting in all of the vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients that our body needs to function smoothly. Deficiencies due to consuming processed and stripped foods, or to consuming very little variety, can lead to low energy, sickness, and poor recovery.

Purchasing bunches of kale that take up half of your veggie drawer, pitting and scooping avocados, slow-cooking homemade chili—none of these things is necessarily convenient or easy. However, the fact that eating well takes planning, hands-on involvement, time, energy, and creativity is part of what makes it effective. Because eating healthful foods “costs” more, we’re more likely to use and protect this investment. After spending time washing that kale, taking off the stems, drying it, massaging it with olive oil and salt, and baking it, we’ve put a lot into our dinner. We will be more likely to eat consciously, to stick to our training, to get enough sleep, and to keep making choices that we know are good for us. Psychologically, taking the time and effort to prepare and eat good food reinforces that I value my health and believe in my ability to perform.

Since I cracked at mile 23 of the Houston Marathon, I can safely say I have never since bonked at a race due to fueling choices. I’ve spent lots of time reading about nutrition, I went to a naturopathic doctor to get advice on improving my energy levels, and I’ve played lots of experiments on myself to figure out which foods make me feel best.

How to Start Eating Better

The first thing you need to do is to create space and free up energy in your life to devote to this. While it won’t be easy, it can get easier. Here are a few tips for upping your food game:

  1. Buy whole foods: Often good choices fall victim to convenience. It’s simply easy to grab a bag of potato chips. Instead, buy baby carrots and hummus, raisins and sunflower butter, unsweetened yogurt and berries. If those are sitting around, you can easily grab them. It’s easier to make good choices at the supermarket than when you’re standing hungry in front of your pantry.
  2. Set aside a day for food prep: I chop cucumbers and peel bananas and freeze them at the beginning of each week. Then I have those ready to throw in a smoothie each morning. Or prep a large batch of rice, sautéed veggies, and chicken on the weekend and divide into portions for weekday lunches.
  3. Use these travel hacks: Freeze a smoothie and you can bring it through security! Mix together a big bag of oats, seeds, dried fruit, and cinnamon, then just ask for a cup of hot water at the airport to make your own early morning travel breakfast. Make extra dinner the night before and put it in a Tupperware for lunch or dinner-time flights so you avoid processed and overpriced airport food.
  4. Eat your favorite foods: If you love ice cream, eat ice cream. If you love chips and queso, have chips and queso. For me, Saturday night is homemade pizza night with all my favorite toppings—4 cheeses, prosciutto, pepperoni. If I ate pizza every day I know I wouldn’t feel good, but once a week doesn’t bother me. Picking a day to have your treats keeps you from feeling deprived.

Sharing Nutrition Knowledge

Because dialing in my nutrition has been so helpful for me, I am passionate about helping others improve their food game. Scouring the internet for recipe ideas and coming up with my own versions to share is not just a creative outlet for me, it’s also a way to help other people get excited about good food.  In the past few years, I’ve developed my own brand of mountain bike camps that combine learning skills on the trails with experiencing healthful meals and learning new recipes. To me, these two passions go hand-in-hand. Together with my boyfriend Craig, we lead sessions on cornering and drops and do all the meal prep for our clients.

It’s rewarding to see clients go home and immediately try out the recipes or revive their own recipes using whole foods.  If you are already busy and overcommitted, it’s going to be difficult to take on a new goal like eating well. That’s why I like to help people experience just how good they can feel if they make the effort.