Top 7 Diet Mistakes to Avoid as an Athlete
Before I got into cycling, I competed in the marathon for a few years with the hopes of qualifying for the Olympic Trials in Boston in 2008. Over those few years, my coach and teammates pushed me to a fitness that I never imagined possible. At my goal qualifying race, the Houston Marathon, I was ready. As the miles ticked by, I was perfectly on pace to run 2:45, which would be a 2-minute cushion on the cut-off. At 20 miles, I could hardly believe it. Not that long ago, I could barely do 6:20 pace for a 5k, let alone a marathon. It was going to happen… I thought… Then at mile 23, everything unraveled. I went from a confident clip to barely being able to drag my feet in front of each other. As I finally turned onto the long finishing straight, the seconds ticked by faster than I could force myself forward and I shuffled across the line 16 seconds short of my goal. What happened? In short, I messed up my fueling! Caught up in my race toward my goal, I had neglected to take in calories during the marathon. After all, I wasn’t hungry, and up until mile 23 I seemed to have the energy.
All in one devastating experience, I gained an appreciation for the power of fueling. That said, learning how to put that into practice – how to manage fueling on a daily basis as well as during events – is a lifelong process. Not only that, but being well-fueled is just as essential for enjoying a fun gravel adventure with friends as it is for performing in a high-stakes competition. As a coach, I frequently hear clients say things like: “I ate more on my ride than usual and it made a huge difference in my energy” or “I did the same loop I did a month ago that ended in tears but this time I fueled well and I finished smiling!” Here are the top seven things I’ve learned to avoid in order to maximize your riding experience at any level:
1. Seeing food as a reward or an indulgence
How often do you hear, “I earned a pizza after that workout” or “I should stick to a salad, I haven’t worked out today.” Thinking of food as a reward or an indulgence is very common. You wouldn’t say, “my car deserves gas today.” And you wouldn’t expect your car to operate on an empty tank. It’s the same with your body: you need food to fuel your performance. Food is not what you do or don’t “deserve” as much as it is essential for accomplishing your goals.
2. Eliminating entire food groups
Athletes put a lot of stress on their bodies and therefore need plenty of nutrients to repair muscles, replenish glycogen, and keep their immune systems functioning. Diets that eliminate entire food groups like carbohydrates are risky because you miss out on all of the nutrients unique to that food group. Cutting out carbohydrates puts you at risk for nutrient deficiencies in fiber, magnesium, Vitamin B12, antioxidants and more. While it’s important to avoid food allergies and sensitivities, keeping a balanced diet that includes a variety of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables is the best way to ensure you’re getting all of the nutrients you need.
3. Using training time to lose weight
The amount of calorie expenditure during a long ride, combined with reduced appetite while exercising, might seem like an opportune time to create a caloric deficit to lose weight. However, often this method is counterproductive (except for certain very intentional training situations). First of all, the quality of your training will diminish if you do not fuel. You’ll end up training at a lower intensity or ending the session earlier. Second of all, the stress that training on empty puts on your body is considerable and recovery will likely be prolonged, meaning you may miss out on quality training in the subsequent days. Lastly, you may get through the training or the day with a big caloric deficit, but this often leads to overcompensation the next day when you wake up extremely hungry with uncontrollable cravings!
4. Eating like your friends
Just because your training partner only needs a banana before a morning ride does not mean that is all you need. It’s important to listen to what your body needs and experiment with what energizes you for the most quality training. Bodies are not robots, so it’s not always as simple as doing calorie math. What your body needs and what it can tolerate during long or hard efforts is also a very personal matter. You have to experiment to see what works best for you. Try cut up sandwich bites, boiled mini potatoes, gels or a burrito. Be creative.
5. Ignoring your monthly cycle
Do any of you women dread the food cravings or hunger during the second half (luteal phase) of your cycle? More than being annoying, these cravings signal that energy expenditure is higher during this time, and that your body uses more fat as fuel as well as metabolizing more amino acids. Being sure to include plenty of healthy fat and protein sources during this time will ensure you meet your nutritional needs and also will help keep the cravings down. Eating complex carbohydrates will also help support your mood and energy levels by keeping your blood sugar levels more stable.
6. Only fueling during training/racing when you’re hungry
Back to my marathon story, lack of hunger does not mean lack of need for fuel! In fact, it’s uncommon to feel hungry when training. If you do, you probably are in a huge deficit! Go into your training with a fueling plan vs relying on the feeling of hunger. I like to eat about every 30 minutes, taking in 200-250 calories total per hour during long or hard training sessions. When you head out to train, put that many calories (plus some extra just in case) in your pockets or snack bag and be sure to eat all of them. Stick to your plan even if it doesn’t “feel” necessary at first. Fueling consistently and often when you train and race will help ensure that you can keep pace for the entire event. Also, you will start to replenish and recover before you even finish your training.
7. Fueling in reverse
While fuel choices are certainly a personal matter, there is a general guideline that all athletes should follow for fueling for long sessions. Start with more whole foods – like sandwich bites, bars, bananas, potatoes, etc, and progress to the more sugary, refined products toward the end. If you start with your sugary snacks like gels or blocks, your body will rely on the quick sugar and have a hard time transitioning to using your real food choices later. However, by starting with the real food choices, you will get a real boost when you switch to the sugary products in the last third of your ride or race.