Have you noticed that pictures of athletes over the years show a changing physique? For some, it can be quite dramatic; for others it is subtle and barely noticeable until you look at two pictures seven years apart side by side, and the athlete is barely recognisable. Sure, a large part of this is ageing – our features can become sharper as we lose the puppy fat. However it is also the years of training the athlete has undertaken that allows their body to trend towards an optimal physique. As a mere mortal, the potential body composition benefits are certainly a driver to jump on board the endurance sport bandwagon. People arrive at long distance triathlon or long distance running with aspirations of becoming a lean, mean, fat burning machine after accumulating too many beers under the belt. It’s unfortunate then that they literally spend hours training week in, week out, and see no improvement in physique. Worse is that, instead of experiencing weight loss upon throwing themselves into an endurance sport, the opposite occurs and people often gain weight. Pretty unfair, huh? Especially when you see pictures of some athletes seemingly eating what they want without the ill effects of that pepporoni pizza. Is it that these athletes are genetically blessed? Well, yes: there’s a reason why they are in the top 0.1% in the demanding arena of endurance sport. It’s also largely due to the time they have to recover and sleep as part of their training – their sport is their job and the work doesn’t end when they hit the stop button on the Garmin. Us age-groupers often clock up the same number of hours out on the road but don’t have the time or resources for ice baths, massage, or nine hours sleep a night. How then do mere mortals achieve the physique we wish for? People I see time and again are burdened with the idea that it will require eating less and moving more – seemingly impossible given the time already devoted to training and the sparrow-type portions of food some are consuming.*
Eating less and moving more – this idea sounds reasonable and on some levels there isn’t much wrong with it. Let’s face it, there are lots of people who could do well if they followed this basic advice. Many people do eat too much overall and do not do enough physical activity. This isn’t necessarily said with a view to help people lose weight. There are many more reasons why we do need to be more active – emotional, hormonal, metabolic, physical – which will obviously contribute to the weight loss journey but in themselves are worthwhile health goals. It is reasonably well established that, just as you can be a fitter, bigger person and be at low risk of chronic disease, you can appear lean yet this belies a potential health catastrophe brewing underneath the surface. Merely being active can increase the number of mitochondria to enable us to tap into body fat stores more too. Likewise, there are people out there who consume far too many calories, regardless of what foods and beverages they come from. So on the surface it makes sense. However for the athlete reading this, it’s unlikely to be the explanation. It’s likely that the training you do will mean you’re burning through calories like they’re going out of fashion.
So if eating less and moving more ISN’T an option, what then? Food matters. A whole-food diet acknowledges that the calorie has a context. If you’ve spent a large part of your life eating a relatively high carbohydrate diet, then the bulk of carbohydrate you ingest will be burnt off as fuel first and foremost, then the rest will be stored in the liver and muscles predominantly. There is little opportunity for your body to burn any fat as a fuel source given there is a relatively easy supply of energy from carbohydrate available, due to the effects of carbohydrate on insulin, our nutrient storing hormone. This is not the case with calories coming from fat and protein. General population aside, it takes just takes a cursory glance at the middle to latter half of the field of an endurance event to see the effects of a diet that has been high in carbohydrate. A large proportion of these athletes do not sport their optimal body composition. And sure, while a few of them may not have done the training they would have liked – “real life” and endurance training do not always see eye-to-eye – this does not explain why many people are carrying excess body fat. Now I don’t mean that everyone who trains and competes should have the physique of a top-end athlete. At all. There is no one ‘perfect’ physique; but there is an optimal physique for everyone, and for the athlete this equates to being as fit and healthy as you can be in life to enable you to tick off the training required to meet your performance goals. For everyone, this requires burning fat as fuel. You may be already achieving this, especially if you’re used to training in a fasted state, or you’re not in the habit of taking on board fuel during training sessions that don’t require it. However if you aren’t supporting these tactics with a good diet outside of training, then you could be undoing all of your hard work. So this is really just a reminder to take the time to think about your diet outside of this.
And with that admittedly long preamble, a perfect excuse to throw down some ideas (some new, some not) to help increase the fat and protein in your day and rely less on carbohydrates. Often times it’s a lack of inspiration that stops us from breaking out of habits that don’t serve our goals. As snacks are an area where people often need a little help with, I’ve got some smoothie guidelines, some sweet snacks, some savoury ones and a mixture of the two. They rely on whole food options that require varying degree of preparedness. While for some ideas there is a general portion amount, try and use your hunger to guide you on how much to consume. If your favourite isn’t listed (which is likely, as this is a fairly small list!) please share it in the comments section below.
Smoothie: play around with your favourite ingredients to make a smoothie that suits your needs.
- Switch to a lower sugar fruit. Most people immediately think ‘banana’ when they think smoothie. Instead try fejoa, kiwifruit, green apple or pear;
- Add protein: nut butter, LSA, a raw egg, whey, pea or egg-based protein powder;
- Add fat: coconut oil, coconut cream or milk, chia seeds;
- Add greens: spinach, kale, parsley, mint, cucumber for antioxidants and nutrient density;
- Add zing: lemon, ginger, cayenne;
- Or no zing: vanilla extract, organic cocoa or cacao powder;
- Add a shot of espresso;
- Add ice; and
- Add water to thin to desired consistency. If you choose coconut water, be mindful that there is additional sugar here, even in pure coconut.
Wrap snack: use a ‘wrap’ to turn items not previously considered portable into easy-to-access items: lettuce, cabbage, nori. Choose a few of the below to mash together (and obviously this would be brilliant as a lunch too – it all depends on amounts):
- Sardines, salmon or tuna;
- Cooked chicken or bacon slices;
- Mashed, hardboiled egg;
- Cottage, ricotta or feta cheese;
- Whizz a grated zucchini with ½ c raw cashews, a preserved lemon quarter, a crushed garlic clove, 1T olive oil, a handful of parsley and season.
- Hard cheese sliced with baby carrots/celery sticks and cherry tomatoes.
- Grilled haloumi, red pepper chunks and sliced raw zucchini on a skewers.
- Avocado sprinkled with cajun seasoning and grated cheese, grilled.
- Cottage cheese with pesto and toasted pumpkin seeds mixed and stuffed in half a capsicum.
- Walnuts, macadamias, coconut flakes and almonds mixed.
- Wrap grilled bacon around apple slices.
- Hardboiled eggs, shelled and transported in a gladwrap bag that has been seasoned with salt and pepper.
- Large handful of olives (again, gladwrap bag).
- Chunks of cheese and olives.
- Sliced ham wrapped around cherry tomatoes.
- Sliced cucumber, spread with pesto with thinly sliced cheese (try a gouda, havarti or emmental cheese for a change of scene).
- Pan-fry sardines that have been packed in olive oil and rolled in almond meal and cajun seasoning.
- 1-2T coconut oil/coconut butter with 1/2 t organic cocoa or cacao powder mixed through.
- Sliced hard cheese on slices of apple.
- 1-2T coconut butter.
- Cottage cheese or Greek yoghurt with grated apple, sprinkle cinnamon and toasted pumpkin seeds.
- Whizz together 2 eggs, tablespoon nut butter, ½ banana and ¼ t baking soda. Microwave 3-4 minutes.
- Frozen banana chunks and 2t nut butter, whizzed.
- Tablespoon nut butter mixed with 1t chia seeds and 3T cottage cheese.
- 3T frozen berries, thawed with 1t coconut oil and an egg mixed in, Microwave 60-90 seconds.
- ½ c berries with 3-4T coconut cream or milk poured over, with a squeeze of lemon juice.
- ½ c fresh walnuts, drizzled with melted coconut oil and sprinkled with cinnamon, toasted at a medium heat until crisp.
*And of course there are those who really do just eat too much and train too little. But that’s a subject for another post.