You are unique! No one else has quite the same combination of age, gender, body composition, genetics, sport, training schedule, training volume and intensity, lifestyle and goals. Each of these variables impacts what you need from food. This means the diet you thrive on can differ to that of even your closest training partners and competitors!
There are fundamental dietary principles that (almost!) all of us would do well to follow. Namely, eat a diet rich in a variety of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, complete protein, and a range of fats. This will help ensure we consume a full spectrum of fibres, micronutrients (vitamins, minerals etc.), and macronutrients (protein, fats, carbs). But how much of each of these to eat, when, and how to vary this across different training days and cycles for optimal health and performance differs.
Your Sport: Different sports have different physical demands. Success in endurance sports typically requires an athlete to be able to hold a pace close to a high maximal aerobic capacity for extended periods, to use fuel (food) efficiently, and to be able to switch between using fat and carbs as a fuel with ease (metabolic flexibility). In contrast, a powerlifter needs to be able to generate high maximal force for a split second in time, and to do this repeatedly across a short space of time. Different physical demands require different training adaptations. Different training adaptations require different components of food to fuel and provide the building blocks for them. So, dietary requirements differ. And different physical demands require different fuels to get through the training itself. A 4-hour training run requires a hell of a lot more carbohydrate than a 1 hour powerlifting session! These are just two examples, but you can see very clearly from this how the diet of an endurance athlete and a powerlifter may need to differ.
Your Training Volume and Intensity: This might seem obvious, i.e. the more you train the more you need to eat. This is typically true, but your training schedule may also impact your diet in other ways. Take carbohydrates, for example. Certain athletes may benefit from periodized “train low” strategies, whereby certain low intensity training sessions are performed with low glycogen (carbohydrate) availability with the aim of stimulating adaptations to increase aerobic capacity. In contrast, athletes undertaking multiple high intensity training sessions within 24 hours may need to take carbohydrates and protein in at a specific amount and frequency to maximally “refuel” between sessions. And athletes training for an ultramarathon may need to consume supra doses of carbohydrates during long training sessions to train their gut and reduce gastro issues during a race.
Body Composition: The bigger you are and the more muscle you have, the more calories you need to maintain your size. If you want to gain muscle mass and you are lean, then you will need to eat in a calorie surplus (and train appropriately!) to achieve this. Conversely, if you need to lose body fat and body weight then you will need to eat in a calorie deficit.
Gender: Women are not small men, and men are not big women!! Most research is performed on men as they don’t have the added ‘complication’ of hormone cycles. Such hormone cycles impact micronutrient requirements, how macronutrients are metabolised, and hydration. So at different stages of the menstrual cycle, women may perform better on slightly different diets. Men are not totally excluded from this either, as levels of testosterone impact certain responses to training and therefore, we might expect, the associated nutrient requirements.
Age: As we age beyond our 50’s there is evidence that we develop a degree of anabolic resistance. This means we don’t seem to get as strong a signal to adapt and get fitter from exercise and we don’t use protein as effectively to repair and build tissue such as muscle. Therefore to maintain maximal muscle mass as we age it appears we may require more protein than at a younger age, and to ensure we consume this regularly through the day.
Genetics: In the case of medical conditions such as lactose intolerance and coeliac disease, genetics determines whether we can or cannot eat a certain food. Typically, however, genetics are just one of many factors (see above and below!!) that impact our response to training and our metabolism, and therefore the food we need. For the most part we don’t fully understand the interplay of genetics and the environment in our nutrition requirements, and for this reason current genetic tests claiming such things should be treated with extreme caution!
Lifestyle: The more physically demanding our life outside of training, the more fuel we need to perform … think about a manual labourer versus a sedentary office worker, for example. But it isn’t just the level of physical activity in our lifestyle that impacts our needs. Stress and sleep may impact both the amount and types of food we need to thrive as best as possible.
Goals: And we cannot forget our goals. Whether they are body composition, performance and / or health related, they are going to impact the diet we need to follow to reach them!
Finally, having considered all of this, we must also remember that the diet you thrive on now, may not be the diet you thrive on in 6 months, a year, two years etc. Because one or more of the above variables may change. You are a constantly evolving athlete, and your diet needs to keep up!
So there we have it. Nutritional needs depend on circumstance, nature, and nurture! And this changes over time. There is still much we don’t know about the ‘optimal’ diet for any given athlete, and so we get there through a combination of science and trial and error. In future blogs I will dive into more detail on some of the factors outlined above. For now, take a step back and think about your health, how you feel in training, and how you recover … and consider whether you might benefit from trying to tweak your diet to help you perform faster, stronger, longer!