Things have been kinda quiet on coachstevo.com, but that's not because I've gotten lazy. For the past few weeks, I have been attacking the next stage in my fitness education: nutrition. When I lost all this weight in 2008, I learned a lot about how to avoid sugar and eat proper portion sizes, and all that stuff you can learn on Oprah. But as my body began to move from a thing to be fixed, to a tool to be used, I began to notice a serious gap in my education. Namely, "How the hell do I fuel this thing?"
Back when I was a marathoner, I just ate all I freaking could. I convinced myself that "if you burn the furnace hot enough, the fuel source doesn't matter!" And at 25 miles a week plus weight training 3 times a week, that was kind of OK. But as I have noted, most people gain weight during marathon training because it has such an impact on your body that it freaks out and screams "FOOD!" If you look at pictures of me, I don't look great, even though I weighed very little. And I sure as hell wasn't healthy or strong. I was getting sick all the damn time towards race day.
Fast-forward to USMC training. I was learning more about nutrition because some of the candidates would ask me nutrition questions that I felt obligated to answer intelligently. The main thing I worried about was getting enough protein, which I had reasonably deduced to be about 1g/lb of body weight. I needed the muscle to do the pull-ups (I thought) and that would help. I was also very concerned with fat intake because I had learned about "calories in/calories out." This all seemed OK, and I definitely improved enough to get my double-300, but I wasn't "putting on muscle" and I wasn't getting any leaner either. I would later find out that most of my improvements were cardiovascular and neuromuscular efficiency based.
When I trained for my next marathon, I had a much more lofty goal: sub-3 hours. That's really freaking fast (6:51/mile for 26.2 miles). In order to meet that goal, I threw myself all in to training and packed on 50+ miles every week, eating kind of whatever I wanted but still avoiding sugar and fat. But after 8 weeks, my body was completely destroyed. I was getting really sick, had started to get slower, and had completely forfeited my libido (always a big sign of trouble). Why couldn't I fuel this damn thing!
In January, I got my answer. Kind of. Part of the formal education I put together to pass the NSCA CSCS exam included a review of all the scientific literature I could get access to on sports and exercise nutrition. I'm not gonna lie, it was confusing and there is a lot that science just hasn't figured out. But I focused on the food before, during, and after my workouts (peri-workout nutrition is the most studied and settled) and saw significant improvements to my recovery times and lean mass before the RKC. I actually put on about 15 lbs, almost all of it muscle. Problem solved, right? No.
After I got addicted to the literature on exercise science, I started to see a name pop up an awful lot. "Dr. John Berardi" was on a lot of the papers and "Precision Nutrition" kept showing up, too. Then I heard that my favorite Mixed Martial Artist had put on 9lbs of lean muscle with the help of a nutrition expert. He said in multiple interviews that he had "fixed his nutrition and everything about his game was better." I just had to know who the best in the world call when they need science to improve their diet. Low and behold, it was Dr. Berardi and Precision Nutrition.
A few weeks ago I bit the bullet and bought all the books that Precision Nutrition has put out. I signed up for their 2-year waiting list for Precision Nutrition Certification, and got on the forums. The past month has been a complete re-education for me about diet, peri-workout nutrition, fat loss and muscle turnover. Not that this is a revolutionary diet or that Berardi knows things that reading the scientific literature wouldn't already tell you. The people at Precision Nutrition have just taken what we know and given it a structure so that you can integrate sports and exercise nutrition into your everyday life with relative ease. The result is a way of eating that has completely changed my energy levels, recovery time, and it's common-sense enough that my great-grandmother would probably recognize it as the best way of eating healthy. There are thousands of pages of suggestions and tips, but the habits Precision Nutrition taught me are simple and nothing that will surprise you. Here they are:
- Eat every 2-4 hours. Consistent fueling requires consistent fueling. So eat often. Duh.
- Eat complete, lean protein with every meal. Active people need a lot of protein to stimulate and supply muscle turnover. In practice this means 20-30g for the ladies and 40-60g for the men. When you do the math between habit #1 and habit #2, you suddenly realize this is going to be a LOT of complete, lean protein every day.
- Eat vegetables with every meal. Vegetables are nutritionally dense and calorically light. They are also crazy-frikkin' good for you (Yes, "crazy-frikkin'" is a scientific quantity). Eat 1-2 cups per meal, so again, this adds up fast.
- If you wanna lose fat, only eat starchy carbs after you've earned them. Whole grains, bread, pasta, rice, potatoes. All these foods are extremely important to exercise recovery, so don't skimp on them, but only eat them in the three hour, post-workout window. If you don't want to lose weight, then you can relax on this habit.
- Eat healthy fat. Focus on adding monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat to your diet with sources like avocado, olive oil, oily fish, and nuts to your diet. Fat is necessary for most micronutrients to be absorbed into the body and for the creation of testosterone, HGH, and cortisol as well as all the other hormones necessary for active people to perform well.
- Rarely drink beverages with more than 0 calories. Soda, fruit juice, and alcohol have little nutritional value but are very calorically dense.
- Eat whole foods whenever possible. Avoid powders, bars, shakes an pills unless you've just worked out.
- Plan ahead. You are going to be eating every 2-4 hours so think ahead, cook ahead, and invest in tupperware.
- Eat as wide a variety of good foods as possible. Mix it up and eat seasonal fruits and veggies, lots of different kinds of meat and beans, and even different kinds of protein supplements. This will insure you are getting a healthy mix of nutrients and amino acids. Plus it keeps things from getting boring.
- Plan to screw up 10% of the time. The difference between 90% and 100% adherence to these habits is negligible. But plan your mistakes. I plan to screw up my nutrition plan every Sunday for brunch. But the funny thing is, once you start eating this way and feel what it does for your body and mind... you kinda lose the urge to cheat. But hey, it happens. Don't fret.
I was eating with these habits in mind for a week and dropped 5 pounds. Granted, it would be impossible for all of that to be fat (a pound of fat is 3500 calories so most of it had to be water that was being held onto by starchy carbs and glycogen). But I have better definition, energy, and workout recovery. Plus, I don't feel like I'm denying myself anything. Eating every 2-4 hours means I'm never hungry and if I really want something bad, I can eat it knowing that I just have to be extra careful the other 90% of the time. This isn't a diet. It isn't even a fat-loss plan. It's strategy for living a better life with a better functioning body and mind. And bonus: I have a new hobby! The ladies love when you cook them breakfast...