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Nutrition Guidance for Endurance Athletes During a Pandemic

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By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS

Athletes’ eating habits are just one of the many aspects of life that have been disrupted by the current public health crisis. In the very beginning, the produce section and meat aisle of the grocery store were stripped clean – along with the toilet paper aisle. In many areas of the United States grocery stores seem to be mostly restocked (except toilet paper), but now ‘stay at home’ directives are continuing to change what and how we’re eating. For my coaches, this has been a topic of conversation with athletes, so here is some coaching guidance around athlete nutrition during a pandemic.

Anxiety is a big part of the problem. Like everyone else, athletes are anxious about the risk of getting sick, that a family member might get sick, that they’ll lose their job or business, etc. And although they’re worlds apart in terms of consequence, some athletes are also anxious about gaining weight, losing fitness, and losing the opportunity to participate in goal events. These concerns aren’t negated by the fact there are bigger issues at stake. Stress is cumulative, additive, so it is important to alleviate the “smaller” stresses so the big ones might be less overwhelming.

Which leads me to the first – and perhaps most important – piece of advice:

Stop beating yourself up

It doesn’t matter if you gain some weight over the next few weeks or months. That’s not something any athlete should stress over. Eating a whole bag of chips or a pint of ice cream isn’t something you need to feel guilty about. These are strange times and people cope in different ways. Using food as a coping mechanism to deal with stress is not a good long-term solution, but once in a while it’s not something to beat yourself up over. Alcohol, nicotine, and drugs are worse and far more dangerous, and are really not good as coping mechanisms. If any of these (disordered eating, alcohol, nicotine, drugs) become consistent habits, please recognize it early and seek treatment before it progresses to a larger problem.

More home cooking is good for you

Several years ago, author Michael Pollan presented a lecture that postulated that cooking more meals at home is the most effective thing we, as a society, could do to reduce obesity and improve health. His premise was that we have manipulated the food supply so much that the consumer is largely powerless to change packaged foods and restaurant meals for the better. And on top of that there is no perfect diet for all people, so legislating dietary changes works for some people and hurts others. Cooking at home, he said, puts power back in our hands. We control the ingredients. How much salt to add. How much sugar – or none. How much fat, and which kinds. And as we handle ingredients we start making better choices about quality and variety.

Cooking at home takes more time. With the “stay at home” orders, most of us have more time at home anyway. Using some of that time for cooking extends the preparation time and encourages families to spend more time at the table together. Eating eat more slowly helps us recognize when we’re full before we overeat.

Now, I encourage everyone to support local restaurants during this time period, because they are struggling. But it is also a good time to establish new routines – or re-establish traditional ones – around cooking and eating together.

Try new foods

Athletes are notorious for being creatures of habit. Once you have a breakfast that works for you, it’s the only thing you eat. You probably cook the same seven recipes for 90% of your homecooked dinners. When everyone flocked to the grocery store early on in this crisis, you could clearly see which fruits and vegetables people like the least by which were still well stocked. When I went, cauliflower and mushrooms were plentiful, so I figured out how to use them. Now that shelves are mostly restocked, our collective experience from a few weeks ago can serve as a wake-up call to the fact your diet may not be as varied as you thought it was. Branch out and eat outside your comfort zone when you can do so by choice, in case there’s another time when you need to do it by necessity.

Plan meals by perishability

The spirit of a “stay at home” order is that we limit our excursions outside the house to necessary trips (including exercise). We also understand that to be infected by COVID19 you have to encounter it somewhere, so the less time you spend in places where it could be, the better your chances of avoiding the infection altogether. As a result, we’re grocery shopping less frequently, and that means planning ahead so you can eat fruits and vegetables before they go bad. We used to joke about “aspirational kale” – the bunches of kale you used to buy with the good intention of eating them, but later threw out because you never did. A threat of scarcity is a good reminder to minimize food waste, so only buy delicate fruits and vegetables in quantities you can realistically eat in the next few days, and stock up on sturdier perishables like apples, oranges, cauliflower, broccoli, potatoes and beets for the days after that.

‘Stay at home’ doesn’t mean ‘stop eating’

For endurance athletes who closely tie their caloric intake to their exercise workload, the risk right now may be less about potential weight gain and more about potential weight loss, energy deficiency, and compromised immune function. You may be exercising less and recording far fewer daily steps, but it is still important to provide your body with enough total energy. If anything, I encourage athletes to err on the side of eating a bit more than they need to. Specific foods do not “boost” your immune system; the goal is to support normal immune function by consuming adequate energy from a varied whole food diet (and getting plenty of sleep).

In these uncertain times, if you have enough to meet your needs, be thankful. If you have more, whether that is food, funds, or time; share with those who don’t. We are all in this together, and together we will reach the days when we can ride, run, and play together again.


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Comments 7

  1. I agree that coping mechanisms vary from one person to another. I am striving for a balance between exercise, rest and nutrition, but find the day-to-day routine of staying informed, active and rested challenging. I can’t help but wonder if forms of isolation related PTSD are an outcome in the near future.

  2. Thanks for writing about this Chris.

    I’m curious, if, in the future, there won’t be an increase in even more heart disease, alcoholism and depression due to the pandemic, social isolation and stay at home orders.

    Habits form over roughly 30 days and everybody will form either healthy or unhealthy habits during this time.

    We never know how much we need community until we don’t have it. Thank you for your leadership in helping us maintain a level of focus in uncertain times and crisis.

  3. Hello Chris

    Thanks as always.

    What are your thoughts of pulling back on workout intensities and adding a slight amount of weight to help keep the immune system in top working order? I’m seeing these 24hr Zwift challenges out there and this seems counter intuitive to the research I have been finding out there as well as talking to a few Dr.s in my riding group. Is it safer as a whole of everyone goes into standby mode and just do lower zone 1 hr sessions until we are on the backside of the curve. I feel that this is the most responsible thing to do given the hospital situation here in NY.

  4. I like what you said about specific foods don’t “boost” your immune system and what does. Excellent point.
    And thanks for these great newsletters.

  5. Thank you for your posts and for making your training videos free in such a time as this! God bless you and your family!

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