Checking on your assumptions is one of the best things you can do with data. Many experienced athletes, myself included, are confident their training, recovery, and nutrition routines are solid because they were solid the last time they checked and they haven’t changed anything since. But everything has changed, maybe not in major ways, but in countless small ways. Nothing is static, not health, your lifestyle, your fitness, or the habits you think are unchanged. That’s why it’s important to regularly check in on fitness with field testing, to check in on cycling position with a bike fit, and to check in on diet with nutrition tracking. Recently, I decided to track my nutrition with the MyFitnessPal app, and here’s what I learned.
I’m not new to the MFP app, nor does CTS have any affiliation with it. I like it because it’s easy and intuitive to use, and because it has a very large food database. It’s also a tool I use with athletes. The reality of nutrition tracking is that virtually no one will stick with it for long periods of time. In my experience, it’s realistic to expect an athlete to consistently maintain a food log for somewhere between one and four weeks, which is plenty of time to get a good snapshot of what and how you’re eating. I like to have athletes track nutrition as they begin a period of focused training, and again when they are entering a period of lighter activity, so they can make appropriate adjustments based on activity level and performance.
I decided to start tracking in early June, the week before Ride the Rockies. This meant I had about a week of baseline eating and activity behaviors before ramping up both energy intake and expenditure during a 6-day cycling event. And then I’ve tracked two weeks of data since Ride the Rockies. I hope my observations about my nutrition habits can help you take a look at some of yours.
I was eating less carbohydrate than I thought
I have made a conscious effort over the past year to shift my carbohydrate intake to more fruits and vegetables and fewer processed grains, and I’ve spoken with a lot of endurance athletes who have done the same. My perception was that I was maintaining about 45-50% of my caloric intake from carbohydrate, but the data showed my carbohydrate intake had slipped to about 40%.
As I wrote about in third edition of “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”, I’ve moved away from the notion there’s a perfect macronutrient composition for all athletes. What matters more is that your nutrition strategy is supporting your performance and activity level. And when I consciously bumped up my carbohydrate intake by consuming more concentrated carbohydrate sources (i.e. more grains), my performance on the bike improved and so did my recovery between workouts.
Here’s the important part. I didn’t realize my performance had been hindered by lower carbohydrate intake because the changes were very gradual. When I mentioned to this to my friend and colleague Charlie Livermore, he told me carbohydrate intake is the first thing he looks at when the athletes he works with –primarily middle age, career minded, time-crunched athletes – struggle to recover between workouts on back to back days or separated by one day (e.g. Tues/Thurs). Many of them who believe their inability to recover is due to advancing age can actually recover just fine between workouts, once they bump up their carbohydrate intake.
I was eating more fat than I thought
If I was eating less carbohydrate than I thought, I was making up for it in the amount of fat I was consuming. The vast majority was unsaturated fat from plant sources and fish rather than greasy fast food, but some days were nearly 50% calories from fat. Now, the low carb folks would say that’s a good thing, and the keto folks would say I need to make that more like 75-80% fat, but what it means to me is that consuming more fat displaced carbohydrate in my diet. If performance hadn’t changed, maybe that would be OK, but shifting back toward 50% carbohydrate and 30% fat led to improved power output on the bike and faster recovery between rides.
I didn’t increase consumption to match increased expenditure
The first priority in sports nutrition is consuming enough total energy, because composition won’t matter very much if you’re not consuming enough energy to support your activity level. I was consuming enough energy during the baseline week, but when I started riding 70-90 miles a day at Ride the Rockies I didn’t ramp up consumption as much as I thought I did. This is something I see with athletes at training camps all the time, so I was a bit surprised to see I was making the same mistake. To increase caloric intake during Ride the Rockies, I boosted my intake of grains and starchy vegetables starting on Day 3 and felt really strong on Days 4-6.
Caloric intake remained elevated for two days post event
At the conclusion of Ride the Rockies I continued tracking my nutrition but I purposely stopped paying attention to caloric intake. I ate according to when I felt hungry and the amount of food necessary to feel satisfied. When I reviewed the data at the end of the week, it was clear my intake remained elevated (less than during the event, more than baseline) for two days after Ride the Rockies and then dropped significantly. By 4 days post event my intake was essentially back to baseline. The lesson here is that recovery requires calories, so don’t proactively drop your caloric intake all the way to baseline immediately after a big training block or event.
Routines change slowly and imperceptibly over time, until what was once optimized is actually holding you back now. If you haven’t revisited your eating habits in a while, I encourage you to track what you eat for at least a week and see if you’re actually eating the way you think you are.
CEO/Head Coach of CTS