Regardless of whether you’re in it for the competition, the fitness benefits or the companionship of likeminded people, training for the Xterra events is as important for someone who is a solid mid-packer as it is for someone hoping for a podium slot.
For some people, following a nutrition plan is merely the cherry on top, or the ‘nice to have’ part of training – it might be important, but it’s not as important as the hill reps or the technique session to feel confident and prepared going into the first mountain bike or run.
Others may be more familiar with how important it is to eat well, yet there is so much information out there (and often contradictory information) it makes it difficult to navigate what is healthy and what is not. Others still are quite up to date with emerging concepts in nutrition for health and performance, yet don’t have the structures in place to put that knowledge into practice. All three scenarios have the potential to leave athletes in the same place: less able to recover from sessions and races, therefore not as able to get as fit as they would like and (given the time of year also) more open to illness and injury. That’s not ideal, is it? Many people carry niggles or injuries into a race that could have been prevented with a solid nutrition plan. This is more so the case in a series like Xterra. Hmm. The old adage ‘you can’t outrun a good diet’ is an old adage for a reason. It’s not about your body composition and fitting into your favourite jeans, it ultimately comes down to health. Without your health none of your other fitness-related goals can be achieved.
Let’s strip it right back to basics. The fundamental elements of the diet are the three macronutrients, protein, fat and carbohydrate, the components that provide calories along with vitamins, mineral and fibre (depending on the nutrient). That’s probably elementary information you know. Of these, the essential nutrients required for growth, development, cognitive function, gut health (way more important that we ever imagined), musculoskeletal and cardiovascular system and our immune system are protein and fat. Carbohydrate, (while not ‘essential’ in nutrition terms as the body can produce it and therefore doesn’t need to be provided by the diet) provides fibre and helps power muscles under certain training conditions. Within each group there are definitely better choices, and the amounts of each macronutrient varies according to the health, training history and preference.
Now let’s address the elephant in the room: carbohydrate intake and endurance sport. You will likely be aware that there is much debate over the amount of carbohydrate we should be basing our diet on. Indeed, the landscape is changing with regards to its place on our dinner plate.
Historically, we’ve relied on a base of bread, pasta, rice, cereals and crackers to provide necessary fuel for our endurance tank, often to the detriment of the protein and fat that is required for optimal recovery, immune support and long-term health.
Some would argue (and I agree) that this type of fuel is like adding twigs to a fire – sure, they provide a flame, however it is short lived and unsustainable. Further, most of these products I’ve mentioned above are fairly devoid of nutrients when compared to your minimally processed carbohydrate foods – kumara, potato, parsnip, fruit, legumes and dairy (for those who can tolerate them). Women though – to generalise and single out a group – are onto it; many of us have diets that may reflect the lower carbohydrate approach and have done so well before a heated public health debate. The issue I see time and time again in my clinic though is an under fuelling from the other two macronutrients: protein and fat. Tell a woman to drop her carbs and it’s done. Heck, she did that back in the 90s. Tell her to up the fat and/or protein….a different story entirely.
Men, though suffer no such problem. Again, perhaps a generalisation here, but men have no qualms adding fat to their diet: butter? Bring it. Cream? Err..creamed it. But if they have any issues in this space it would be that they don’t drop their carb intake nearly to the extent required to enjoy the benefits of a lower carb, higher fat approach. Whilst women can suffer from hormone and energy issues related to impaired hormone, mood and sleep patterns (and subsequent fat gain due to ramped up stress response from under-eating and overtraining, men may experience an increase in fat around the middle due mostly to just eating too much. I will say though, the importance of protein and fat in a diet cannot be understated: both are essential for the tangible health issues that both women struggle with on a day to day basis: hormone health (yes, men have hormones….), mood, our ability to sleep, concentrate and our overall wellbeing. Restricting or overeating food in general has never done anyone any favours in the long term, even when part of entering events like this provides incentive to lose body fat and make dietary change. It’s about balance to ensure hunger, cravings and energy remain ‘in check.’
To avoid blood sugar swings and energy crashes, we need to balance the amount of minimally processed carbohydrates in our diet with foods that contribute substantial amounts of fat and protein, and this is all on a base of non-starchy carbohydrate vegetables that are necessary for vitamins, fibre and phytochemicals to support antioxidant pathways in the body. This will help recover from training sessions, provide energy and prevent accelerated cell breakdown…. (in other words, ageing).
So what are some guiding principles for ensuring a balanced approach to the diet? I love these ones. Simple.
- Enjoy nutritious foods everyday including plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit.
- Buy and prepare food from whole unprocessed sources of dairy, nuts, seeds, eggs, meat, fish and poultry.
- Keep sugar, added sugars, and processed foods to a minimum in all foods and drinks.
- If you drink alcohol, keep your intake low. Don’t drink if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant.
- Prepare, cook, and eat minimally processed traditional foods with family, friends, and your community.
Discretionary calories (energy foods) should:
a) Favour minimally refined grains and legumes, properly prepared, over refined or processed versions, and boiled or baked potatoes, kumara or taro over deep fried or processed potato fries and chips.
b) Favour traditional oils, fats and spreads over refined and processed versions.
Mikki Williden [PhD Registered Nutritionist]