To Eat or What to Eat…Is that the Question????

Michael Black of Optimal Fitness ( in Letterkenny is joining the Jumping the Gun team for what will hopefully be a weekly post on the site. Michael used to work with PACE Sports management with Ricky Simms in London in 2005/6 working with some of the best athletes in the world including Usain Bolt, Mo Farah and the top Kenyans.

Now working as a fitness consultant in Letterkenny, Michael works with Triathlon Ireland and many top sports people from individual to team.

This week we challenged him to write something about nutrition. Admittedly not an officially qualified nutritionist or dietician, we can still attest first hand to his culinary skills and attention to detail when it comes to food. Any training or fitness topic you want discussed in the coming weeks you can contact us on twitter, Facebook or by leaving us a message on the site. You can also tweet Michael on @OptimalFitLK

To Eat or What to Eat…Is that the Question????

Before I start into this, I must say that I’m not a nutritionist or a dietician, this is just information I have learned through my own experience, from other athletes, coaches and friends and from reading every conceivable book or journal out there.

Eating used to be easy. You get up in the morning and you have a bowl or cereal, slice of toast and a cup of tea. Head to work or college and have your lovely sandwich and maybe a sneaky bag of crisps before heading for training. To top it all off you came home to mammy’s dinner of spuds and mince with brown sauce. MMMMHHHHH!!!

Before you all start shouting at the page, I’m in no way advocating this as a balanced nutritional plan for sports performance or for general health and fitness. My point is that over the past few years we, the general public. and more so athletes, have been bombarded with information on how best to optimise our performance through a wide array of diets, plans and nutritional advice.

Yes I know, and I’m here doing something similar. In a world full of social media where access to information once kept only for the elites, is as easy as boiling the kettle is it any wonder we have a confused society of athletes and sports people who one week feel they are on the path of greatness with their training and then BOOM… SUGAR IS EVIL!!! FAT IS YOUR FRIEND!!!! NO NEED FOR CARBS!!!. I have seen numerous amounts of athletes I coach go through emotional turmoil trying to perfect the nutritional habits based on what the latest research suggests.

From experience, if you are a full-time athlete who has time and maybe has someone prepare your meals then yes 100% do everything possible to maximise your gains through scientific based evidence which proves their claims.

Where most of us fall down, and I mean us mere mortals who are not full time athletes, is we first try and adopt all this information into daily life without considering how these changes will impact our normal routine. Imagine telling someone to make sure you have your chicken fillets, sweet potato and broccoli prepared the night before and that they must ensure these chicken fillets have come from a farmer who sings sweet lullabies and lets them roam around their 100 acre farm. Some things are just not that easily attainable.

The physiological torment I have experienced from people who just get so transfixed on their eating habits and appearance is unbelievable and it’s that, that has more of detrimental effect on their performance than any carb filled sugary piece of bread would ever do.

I must admit I have done this myself: measured it, weighed it, read every packet and travelled silly distances just to get the “RIGHT” product. If I had have just gone to bed an hour earlier and didn’t eat that extra bowl of cereal, then I would have been a lot better set up to take on the day to follow.

From experience I have seen athletes from many different countries eating the simplest of foods and performing at the top level. Our Kenyan friends are a perfect example of athletes who eat a very simple high carb diet and seem to perform fairly well. And yes cultural differences have a huge effect on this.

A new study compared Aerobic Capacity, Activity Levels and Daily Energy Expenditure in Male and Female Adolescents of the Kenyan Nandi Sub-Group and unsurprisingly found that these kids are physically active from a young age, live at altitude and get no junk food. And if we take out the altitude I believe the “no junk” and higher activity levels play a huge role in the success of these athletes.  In short we eat too much crap and don’t move enough.

Before I run the risk of ending up one of the people who I was talking about earlier and confusing the hell out of you I’m going to give you a few simple tips on how I feel you can change your nutritional habits which I have found have helped me and other athletes I have worked with.

Timing: I must credit Barry Murray from Optimum Nutrition 4 Sport for really helping me understand the importance of food timing and recovery. Recovery and refuelling after a hard training session was one of the areas I found athletes really neglected. Ensure you have a mix of protein and fast acting carbs at hand directly after your session. A piece of fruit and a protein shake.

Sleep: Again this is one personally I struggled with. It was only when myself and my good friend Mr Kelly were used as guinea pigs for a study by English Institute of  Sport on the effects of sleep during altitude. I always thought I slept ok but after seeing the results and the different patterns and types of sleep and how this affected my appetite and training I made sure I changed when I went to bed and my own sleep hygiene.  Keep to a schedule of early to bed and early to rise. Make sure there are no distractions and I don’t mean your beloved other, I mean TV’s, tablets or phones. Aim for 8-9 hours each night and if training hard a small nap of up to 20mins during the day.

Protein: Look at your protein intake and requirements’ for your sport and ask are you getting enough. A lot of athletes especially runners don’t consume enough protein. Eggs are a perfect protein and an easy and cheap way to include protein in your diet. (If you like them) and no eggs don’t adversely raise your cholesterol. Try and include a protein source in every meal.

Stress: Reduce bad stress as much as you possibly can. I use the diagram below to describe how stress affects your overall wellness through 4 factors. Mental/Physical/Nutritional and Stress Management. It all starts with the mental state and if something is annoying you your physical state is affected. Increased heart rate and blood pressure, headache, muscle soreness. Research has shown that we look to food as a way of alleviating the negative physical state and this is where bad food choices happen. Sugary, high processed foods. Lastly we beat ourselves up for making these bad food choices and stress appears. If not managed well our overall wellness gets a bit of a hammering which in turn affects our overall recovery and performance.

Take responsibility: You are the only person who can control what goes into your mouth. Choose places to eat that can assist you in gaining the extra edge you need. Make informed choices and don’t be afraid to ask if the menu can be adapted to suit your needs. If I’m in a restaurant and don’t want something in particular I usually tell them I’m allergic to it or I’m a celiac. You can be sure they will accommodate you then.

Hydration: Drink loads of water. I say this because most people and athletes especially, are in a dehydrated state. Increase your fluid intake during heavy training days, when training in warmer climates and during bouts of illness.

Eat to how you feel: No matter what I say or any other person says if it makes you feel crap, sluggish and generally out of sorts then don’t eat it…SIMPLES!!

Fat is not the enemy: Don’t be scared of Fat in your diet. The bad fats are hydrogenated fats and trans fats. Include good fats in the form of organic fish, nuts and oils.

Don’t get sucked into fads, long detox plans, or any other so called quick fix to Optimal Health. Healthy Nutritional habits are about lifestyle changes that benefit you and only you. There are certain basic principles that fit all people but a ‘one size fits all approach’ doesn’t work for everyone.

These are only a few of many tips or suggestions I have found have helped me and other athletes I have advised. This is not a definitive list and there are many other factors that affect how you eat and choose to eat. I don’t blame anyone for getting confused about food choices as we are bombarded by an array of conflicting information on a daily basis. Make informed choices based on scientific research from credible sources. If you are serious about your athletic performance then get your nutrition and sleep hygiene in tip top shape and I’m positive you will reap the rewards.

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Feidhlim Kelly

Feidhlim Kelly

Con Houlihan once told me that tomorrow is now. In taking on this venture I’ve started to try and put his words into action.

I worked for Con from 2007 till his passing in 2012 taking down his copy and a whole lot more. I have a Con Houlihan section which will go in to more depth on that.

I’m a long-time contributor to the Irish Runner magazine and am also working for the Irish Examiner.

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