People ask us all the time about nutrition as it relates to sport, health and what we eat in general. I guess they ask me because I’m skinny. At six foot tall (ok 5’11 3/4″) and usually hovering at around 68 kilos I probably look like I know what I’m doing food wise. It’s very important to note that I’m not a nutritionist, neither of us are for that matter but I guess we have found what works. For us at least.
If I’m honest I think we have probably found what works for most people. There isn’t anything magic about what we do. We both fall of the broccoli, salad and boiled chicken wagon regularly enough. Most often landing face first in something that contains chocolate or is entirely made of chocolate. But most of what we do is simple, straight forward and sustainable.
Kona Secrets book available
Kona Secrets: Lessons learned from over 50 Kona Qualifications.
Knowledge doesn’t produce results, action does. Just knowing how to do something doesn’t guarantee success, especially something as difficult as qualifying for Kona; you have to put in the hours. In this book I share some of the lessons I learnt between being a back-of-the-pack beginner to qualifying for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
Don’t mistake simple with easy. If you have problems with food or have eating habits that more often involve calling out for pizza or burgers than boiling up veggies then making the changes I talk about below aren’t easy. But they can be made.
They are just choices. And every one of us have to make those choices every day. The more often we make the right choices the easier it becomes to make them all the time. Eventually those choices just become who we are.
- Do I want to eat that cake more than I want to be healthy?
- Do I want that cake more than I want to sleep tonight?
- Do I want to be an athlete or not?
- Do I want that bag of crisps more than I want to be a certain size?
- Do I need to have a soft drink with my lunch?
In no particular order here are some of the things that we think are important when it comes to food. These are not rules. They are not instructions they are just what we do and they work for us.
- The Pareto principal. If 80% of what you eat is good then 20% can be bad(ish) If I’m honest it should probably be 90/10 but I’m not always that disciplined.
- There is no magic “diet” just eat real food.
- We eat lots of salads. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that ate salads so acquired a taste for them as a kid. The important word there isn’t salads it’s acquired. I probably didn’t pop out of the womb waving a carrot and a pickled onion but because that was what we ate, mostly in the summer when I was growing up. I guess just grew to like it. Despite the bad press salads aren’t the most boring food on the planet, quite the opposite. You just need to get a little inventive.
- However you decide to deal with food and nutrition it needs to be sustainable. Going on an “Onion Soup Only” diet for six weeks and losing 27 gajillion kilos so you can fit into your wedding dress or suit isn’t really sustainable. What are you going to eat when you stop with the onion soup? Broccoli and carrots or the Big Mac that you normally have of an evening? SUSTAINABLE. Onion soup is not sustainable. You need to eat as long as you’re planning on being alive. So it’s best if you choose to eat real food that you enjoy.
- We don’t usually eat three meals a day. It may be two meals or five depending on how much or hard I’m training. Three meals is a product of society and the way our lives are structured around work, school etc. Eating when you are hungry is a better guide of how much and when you need to eat.
- I normally don’t eat before training in the morning. If a session is long or hard I will often eat during and afterwards.
- We don’t use supplements unless prescribed them by a doctor.
- I don’t use recovery products unless I’m losing weight uncontrollably due to training load and I physically cannot eat any more. I eat real food after training. That means no protein shakes, bars, tablets or anything else that comes out of a bottle, tub or jar.
- Food should look like it did the day it was pulled from the ground, off the tree or sliced off the side of the animal it belonged to. It should not come delivered in a box, bag or jar.
- We don’t drink alcohol.
- We don’t drink soft drinks. Ever. Except maybe for a coke during an Ironman marathon.
- We do eat cake. Regularly. Probably too regularly if I’m honest.
- The amount we eat is very dependent on the volume of training. When we are in heavy training we eat more when we are only ticking over and exercising lightly we need less so we therefore eat less.
- We eat almost no processed food.
- What processed food we do eat is usually the treat, ie cake.
- We cook or prepare most of our meals.
- I try to limit my indulgence of items on the banned list to one a day. This makes me choose carefully. If I can only have one treat then it certainly won’t be a cheap bar of chocolate. It will most likely be something I really like and will feel like it’s worthwhile taking a trip off the reservation for.
- We usually don’t use energy drinks, gels or bars in training. As much as possible it’s water, fruit, nuts or dried fruits. However we do use energy products while racing and during the last couple of months in the lead into a big race to establish how much we need to eat/drink and that we are able to stomach it. We also use them for long and hard sessions where they usually work very well.
- Over time I’ve learned to limit my caffeine intake and my last coffee is usually at lunch time. I find if it’s any later it disturbs my sleep. I really learned this when my training volume ramped up with Ironman training and sleep became much more important.
- I do the same with sugar. If I’m having that sweet treat it’s usually early in the day. It was a real eye opener for me to learn that sugar has a similar effect on sleep to caffeine.
- I dont limit the amount of food I eat. I eat until I’m full. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who became overweight eating chicken, potatoes, fish or vegetables. Real food has a built in stop button. Fake food doesn’t. You usually stop eating real food when you’re full. You stop eating Jaffa cakes when they’re gone. They have no stop switch.
- Invisible food. I was in the shop chatting to Ais the other day and remarked that I was starving. Ais answered that there wasn’t anything unusual about that. I replied that I hadn’t had anything to eat all day. She then asked me about the danish and coffee I’d had on the way into work that morning. I’d forgotten all about it. I think of these little snacks as invisible food. We don’t really count them or forget them altogether. In this case it wasn’t even that I’d had an apple. I’d had a cake for breakfast and forgotten about it.
- Pastries are cakes. They might be as light and fluffy as little clouds but they are cakes.
- Coffee shouldn’t have marshmallows, sweetened syrup, sugar, chocolate sprinkles or sweetener in it. Coffee is coffee. If you want all that other shite stop fucking around and just have a cake.
- We eat full fat everything. Butter, cream, milk, cheese. If they’ve taken the fat out they’ve put some other shite in instead. Usually some sort of sugar. If you want the sugar stop fannying around and see point 24 or 15.
I think that making wholesale changes to what we eat is unsustainable. Changing one thing at a time is the best way to make things stick.
How to get started
Start with a food diary. An honest one. Detail everything you eat and when. Everything. All of it. It will probably shock you. It certainly shocked me the first time I did it.
Using the food diary make a list of the things that you want to change or think are wrong with your current eating habits.
It might look something like this
- Eating sweets twice a day
- Eating garage food in the car during the commute
- Having marshmallows in coffee.
- Drinking wine with dinner each day.
- Drinking pints at the weekend.
- Most meals are ordered in.
- Biscuits and tea every night.
We all have vices. Mine as you may have guessed is chocolate. Or more accurately chocolate biscuit cake. That and Ice cream. Or chocolate cake and Ice cream. Jesus dont get me started. Controlling these is just part of the key.
Once you have done the food diary and made a list of the problem areas then I number them in order of importance. I start with the biggest potential gains at the top of the list. The low hanging fruit. I continue all the way to the ones that will provide the least gains.
I would then aim to fix just one thing a week. The first week you might decide to not eat any take aways or fast food. The second week you might stop drinking soft drinks. The third week you might cut out the marshmallows in the coffee.
Of course you say that these are all easy to list out and suggest how to fix them while I sit here all fit and skinny. But I too had all of these issues at one stage or another. I smoked up to sixty cigarettes a day and thought I’d never be free of them. I ate all the shite, all the time and thought that because I trained a lot I could get away with it.
The biggest problem with eating shite food is that feeling shite all the time becomes the default norm. I had no idea that I was meant to feel any other way until I eventually cleaned up my eating. When you eat well you feel good and realise just how big an impact that shit food has on your whole life. I wasn’t tired all the time. I stopped having stomach and digestion issues and my moods were better. I slept better and as a result trained and worked better.
The instant feedback of sleep.
Sleep is one of the things that keep me honest. If I eat too much shite then I dont sleep well. If I was to wait for the feedback of having put on weight that would take weeks or months and is so gradual that it’s easily ignored. The effect on my health is even more gradual and invisible and as a result it’s even easier to push those thoughts aside. However if I don’t sleep it has an immediate impact on my training, mood, work and life in general. I know that food, sugar and caffeine in particular affect me most in this area so I get the instant painful feedback that I’m screwing up and I’m more likely to get my shit together to fix it.
- Start with a food diary.
- List all the changes you want to make.
- Pick the most impactful ones first. The low hanging fruit.
- One change a week. Do not try to fix everything all at once.
- Eat real food.
- Diets dont work.
- Dont fuck with coffee.
- It’s ok to eat cake. Just not all the cake and not all the time.
- Whatever you try it has to be sustainable. Can you live with what you’re planning for the rest of your life?
- You most likely don’t need that recovery shake.
- We are always looking for balance. It’s ok to treat yourself but you need to recognise what a treat is. The danish pastry, the wine, the burger, the crisps are all treats. They shouldn’t be considered food. Try to limit treats to one a day.
Chasing Kona eBook available
From smoker to back of the pack triathlete to the Ironman World Championships.
Read about how I overcame all of the odds and discovered what it would take to get to the Ironman World Championships – my eBook is now available to buy as an eBook on Amazon UK, Amazon US, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes
It is also available as a paperback at Wheelworx.