Weight management is a concern which the majority of athletes will experience at some stage of their career. It is particularly tricky to manage for athletes because they generally have a much higher demand for energy than the average person. If an athlete does not meet their energy demand their performance is likely to suffer. In time so too will their general health. The balance of energy intake, bodyweight and performance is quite difficult to manage and there are many influencing factors which make things more confusing and complicated.
The best approach to anything in sport is to take the path of least resistance. This is not the lazy route; it is the one which stands the highest likelihood of success. There will be enough stress and complication in any athlete’s lifestyle. It is important to manage things where possible. A simple approach allows less room for error and disturbs the athlete’s life the least. The following are some simple tips that any athlete can incorporate into their life to help manage things without having to resort to extreme measures.
- High/Low days
Assessing the training plan is where an athlete should start with their diet strategy. Some may train once a day or twice, or more. They often take rest days or have days without any major activity. The type of exercise must also be considered. What they will see is that there are days where there are very high demands for energy and some days which have much less demands. Their diet should reflect this. A day with two heavily conditioning based training sessions will require a much larger energy intake and carbohydrate may be essential to fuel these sessions. A rest day may require much less carbohydrate but may maintain protein for muscle recovery. Instead of eating massive amounts every day they can cycle their intake based on the types of sessions they are fuelling or recovering from. This can give a bit of a mental break for those trying to gain weight and can prevent excess in those looking to lose or maintain bodyweight. The overall 7 day average intake may remain the same although daily intake of calories may fluctuate.
- Cut the crap
Everyone knows what they shouldn’t consume while managing weight. Fizzy drinks and junk food are not the best option for anyone. In saying that when extremely high energy demands are present, some athletes may get away with some less advised food choices. It won’t kill their progress and in many cases it may not make any difference. It does not mean that it’s appropriate for everyone. In many cases athletes need to make the tough call in realising what, and when, they can get away with things. A slice of cake with coffee mid 4 hour cycle is a lot more acceptable than five pastries with coffee at a desk at work each day. This is as simple as switching a cappuccino for an americano or five beers each Friday with one or two, can add up to make a significant change.
- Fasted Training
For those looking to drop some fat mass these can be very beneficial, especially in the case of those who still need to maintain or gain lean mass. Training at very low intensity fasted will help promote the use of fat as a fuel. These sessions must remain at low intensity to allow the body to rely on fat oxidization and to reduce any additional stress. Using high intensity may create too much muscle damage through metabolic stress which is counter productive. A 30-60min gentle jog or cycle before breakfast twice per week is enough. If maintained over the course of a few months it can have quite a positive effect without sacrificing performance. The key here is that the intensity and duration must kept reasonable.
- Big Plate Small Plate
When an athlete is training hard their appetite increases. We develop a habit to fill a plate and eat til it’s clean. This remains on the rest days too and appetite may not reflect demand. An easy way to manage this is to have a big plate/small plate strategy. Its very simple, on low energy days use a smaller plate than the big plate on high energy days. It helps exercise portion control when the brain will not. It tricks one to think they have had enough as their plate is now been finished. Likewise a large plate can be useful for those looking for the extra calories. When food is there its easier to finish a plate than leave food.
- Low fat before bedtime
A false economy was formed when we acknowledged that fat burned better at rest. People believed that carbohydrate would be stored if eaten before bed as more fat is burned at sleep. While fat has a high utilization rate at rest, metabolism must be factored in. We burn significantly less energy at rest so while a high percentage is fat, it is a higher percentage of very little. Unused carbohydrate will be stored as glycogen which can be beneficial whereas stored fat is not the goal. Keeping fat low before bed means that less can be left over for storage. There’s less harm in leaning to carbohydrate and protein as these can be used for recovery and glycogen replenishment. Fat for this reason is better to be kept to a minimum for dinner if it is late at night.
- Low GI vs. High GI and Sugar
Simple sugar is not the enemy and can be very beneficial. There is a time and a place for it which is where confusion is created. During exercise sugar in the blood provides the muscle with energy. During and immediately before exercise simple sugars can help fuel a session and should be used during prolonged and heavy sessions. Outside of this scenario sugars should be kept as a minimum. Lower GI slow release carbohydrate should be the focus so there is a steady blood sugar level rather than spikes. Many athletes will need a high carbohydrate intake to fuel hard sessions. They should fuel up during the day with low GI sources and utilise simple sugars before, during and immediately after training in relevant amounts to the training they are completing.
- Avoid Extremes
Making small changes will create a long term effect. Extreme measures through undereating etc. are very unsustainable. The body has many survival mechanisms which activate under stress. Extreme attempts to drop weight will be met with resistance. Performance will drop significantly and health will eventually suffer. Small changes built consistently into routine will have the greatest effect without impacting performances. Motivation will be high in some cases, which can promote strategies more resembling martyrdom rather than smart training.
The major point to these suggestions is that they require small convenient changes. They do not require a specific meal plan or professional Dietary consultant. They apply to your current diet but can make a significant but sustainable difference which may make managing weight, while performing a lot, more feasible. Many look for the magic answer and waste more time and effort searching than need be lost. The reality is that if you are healthy you can train hard and perform well. The body is under less stress and functions properly. There is less requirement to hold fat stores and slow your metabolism. The body will generally lean out when things are in balance and training is consistent. Extreme measures give a false sense of progress which quickly turn to major stalling of progress.
Remember that improving performance leads to better results. While being lighter or heavier may be beneficial it is never as effective as being healthy and prepared come race day. Extra stress will have a negative impact, so placing too much emphasis on weight and its management is often a redundant focus. Keep it simple and manageable and give things time to settle. Patience is a very valuable trait when managing weight and performance concurrently.