Which comes first exercise or “eating right?”
When people discover that my hobby is Ironman triathlon and other endurance events like marathons there are two very common misconceptions that they make.
- The reason that I’m thin is because I exercise a lot. I do exercise a lot in order to finish these long races. But endurance sports don’t require thin bodies. Head to the finish line of any marathon or Ironman and you’ll find bodies of all sizes and shapes. Perhaps not morbidly obese people but still it’s not a requirement to be thin to finish an Ironman (to win maybe but not to finish).
- The second assumption people make is that I follow an intense and complicated plan of what to eat. Which I don’t.
But I do plan. I have had to learn how to plan ahead for food as I became an Ironman. In fact, this was one of the biggest challenges and changes that happened during the first 24 week Ironman training course that I went through.
It’s been an evolution to be sure. What I do today is not what I did three years ago. It’s better in lots of ways and my family is better off for it.
These days I do sit down once a week and plan. I make a quick plan for the meals that I’m going to make for myself and family meals. I then make a shopping list and head to the grocery store. If I do it right then we have a good solid week of meals and snacks as a family.
It’s not rocket science – it is food.
I’ve met with dieticians, and sports nutritionists I’ve tried meal prepping, meal assembly, meal delivery and I’ve read lots of books and taken several courses. In the end, it’s food. It’s just food.
What makes food complicated isn’t that it’s hard to understand but instead that when we’re hungry we’ll eat whatever looks good then.
I think everybody knows that ice cream is not a good choice when compared to a green salad. So it’s not always knowledge that gets in our way of making good decisions.
The other thing that makes food complicated is that it’s emotional. How do you tell your mom that you aren’t going to eat her home made specialty or even just the mal-o-mars she brought because you love them?
If you grew up eating rice and beans and it’s your favorite how in the world do you just cut that out and go low carb? It’s hard. Meals are social. Food is all wrapped up in the fabric of our families and friends.
What in the world does this have to do with Ironman Triathlon?
When you train for an endurance event your body needs fuel. I remember once years ago I was training for a marathon and after a long run we were driving up to see my in-laws. They live about an hour north of my house. I was resting in the passenger seat while my husband drove. He was all the way on the left lane of probably the Florida turnpike. I casually mentioned that I was hungry and he cut across 3 lanes of highway traffic and exited to get me some food.
I was stunned because he’s not normally very observant but he said, “I’ve learned not to mess with this hunger after a long run because it doesn’t go well for me.” It’s a funny family story but it’s true.
Training for an Ironman multiplied this hunger to a level I’d never experienced. Very quickly I learned that I needed to eat food and not crap or I didn’t feel good and my performance suffered. I’m not winning races – the reason I do these sports is to have fun and feel good about myself. I needed to find a solution.
Rungry or Hangry
I remember once training for Ironman France coming home from a workout that was 2 miles from my house. I stopped and picked up a salad at a to go restaurant half way home. I ate that salad in my car and then went inside and made and ate a full lunch.
In the endurance world there are jokes about this. Being so hungry your angry we call being Hangry. Being hungry after a long run is rungry and there are endless stories of eating everything you can find after a big swim.
General nutrition versus Race Day nutrition
Most endurance athletes approach their race day and training days with a well-planned strategy for race day nutrition. But even the best race day plan can fall apart if your general nutrition is no good.
When your body demands food – you will respond
Hunger is unpleasant. This is one of the reasons why babies cry. It just does not feel good to be hungry.
When we are hungry we will look for something to eat. If the first thing around is a bag of Doritos then you might eat that. It’s definitely happened to me. And I won’t lie – during peak Ironman training there is a point where you can basically eat anything and not put on a bunch of weight.
But we know Doritos aren’t ideal. I don’t actually need to tell you this do I?
There is a bunch of “diet” nonsense all over the place
Everywhere you look there is somebody saying eat this way … no eat that way. Metabolic efficiency, paleo, vegetarian, weight watchers, HFLC, it goes on and on and on. That’s not even counting the number of products people are trying to sell you once you become a triathlete. Chocolate Milk, Beachbody shakes, amino acid supplements. It’s insane.
And in my opinion – it doesn’t really matter. You can choose to use products or not. You can choose to follow a vegan diet or not. None of these things is the most important ingredient in mastering your Ironman eating plan.
What I think is important – is taking control of your eating overall. What works for me is building a structure that I can follow so that I have plenty of food that I like that I feel is healthy that works for my life.
So I’m not a nutritionist. Nope. I’m not a doctor. Nope. I am a triathlon coach which probably doesn’t have a lot of weight in this conversation. But this is not a diet plan. This is just how I manage my families meals. Use common sense folks. If you have a metabolic disorder or you are looking for advice for what should be in your meals to help you lose weight please speak to a doctor or a dietician. Actually both.
Learning to Plan
There is a quote, “Failing to plan is planning for Failure.”
We know this about sport this is why we are so glued to our training plans. We spend hundreds of dollars to get a good plan for important races. But sometimes we don’t make the jump to planning our meals. At least I didn’t. I’m not sure why.
Even once I figured out that I did better eating real food it was hard to keep enough food in front of me so that I wasn’t binging on snacks and getting really cranky. My previous method of just general grocery shopping and fixing whatever I had wasn’t working at all.
In my house, this was compounded by the fact that I make the family meals. So the whole “what’s for dinner” situation was totally out of control.
I had a friend who had a meal assembly franchise and we did that for a while. It was a definite step up for our routine because it stocked the freezer with meals that I could just heat and go. That reduced the meals I was having to come up with by about half. The only problem was my family didn’t always love the selections.
There’s nothing worse than putting a little work into feeding your family and having them all say, “this is gross.”
I also tried some delivery services with healthy meals but their idea of a meal was not the same as mine. If I do a 100 mile bike ride I will eat more than a 3 ounce chicken breast and small side of spinach. I don’t know about you.
Back to the drawing board I went and I started planning our family meals.
Seriously, meal planning. That’s so boring, get out of here!
Yup, that’s it. I have to admit it wasn’t even actually Ironman training that forced this change. It was that my oldest child changed schools and we had a different driving routine. So, my normal planning schedule which was in fact just “winging it” wasn’t working anymore. In hindsight, I have to admit it wasn’t actually working before but I guess it was failing a little less.
What I used to do was do a general aimless shopping without a list on Sunday and then each day figure out what I would feed us for dinner. That often meant I had to do a quick stop at a market for a missing ingredient on that same day.
Or I would realize that we didn’t have what I needed so at the last minute I’d order take out. We ate a lot of pasta because that was always around. I ate out for a lot of lunches and my snacks were whatever was on hand. I have kids so usually that was whatever they were eating… yes, I ate a lot of Goldfish and Pretzels.
No reinventing the wheel
Meal planning isn’t complicated and I’m not the first person to do it. I took some time and I spent some time with my best friend Mr. Google. And then I made some changes to my routine. I really think this will work for lots of people. Whether you are one person or a whole family I think this is a good system. Try it and let me know if it helps.
The master plan
Step 1: write down what you like to eat. In my case I survey my family to get their favorites. We sit at the table and I say tell me 10 things you like for breakfast. Kids will start with ice cream and gummy bears but you will get some real answers also. Write it all down.
Step 2: make a simple schedule for the week. I do this by hand with a blank piece of paper. Days of the week on top, meals and snacks on the side. I make one family breakfast daily and one dinner. Lunch is different for everyone because we eat in different places. I should really make this a printable but whatever it works.
Step 3. Make a grocery list. I have a grocery list that I keep on my computer. I actually made it when my first kid was a newborn because I wasn’t the one going to the store. It helps me forget things. There’s nothing worse than spending a few hundred dollars at the grocery store and coming home with no toilet paper. Grocery shopping is a thankless task. So each week I print that. And then I sit and circle what’s there and then add whatever I want that isn’t on the list.
Step 4. Shop
Step 5. Post the meal plan on the fridge with a magnet and make magic happen.
That’s it. If you have any questions let me know. Leave a comment or send me an email.