The Complete Guide to Training Nutrition
The subject of nutrition is confusing, mainly because you seem to get a lot of differing opinions of what, how much and when depending on what you read or hear. The diet/nutrition industry is also worth big bucks, which automatically means there are plenty of shysters out there who will swear that black is white to get the money from your pocket into their bank account.
I’ve personally frittered away plenty of cash following their ‘advice’.
I’m not a dietician or a nutritionist, but when it comes to training I’ve had a lot of first-hand experience of seeing what works, and more often than not, what doesn’t.
Here’s some of the most common things you should know about eating and training. (Note: if the following sounds unrevolutionary and frankly quite unsophisticated in its complexity it’s because Training nutrition is, despite what ‘experts’ will tell you, basically the same as normal nutrition).
What do I need to be eating?
By now, everyone knows what they should be eating: more grilled stuff, less fried, vegetables with every meal and some form of protein and carbohydrates. If you’re training you should try and get plenty of the latter two nutrients, since you need the energy to train (from the carbohydrates) and the means with which to help rebuild the muscle (the protein).
When do I need to be eating?
There’s always various new schools of thought on this but let’s be honest, the 3 meals a day thing that people have been doing since forever is perfectly adequate and convenient since society has been constructed around it.
Timing your eating with ‘post-workout’ recovery is not necessary: there’s no such thing as a post-workout ‘anabolic window’ nor do you need to be watching the clock to eat every few hours to prevent your muscle from breaking down.
The truth is the human body is pretty good at efficiently using the energy it’s supplied with throughout the day, so if you eat your dinner 1 hour, 2 hours or 3 hours after you train it really doesn’t matter.
As long as you’re eating enough calories per day in total you won’t be affecting your results. The one caveat I would have is that you should try and eat something (like a banana or some fruit) before you train: it’s not because you NEED to, more that you ensure you have energy for a better workout.
How much should I be eating?
Not that much more than a normal person who is not training.
Forget all the emphasis on massive eating from people like Michael Phelps (he allegedly ate 12,000 calories a day during the Olympics). People like him are doing crazy amounts of training, as well as crazy amounts of drugs (notwithstanding the story is more than likely a media exaggeration).
Eat big, Get big is simply a ridiculous idea that for people not on drugs will simply make you fat, not insanely muscular. I don’t care how hard you train, without drugs you have a limited scope for muscle growth, hence why you don’t need to be stuffing your face every few hours.
Just a little more protein and carbs. Eat till you’re full, but not to bursting.
Does a training diet differ that much from a normal one?
No, you can still make good progress eating a normal diet if you train hard and recover (i.e. sleep) enough.
I hear that protein is crucial. How important is it?
If you train your protein requirement DOES increase: you are breaking down muscle tissue frequently which therefore needs protein to build back stronger. Similarly if you hold more muscle you need more food and protein to maintain it.
But we’re talking maybe 20-30g more per day than a normal intake, not hundreds of grams.
One thing is for certain no-one needs scoops of whey protein every few hours.
Will my training progress suffer if I don’t eat enough?
Yes, if you’re really not eating enough i.e. you feel hungry throughout the day. People on diets lose fat but also muscle when they restrict calories, even more so if they continue to expend energy with exercise.
However if you’re eating well but the training results are stalling this could be a recovery issue or simply that you’re nearing your potential. Eating more and more is not going to help here.
Should carbohydrates be avoided if I’m trying to lose weight?
Carbohydrates have been unfairly misaligned by the fad diets like Atkins. If you want to lose weight my take on it is this:
- Diets don’t work in the long-term
- Losing weight is as much about hard training as it is eating healthily and cutting down overall calories
In order to train hard (both weight-lifting in the gym and cardio) you need energy to do it effectively. Which comes from carbs.
Of course you can gradually cut down, but they play an essential part in giving you the means with which to train to achieve your weight-loss goals.
What’s a good pre-workout?
Water and a banana.
What supplements are actually useful?
99% of them are not. Stuff like Omega-3 fish oils can be good, since most people don’t and maybe don’t have the means with which to eat fresh oily fish everyday. If you’re old then calcium tablets can be useful, although a good way of preserving bone density as you age is through regular lifting of weights.
As for the rest, the ‘performance enhancers’ like protein whey powders, creatine, BCAA’s, glutamine, meal replacements, mass gainers and pre-workouts are above all a SCAM.
I used to do them all. Since a few years ago, I’m on nothing. Not even a whey powder every now and again. Literally NOTHING.
What’s happened? I’ve hit a new all-time deadlift PR, I’m continuing to get stronger all-round and my weight hasn’t changed.
So what’s the secret? Nothing, apart from knowing what you’re doing and being consistent over and over for a long time.
They don’t sell that in an easy-to-digest powder, which is why it actually works.
Short of steroids, there is nothing out there that is going to fast-forward your results. Please acknowledge that and stop giving money to the con-artists advertising cheese production by-product as ‘anabolic’.
Will eating more make me recover faster?
No, sleeping enough is the main factor in helping you recover faster.
Should I avoid fats?
Saturated fats, like animal fats you should avoid as much as possible. There are such things as essential fats, such as the ones found in sources like fish, oils and seeds which are good for you.
However remember that eating fat (even saturated fat) alone does not make you fat. Eating fat while doing nothing will make you fat. If you follow an active exercise regime and are moving a lot, eating a bit of fat is not going to affect you aesthetically.
Health wise, I think it’s obvious these days that eating too much saturated fat is not good for your heart and arteries.
Are there actually any good diets out there?
No. It’s because they’re all selling you a short-term ‘fix’.
Note how all the ‘diet inspiration’ stories of people who lost a lot of weight quickly don’t tell the story 6 months or a year after the weight loss. Do you think they managed to avoid carbs/drink just milkshakes for 2 days a week/fast for half the week for the rest of their lives?
People who are extremely overweight do have to take drastic measures, but these are always lifestyle changes, like stopping drinking soda all the time or not eating in the middle of the night.
Related article: You should never go on a diet
For most people who are just trying to get a bit leaner you don’t need a drastic, miserable and draconian dieting regime that you’ll stick to for about 2 weeks.
Like I said, these days it’s pretty obvious what you should be eating and what your should be avoiding. Small, incremental steps towards changing your lifestyle and habits will breed long-term, sustainable results. That’s it. Diets are just not needed and not productive.
What’s more important for results, training or nutrition?
It comes down largely to genetics and your individual body type. For example I pay a lot more attention to my training than my diet, in that I don’t follow any sort of real diet (I try to eat healthy-ish but if there is a doughnut or fried chicken on offer I have no problem eating it).
But I am lucky to have a fast metabolism and because I train hard eating unhealthily relatively often doesn’t seem to affect me.
However if you’re someone who naturally gains weight you might need to be a bit more strict with your eating, while still training hard.
Similarly if you’re someone who struggles to put on weight then you might have to consciously eat a bit more to keep the muscle you have from training.
What is really important in my opinion is that we should be trying to create strong, healthy versions of ourselves. You can certainly be slim just by restricting your eating and not training, but that doesn’t mean you’re healthy.
By training hard, both through cardio and weight training you not only build a strong and capable body but you also make your life nutrition wise much easier. Training hard means that you can enjoy your food without too much compromise because by making muscle a high proportion of your bodyweight you can burn calories even when sitting still, along with the obvious calorie usage while in the act of exercising.
So for me, training hard comes first.
For more about nutrition, see the articles below.
Related article: How important is your diet really?
Related article: Nutrition part 1: it’s not rocket science