I play roller derby.
I absolutely love it, but out of all of the sports that I’ve played in my life, and there is legion, derby has been the most difficult to get a handle on training-wise. Learning to cross-train for a sport that was still in its infancy when I started was challenging, of course, and part of the reason why Iron Octopus Fitness exists.
But I’d also never played such an energetic sport before. One where I was at turns both ravenously hungry and yet couldn’t stomach a single thing. A sport where my energy sometimes flagged halfway through a game or well outlasted said game and went into the afterparty.
Even after I got a handle on my practice schedule and my cross-training plan, figuring out how to eat around those things still made me want to pull my hair out.
And, much like getting an exercise science degree so I could learn how to cross train, I decided to learn more about nutrition so I could get through a game without bonking. Or avoid coming home after practice and eating my way through the entire contents of the fridge.
Assuming that I hadn’t stopped at Taco Bell on the way home…
In other words, I’ve made the mistakes, but I also studied my way out of them. I still make the mistakes, in fact, but I know what they are now.
If you’re ready to expend some brain energy on your nutrition or you wonder if you eat enough (or the right stuff), then take to heart the steps below.
#1 — GET BASELINE DATA*.
The first few steps of Nutrition 101 are both the simplest and most painful part of this journey. It will look easy on its surface but can be an arduous task. I’m forewarning you that working on nutrition can be a mental challenge as much as a physical one.
HERE’S YOUR CHALLENGE FOR STEP ONE:
- Get an app (or set-up a notebook) to collect data about what you’re eating.
- Collect data for 3-4 days WITHOUT changing anything about your normal habits/patterns.
I prefer apps for this — and that’s only time you’ll hear me say that — because there’s less math to do. Figuring out your nutrition parameters can already take up a fair amount of mental bandwidth. And we want to cut down as much of that as we can. The app does all the math for you. WOOT.
I use the paid version, but you can start using My Fitness Pal for free and it will do exactly what you need. MFP is also accessible from a desktop computer if you hate having additional apps on your phone.
If you choose to go the paper route, make sure you bookmark the Self Nutrition Data page to get the nutritional information for most foods.
This is all about tracking what you eat and building up awareness around it.
There are so many times that I’ve talked to athletes about what they eat, how often, how much, when, and their answer is, “I don’t know.” Just like with everything else, collecting baseline data is going to be the best way to move forward. It’s important to know whether you need to prioritize getting more protein or eating more calories. Or both. Or neither.
And you won’t know that until you track yourself for a while.
*Don’t track your food if you know that it will cause you mental stress. It’s not necessary nor advised for everyone to do so. Make the right choice for you.
#2 — BUILD AWARENESS.
There’s an episode of How I Met Your Mother that I always think about when I’m getting ready to speak in public, whether in front of my former science students or at places like RollerCon. In this episode, the main character, Ted, goes to a bar with some of his college students and finds that they play a very particular type of drinking game. This drinking game is simple: They watch a TV reporter giving late night interviews and drink a shot every time the reporter says the words, “But, um…”
The twist is that this verbal tic belongs to one of Ted’s friends, Robin, and he proceeds to get blackout drunk while playing the game. Several times.
Robin is completely unaware that she uses the phrase so often and when Ted finally points it out to her, she feels a bit self-conscious. Before proceeding to make EVERYONE playing the drinking game regret every minute of it.
There are a few lessons here:
WE DON’T KNOW WHAT WE DON’T KNOW. Namely that we are often ignorant of the things that we do even though they’re right in front of our face. My verbal tic in front of groups is the word “so” and when I stop to think about it — which I try not to do — it makes me second-guess literally everything that I’m saying.
AWARENESS IS UNCOMFORTABLE. The interview after Robin discovers this drinking game starts out halting and slow. She has an incredibly difficult time getting back into the flow of her job because all she can think about is, “Don’t say ‘but, um…’.”
WE CAN’T CHANGE WHAT WE DON’T SEE. The beauty of finally becoming aware of the weird and wonderful things that you do, that you can embrace them or change them once you know they are there.
After a few days of awareness with your food tracking, you might feel like one of my clients when we did this challenge:
My observation after 48 hours of tracking: If the old saying “you are what you eat” is true, then I am a a big ol’ walking-talking bag of carbs and fat.
I get it. I’ve certainly thought about NOT tracking the bag of peanut M&Ms that I just ate. But there’s no value in ignoring what you’re doing nutrition-wise if you REALLY want to change it to help you perform better. Whether you want to perform better on the track or in your everyday life is irrelevant. It all matters.
But you can’t change it until you name it.
In the welcome email, I mentioned that dialing in your nutrition is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one. And a lot of that centers around the fact that we typically have FEELINGS about food.
That’s all normal.
In short, it can suck when you finally become aware of the fact that you’re not eating “as well” as you should be. Just approach the situation like a G.I. Joe would: Knowing is half the battle.
#3 — LOOK FOR PATTERNS.
After you’ve been tracking for a week or two, you’ll likely start to notice patterns in your eating. Maybe you’re drawn to certain foods only when you’re hungry or feeling upset. Maybe you eat breakfast even though you’re not really interested in it.
These patterns and habits can be good things that you want to continue. They might also be habits you want to break or replace with different ones. Once you’ve noticed that they are there, it will be easier for you to decide how to do about changing those behaviors (just like Robin).
Despite what it might feel like, you are not your choices.
Food is just food. Some of it helps you get closer to your goals, some of it doesn’t. And that’s okay. Just as long as you’re the one making the choices. Not just following old habits.
Still confused about how to ‘eat like an athlete’? Or aren’t quite sure what you should be paying attention to when you track your food?
Sign up for the ‘Secrets to Eating Like An Athlete’ Webinar coming up on Tuesday, January 16th @ 5pm PST. I’ll go in-depth on where to start focusing and how to work your way up the nutritional hierarchy to help improve your performance (+ look and feel better).