Now we’ve all heard this old cliché time & time again, but when it comes to a healthy diet, this statement has significance on multiple levels.
The first thing that I would like to address is that if you are an athlete and you want to perform at your optimal capability, you NEED to ignore recommendations for the “average” American dietary needs.
Do you exercise like the “average” American? No.
For most collegiate & Elite athletes you’re probably doing more physical activity in one day than most people do in a week. This type of lifestyle creates its own set of problems for both lightweights and heavyweights when confronted with making dietary choices though.
My favorite line that I hear most often is:
“You’re so lucky. You work out so much, I bet you can eat whatever you want.”
In theory, this is true. If you maintain a diet of calories in = calories out, your weight will pretty much remain constant. If you row to stay in shape and maintain a healthy weight then that philosophy is fine. On the other hand, if you consider yourself an athlete and are training to race, then you could probably benefit by following a stricter diet. When I suggest “stricter” though, it is not so much a reference to quantity, but rather to the quality of your daily dietary intake. Although quantity does definitely play a part as well.
While in theory you can eat foods such as fried chicken, nachos, ice cream and french fries, and still maintain a “healthy” weight, those foods are most likely not going to help you perform at your best. Not to mention, I don’t want to think of what kind of plaque might build up in your arteries?
Now while I know at least most of you lightweights are probably saying well I wouldn’t go near those foods with a 10-ft pole….how many of you snack on rice cakes, microwave popcorn, diet sodas, Crystal light & 100 calorie snack packs? Yes, they fill you up and keep your weight down*, but they will do nothing to improve your athletic performance either.
Based on my observations, both the average heavyweight AND lightweight diet could use a little reform. The largest problem is that much of the food marketed and most easily accessible to us is both highly processed and nutrient deprived. The human body is not designed to break down chemicals and cannot convert them into energy. On the other hand, if you eat a diet filled with nutrient rich food, you’ll feel better, perform better and probably even look better too. Foods such as fruits, veggies, nuts, eggs, fish, soy, lean meats & whole grains are the way to go no matter how much you weigh (or want to weigh)
Often lightweights will resort to extreme caloric restriction and then get frustrated that they are not losing weight. In theory it makes sense: eat less…weigh less and it might be frustrating if your co-worker at the desk across from you is on the newest fad diet and dropping pounds like it’s his or her job. Everyone knows that about 2000-2800 calories a day is what is suggested for the average American adult. http://www.fda.gov/fdac/graphics/foodlabelspecial/pg44.pdf. On the other hand, a competitive rower is going to burn a ballpark of 10cal/min of work. Therefore if you train for about 3 hrs/day, that’s approximately a loss of 1800 calories. What often happens to lightweights is that they increase the training volume too disproportionately to the decrease in calories which sends the body into starvation mode. This is often further aggravated (esp. in women) by eating fat free foods since the body requires fat as an energy source especially for endurance. So now you have a malnourished hungry athlete who’s probably losing LESS weight than the buddy dieting because the daily caloric ratio is off too much. Now of course the numbers above are simply rough estimate. Based on your height, weight, sex, etc, those numbers are going to vary, but the take-home point of this argument is that athletes DO need more calories than their sedentary counterparts (EVEN when trying to lose weight).
On the contrary, most lightweights do not naturally sit at weight and DO have to eat less food(but in moderation) than they are burning on a given day. This is when the types of foods eaten play a part. Last spring an open-weight friend of mine approached me extremely frustrated that she was being beaten by experienced lightweights & expressing that she thought the extra weight was supposed to be helping her performance. While extra weight will usually help on an erg or in an insanely strong head or crosswind, raw size is not as important as strength, endurance and fitness. The reason that some lightweights are often competitive with open-weights when in theory they shouldn’t be is partially because they have to eat less food.
The secret here is less food does not necessarily mean less energy. A good lightweight knows that EVERY calorie counts so what I’ve found is that the ones who have figured this out tend to make better choices in what they eat by choosing foods chocked full of nutrients such as almonds, avocados, oatmeal & yogurt. * It should be noted here that none of these foods are low calorie. Athletes need both nutrients and calories for performance. Foods such as the ones listed above sustain hunger, maintain blood sugar and provide both the energy & nutrients required for training & competing as well as maintaining or even losing weight.
Unlike lightweights, open-weights generally do not have the problem of under-eating, but since the caloric count is not so much of a concern, sometimes that quality of food is not so much of a concern either. At this point in time I will refer back to my earlier statement about why you row. Think of it this way. Take your training and natural ability and you have your raw speed. Chances are though if you had the choice to row in a 2008 Fluid or a 1989 Vega, you probably would take the Fluid. On the other hand, if you have the choice of fruit salad & yogurt or a brownie sundae, which one are you going to choose??? The more positive food choices you make, most likely the better performance that will result.
Additionally, while under-eating definitely hurts performance, so does overeating. First of all, extra weight is only beneficial if it is muscle. If it is not, it’s simply extra weight that you (or your teammates, in the case of a team boat) are dragging down the course. More importantly though digesting food takes A LOT of energy. If athletes have eaten TOO much food before training or an event, then they are actually slowing themselves down since some of their energy is being wasted on excess digestion.
The key to both optimum performance and weight is eating nutrient rich & natural food. Let’s take a snack. Whether you are snacking on rice cakes, potato chips, pretzels or a bagel, in any case the lack of nutrients in those types of foods is going to result in low energy due to low nutrients. You are either going to eat more due to the low energy…also resulting in excess calories hence potentially excess weight or not eat more resulting fatigue and irritability. On the other hand, a small bag of dried fruit & nuts and an apple would provide the same calories, triple the nutrients & digest much more easily. ***Another interesting perk of eating natural and unprocessed foods is that they seem to metabolize more easily. Therefore if you like eating (which most rowers do), based on my experience, I’m actually able to consume even MORE calories of “good” foods simply because the body digests them more easily.
The take-home message today is that you will perform best if you neither overeat nor under-eat as well as filling your diet with wholesome & unprocessed foods. Likewise every meal should be balanced with sources from carbohydrates, protein and fats. In future entries I will get into more specifics of nutrient dense super foods as well as healthy diet destroyers( did someone say transfats???), but for now I will share how I learned this tough little lesson.
After competing as a lightweight for several years and fluctuating several pounds during the winter time… I decided to race open-weight this past year, due to a number of different circumstances. While I still followed a nutrient-dense diet, I allowed myself to eat regularly and however much I wanted. I also increased my fat intake by a great deal. As a result my weight did not fluctuate nearly half as much and at my highest weight all winter, I weighed LESS than when I had been TRYING to be lighter. The next new discovery came during Lent when I decided that since I was not watching my weight, I would cut out all artificial sweeteners from my diet. For the most part that meant replacing Splenda with raw sugar or honey. No, I did not lose any weight…but interestingly enough I did not gain even a pound either. As spring grew warmer and the intensity and volume of my training increased, weight started to fall off a bit. In the end, my open-weight racing opportunities were decreasing so I decided to switch back to lightweight. Now I would never say that making weight is “easy” but, as a result of the few small tweaks I made to the foods I eat (primarily eating more healthy fats & less processed food), I was able to make weight with the most ease in my career thus far. More importantly though, I raced MORE races and recorded FASTER times than I ever had before as well.
Eat, Drink & Row Merry