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Training & Nutrition Tips to Stay Healthy and Happy in Sports

Image of Stephanie M. Howe, PhD, Endurance Runner & The North Face Athlete, at the finish line of a race.

Guest Post by Stephanie M. Howe, PhD, Endurance Runner & The North Face Athlete

Health and fitness are an integral part of maintaining a high quality of life throughout the lifespan. The choices we make on a daily basis effect not just the present, but also our future. Whether recreationally active or a competitive athlete, physical activity and diet are at the corner stone of our health and longevity.

Most active individuals know a thing or two about health and fitness. But there is always room to improve and strive to become your best self. Both physical activity and nutrition are important and optimal performance comes from dialing in both aspects. But with so much contradictory information out there, what does optimal training and fueling look like? Here are some tips to help you become your best self.

Training

Each person is unique and so there is not a one-size fits all when it comes to training. The best way to optimize your training is to keep a training journal and really pay attention to how you feel. It doesn’t matter if you are training for your first 5k or for the Olympic Games, the best way to learn more about yourself is to record how you feel regularly. It’s important to recognize that YOU are unique and will respond differently to training. Listen to your body; it sends subtle (or at times not so subtle) cues as to how it’s handling the stress. The more in tune you can be with the cues, the better you can optimize your training, avoid injury, overtraining, and illness, and become the best you can be.

Image of a diverse group of children sitting on a gym floor and holding sports balls.

  1. Focus on Quality Over Quantity. Athletes tend to think that if some is good, then more is better. Not the case with training. It’s better to emphasize good quality workouts than squeezing in as much as possible. Greater physiological adaptions occur from training that stimulates your highest workload, mixes up the stimulus, and allows for adaptation. Thus, a typical week should not be the same type of exercise; duration, volume, or intensity, each day. There should be hard days followed by easy, recovery days. During the hard workouts, you should push your body. But the following day, to fully absorb the benefits, you need to take it easy, meaning a nice slow, recovery workout. Many athletes don’t take it easy enough on the recovery day. Not only do you not recover as well when you don’t take it easy, but your next workout is also compromised.

  2. Rest Days are Important. Rest days are when the magic happens. Think of training as placing stress on your body to wear it down. Your body responds to this stress by building back up stronger than it was before. This is how fitness gains occur. BUT, if you are constantly stressing your body, it doesn’t get the opportunity to recover and build back up. Thus, rest days are just as important as training days. You cannot become fitter and stronger without a day off. I recommend at least one rest day per week. Sometimes more. And a rest day doesn’t mean cross training or running around all day, it actually means focusing on good recovery and letting your body recoup. This is how you increase fitness and avoid overtraining and injury.

  3. Mix it up. Cross training is an important part of any training plan. Don’t just do the same activity each day. Mix it up! Challenge your body in other ways. Other activities, such as strength training, swimming, yoga, etc., not only use other muscles, but also keep your mind fresh. If you aren’t sure what to do, try a class or join a friend in a workout. Inclusion of cross training on a weekly or bi-monthly basis also helps prevent overuse injuries from the normal wear and tear associated with repetitive activity. Plus, it’s fun to try something new! My favorites are strength training and yoga because they compliment my usual endurance based activities.

  4. Work on your mental game. Your mind is a powerful tool. There is a lot more to sport than just the physical aspect. The ability to believe in oneself and focus on the task at hand can greatly impact performance. The mind-body connection is amazing and the more you train your mind to handle the mental stress of sport, the better your physical performance. I like to include visualization before big competitions and engage in positive self-talk when I’m training and racing. I literally will say out loud to myself “Stephanie you are running so great right now!” I never beat myself up or say negative things, even just in my mind. It doesn’t help and can actually make you feel worse. The more positive and present you can be the better the experience.

  5. Don’t compare yourself to others. This is maybe one of the toughest parts of training. It’s so tempting to compare yourself to what others are doing. But, it’s not helpful. In fact, most of the time it’s hurtful. Each person is unique in what they can handle mentally and physically. You don’t have to train as much as someone else to be your best. It’s best to tune inward and really pay attention to your body and how you feel. Often the best training is not the most training, but the smartest training. And comparing yourself to others does nothing for learning about your physical, mental, and psychological capabilities. It’s ok to recognize and acknowledge what others are doing, but don’t plot yourself against them. Be your own person and be grateful for that.

Nutrition

What you eat is almost more complex than training. Usually with training and sport, there is a coach or leader to look to for guidance about the sport. With nutrition, there is not one person or organization to look to for good, solid nutrition advice. Anyone with a blog or social media can broadcast their opinion about diet and nutrition to the masses. And often it’s just that….an opinion. To optimize your nutrition I recommend taking a step back and thinking about it less. Yes, think about it less. Although that sounds counterintuitive, as a society we think WAY too much nutrients, superfoods, and diet fads. Eat this, avoid that and you will be healthy. However, it doesn’t work like that. Real food is so good for us and our bodies need a variety of foods to function. Any diet or nutrition plan that requires you to restrict a certain food or food group is not healthy or sustainable.

  1. Eat Real Food. This is my first rule of nutrition. It’s the golden rule. Eat. Real. Food. What does this mean? Well, it means consuming foods that are in their natural state, such as an apple. Not foods that have been broken down, processed, and engineered into something totally different. The easiest way to do this is limit the amount of food that comes out of a package. Anything that is found in the state it grows in nature is a better choice. Of course, I believe that all things in moderation is part of a healthy diet. Emphasize real foods for the majority of your meals and add in other options to fill the gaps.

  2. Don’t follow fad diets. This is the best way to throw your body out of whack and create a head case. Fad diets promise a quick fix and often operate on the premise of restricting or emphasizing certain foods or food groups for health or performance. That is your first clue. Healthy eating does not mean you should only eat a list of approved foods. The foods you choose to eat is your diet, not vice versa. Any diet with strict rules is not sustainable or healthy in the long run. Eating should be an enjoyable experience not a mathematical equation with limited food choices.

  3. Listen to your body cues. Our bodies are really good and telling us what we need…if we listen to it, that is. There are SO many internal signals within the body to drive appetite and fullness and to help us determine when and how much to eat. But so often we ignore or override these signals. The best way to listen to your body is to pay attention: really think about how you feel before you eat, when you eat, after you eat. How hungry are you? How full are you? How do you feel after eating a certain food? Once you start to understand your body’s cues it’s much easier to match energy intake to energy expenditure. Keep in mind that your body is not a checkbook. Energy in ≠ energy out. Our bodies are so much more complex than that. If you “eat 500 calories” it doesn’t mean you can exercise to “burn 500 calories”. Our bodies are not even close to being that simple. Think less about numbers and pay more attention to feeling and hunger levels. That’s the best way to get in tune with what your body needs.

  4. Aim to be a B+. You don’t have to perfect your diet every single day. There is room for some good days and not so good days. Just because you had an off day doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. The more accepting you are of that, the more healthy and sustainable for the long term. I like to think that I eat well most of the time with a few indulgences here and there. And I don’t obsess about it. If you eat ice cream for breakfast…Meh. Just don’t let that be every day. Focus on a good quality lunch rather than dwelling on the past.

  5. Learn about specific nutrition strategies for your sport. Each sport has specific fueling strategies that will also help you to optimize your performance. Whether it’s running, strength training, cycling, climbing, yoga, hiking, soccer, etc., there are different ways to optimally fuel during training and competition to enhance performance. Again, there is a lot of information out there, most of in incorrect, so I’d recommend connecting with a professional in sports nutrition