A Case for Slow Progress: My Path with Tri Nutrition
by Drew Davis
Ed. Note—how has YOUR nutrition plan developed over time? Or has it developed at all? Do you discover your "plan" at every new race, taking a scattershot approach, or are you a rolling and running science experiment, committed to the same thing every time? Our post today from guest contributor Drew Davis (seen above, running next to HJ) takes an athlete-centered approach, as he describes his path to figuring out what has worked for him in fueling for the sport. Today he provides his five big picture maxims, and we'll circle back to his race nutrition next week.
Michael Pollan’s manifesto on food is a powerful statement. Its brevity hides a wealth of wisdom: "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much." I couldn't dream of providing you with something so simple and so effective for tackling your everyday nutrition while preparing for your next race, but I can offer some nifty bullet points, and then share more color and context on how I got there.
- Simple is best
- Every body is different
- Training nutrition and weight loss are not mutually inclusive
- Share your meals
I do not advocate a certain type of diet. I have tried several of them, and rigid adherence led to failure every single time. Instead, I have whittled and reworked and rewired a bunch of different beliefs into a custom plan that works for me consistently, and that I don’t have to think about very much. Given how much effort and emphasis that goes into keeping my training on track when my peak volume climbs to 15 hours a week, wasting extra hours fretting over how to make a series of delicious meals that follow 43 different rules is not where I want to spend my energy. So, without further ado, let me share my nutrition commandments.
Simple is Best
My first year in this sport, I followed ZERO rules for diet or fueling. I ate what I wanted when I wanted to. I drank Gatorade on the bike sometimes, water others. Sometimes I took gels. I ate a lot of pizza. I didn’t care, and I didn’t worry about it. I suffered from the LEAST GI distress of my athletic career in those months because I ate what my body wanted. As I have progressed in the sport, this devil-may-care approach no longer works. BUT, the lack of mental energy that I spent on food was something that stuck with me, and now I constantly work to simplify and refine the way that I approach nutrition to keep my mental churn to a minimum.
I have a good friend who has more discipline than Andy Potts and Josh Amberger combined. His day is an endless series of rituals and routines that he has crafted to optimize his health, his productivity and his life. One day, I asked him how he handled his nutrition. “I follow 80% of my rules, 80% of the time.” For you math buffs out there, that’s 64% adherence. Now, this may sound terrible, until you consider how often rigid adherence to a plan leads to not only failure but also limited desire to start again once you’ve deviated. By creating some space to make mistakes, or cheat, you acknowledge your humanity. Even pros have a drink or some extra sugar from time to time. Don’t shoot for perfect—shoot for 64%.
Every Body is Different
This is the second grammatical pun that I’ve snuck in here, for those paying attention. Each person consumes, digests, and processes food differently. It’s part genetics, it’s part what you ate growing up, it’s part the current state of your gut bacterial health, and a whole panoply of other factors. Anyone, including doctors and fancy cheek-swabbing diet analyzers, that tells you that they can unequivocally nail down your nutrition on the first try, is not being honest with you. It’s just not possible.
So why is this important? Because part of our nutritional struggle stems from trying what is successful for others rather than being a diligent student of our own bodies. I will state here for the record that I have 1000% watched pro triathletes and tried to follow their nutrition protocols, often to terrible results. I don’t train like them. I don’t live in Arizona or Oregon or Boulder or San Diego. I’m not them. Similarly, if you adopt 100% of what I do/eat, there’s a strong chance that it will not work for you like it does for me. THAT’S OK. That’s sort of the point. The path to success is not finding the answer from someone else, it’s in learning what works best for your body.
Training Nutrition and Weight Loss are Not Mutually Inclusive
Training for triathlons burns many, many calories. So do dog walking, household chores, shoveling snow, work stress, and carrying children. n a perfect world, you would be able to pinpoint your exact nutritional outputs so that you could replace it with JUST enough. More often than not, your body will send you signals to consume MORE than that because it is perceiving an extraordinary calorie spend. This is why you can eat your weight in tater tots after a long bike ride, even if you fill your caloric deficit before the end of the bucket.
During my biggest builds, I often gain weight. Not much, usually in the ballpark of one-to-three pounds, but it happens consistently. This happens both because I am overcompensating for the amount of food that I’m eating, and I’m effing starving ALL OF THE TIME.
In January, I was in a build and putting on weight, five pounds this time, which is particularly depressing in Chicago because it’s an extra reminder that swimsuit season is months behind you and months ahead of you simultaneously. I had a run test approaching, and I told my coach that I was worried about the extra weight. “Just follow the plan,” he said, all Yoda-like.
I did, and I PR’d by three minutes. Running alone. In the snow. The weight did nothing. Athletic nutrition is about fueling for performance, not for optimizing weight loss. If you try to make it do both, you might end up with a plan that does neither. If you’re in it to win it this season, leave the scale alone and commit to putting good fuel in the gas tank.
Share your Meals
One of the perils of eating for an athlete is that it can quickly be relegated into the category of ‘fuel,’ and the joy of food can really be lost. If you’ve been stomaching egg white omelets with dry spinach and salsa for a few weeks, invite some people over for roast chicken and a salad. Watch people enjoy the food. Enjoy your own food. Share in the conversation. Don’t eat every meal hunched over a Tupperware container like a gremlin. If you swim, bike, or run with a training group, rotate the hosts and have each person make one dish so that the planning and prep aren’t so arduous. Everyone knows that community is one of the best parts of this sport, and this is an excellent way to make it even better.
Is there more to this? Yeah, sure. I have my own quirks about exactly what I do and don’t eat. But those are mine, and I developed them over time by learning about what works for me and what doesn’t. I encourage you to do the same. Take mental notes. Remember your wins and losses. Make small changes over time. Keep going.