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Physique is Incidental, Not Inevitable

Macros--carbs, protein, fat... Nutrient dense vs. Calorie dense...Caloric surplus/deficit... basal metabolic rate...BMI...body fat percentage...glycemic load...glycemic as fuel...


Mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, turkey, pecans, butter, pie... steamed green beans vs. green bean casserole... Thanksgiving meal/leftovers... football... unbuttoning "eating pants"... meat sweats... post-meal nap... portions/helpings/serving sizes...

HOLIDAYS! Time for questions from athletes about not losing fitness, not gaining weight, and sometimes even losing weight.

I'm not a Nutritionist or a Sports Dietician, yet as a personal trainer and coach, I’m often asked if/how to use diet to manage weight while endurance training during holidays. Here are my guiding principles:

Physique is incidental. Feed the physique, starve the feelings. Be honest about what you want vs. what you need. Then give the body what it needs, when it needs it.

Make sense? The rest of this post is gonna sprinkle some science on those principles and unpack them a bit. Here goes...


Can't emphasize this enough. Yup. Talk to a professional Nutritionist or Sports Dietician. Preferably one with endurance training experience and knowledge. One person I trust completely, is Melanie Battaglia. One site/system I can suggest is (No compensation or connection to either for the mention.) There are many others. Seriously. See a professional.

Physique is Incidental, Not Inevitable.

Physical appearance may start with genetics, but your capabilities do not. This is why focusing on performance can be much more rewarding than focusing on appearance. Train to perform, because regardless of physical appearance, human bodies demonstrate an astonishingly, amazingly, impressively broad range of capabilities.

Don't believe me? Go to the finishing chute of any race, anything from a 5k to an IRONMAN. Look at the astonishingly, amazingly, impressively different shapes and sizes; a veritable parade of Dr. Suess-esque shapes, sizes and performances, ain't it? Yes. Because human bodies react to two things: what’s on your plate and what’s in your training plan. Not mirrors.

By focusing on PERFORMANCE, our physique adjusts things we can't see (metabolism, endocrine/hormone output, cardiovascular and respiratory systems, skeletomuscular system, etc.). How we look while doing it? That's a side-effect. Hence, when we focus on performance, physique is incidental.

This is also why the scale is only one of many instruments to measure fitness, and a terrible instrument to measure capabilities. (Aside: don't get smarmy. Of course lighter load = easier to move. Basic physics. But for now, trust me. The scale is a very small piece of the puzzle.)

Back to science... take an empirical, objective measures of your food intake. Start by tracking everything you eat. Get a piece of paper (or an app) and write down (enter) every single thing you consume for about a week.

Don't use the last week of November or the last week of December. For obvious reasons. OR! if you do, make sure you also get "regular" weeks' data.

Then visit to compare your log against what the U.S. government says are standard nutrition guidelines for your sex and age. (What the U.S. government says? Yeah, I know... questionable. Just start there though.)

Now, endurance athletes are far from standard. As athletes, we get to make adjustments based on:

  1. Calories needed to train properly

  2. Balancing Macro nutrients (Proteins, Carbohydrates, Fats) and Micronutrients (Vitamins and Minerals)

  3. Fluids and electrolytes

  4. Lifestyle and taste preferences

This is where the Sports Dieticians and Nutritionists earn their fees, prioritizing 1-4 for individual preferences and sorting out the calculations based on individual goals.

We know (again, from science) that fats provide approximately 9kcals/g, while carbohydrates and protein provide approximately 4 kcal/g (kcal is just PhD speak for calories.)

We also know that humans have a BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate), which is an empirical number of calories needed to maintain normal body functions (breathing, pumping blood, digestion). This is VARIABLE due to age, sex, weight, height, genetics, endocrine functions, etc.

Next, training activities demand certain amounts of calories based on session type, frequency, duration, and intensity. This is HIGHLY VARIABLE among individuals.

There are several scientifically proven equations for accurately calculating calorie needs, including the Cunningham and Harris-Benedict. Based on the calculation, along with preferences and goals, dial in protein and carbs. Generally speaking, once protein and carb intake is properly dialed in, fats tend to take care of themselves.

After calorie and macronutrient needs are calculated, the principle for adding/losing weight is relatively straightforward: create a slight caloric surplus to gain weight; create a slight caloric deficit to lose weight.

KEY POINT HERE: Emphasis on SLIGHT. Endurance athletes must have energy (carbs) to train properly and recover properly (protein). More below.

That‘s just a few basic calculations. So--not the last time I'll say it, but it bears repeating--see a professional. With or without precise calculations...

Less Processed = HIGHER QUALITY

Eat higher quality foods. No big secret, right? It’s simple, but it's not always easy. Protein, Carbohydrates and Fat come in many delicious forms. Higher quality versions are "Nutrient Dense" (read: lots of macros without additives), more processed foods tend to be more "calorie dense" (read: added sugars/sweeteners). Consume more whole, unprocessed foods; avoid processed foods.

For example, one way to assess food quality is by calculating Glycemic Index (impact on blood glucose levels by comparing digestion and absorption rates between foods) and Glycemic Load (GI x grams of food/100).

Personally--and I emphasize again(!) that I'm not a nutritionist--I submit that consuming predominantly plant-based, unprocessed foods (read: fruits and veggies) delivers almost all the macro and micro nutrients required to manage weight AND perform well as an endurance athlete.

Of course there are important considerations, including but not limited to people with endocrine imbalances, youths, older athletes, people that exclude entire food groups for various reasons. MOST people, though, get all they need by consuming more fruits and veg and avoiding processed foods. Moving on...

Be Honest about Want vs. Need

Like I said before: It's not a secret. It's not complicated. But it's not always going to be easy. You're a grown ass adult.

Have water to help you skip the calorie dense, nutrient empty soda. Try a handful of nutrient dense dark chocolate covered almonds instead of corn chips. Eat as much fresh fruit as you can, skip the fast-food drive-thru.

Here's another suggestion that is NOT scientifically proven, likely to be misinterpreted and possibly completely wrong: ignore portion control when eating fresh fruits and vegetables.

This is not permission to gorge on potatoes au gratin, or knock down bowl after bowl of broccoli cheese soup, or take down a whole carrot cake. No. But it is allowing for a lot of latitude on less processed whole foods like steamed sweet potatoes/peppers/broccoli, fresh spinach/apples/bananas/oranges, boiled lentils/kidney beans*/carrots.

*Actually, be careful with beans (aka: legumes). They gotta be pressure cooked or boiled properly. But you get my point. Nobody is ever going to under-perform from overeating eating fruit and veg.

“But coach,” I hear, “French fries taste good, cake tastes good, bacon tastes goooood.”

Yup. Truth. What can we do?

Feed the Physique, Starve the Feelings

Go ahead and eat what you like. Just don't overeat. Balance your long-term desire to perform against your child-like feels for short-term gratification. Take joy from what you can accomplish, but don't be miserable doing it.

Yes. Just have some. Allow yourself to enjoy the taste, the chewing. the fullness, the whatever-positive-associations-bubble-up. This is one way to avoid obsessing, avoid creating self-martyrdom and hopefully, avoiding over-indulgence. (Same goes for having an occasional adult beverage.) Then get back to eating right and training right.

Truth is, sometimes we just want the bacon. Does our body actually need it? Nope. But our taste buds, or our emotional health, or maybe our personal sense of control or defiance definitely does. When that is the case, it's healthier to be honest. Have some.

To circle back though, french fries, cake, bacon, all fast foods are highly processed. Avoid them. When you crave something you know to be bad for you, have some.

"But coach, I feel guilty after and then I just eat more bad stuff."

Yup. That's a problem, too. Solution? (I’m stealing here from Michael Pollan.) Eat all the french fries you want as long as you make them yourself. Eat all the cake that you yourself make. After all, you are training to make yourself perform the way to want to perform; it's only fair (to yourself) that you get to make what you want to eat.

"Isn't that cheating?" you may be asking. To which I say, "Only if you're lying to yourself." Be honest about what you want vs. what you need. Your feelings are real, your thoughts are real, your goals are real. Be honest about what's most important and you will never cheat yourself out of anything.

What You Need, When You Need It

Here I'm going to steal directly from Matt Fitzgerald's book, Racing Weight, Chapter 8, "Step 5; Nutrient Timing." This is my slighlty over-simplified, easy-to-handle list format:

  1. Eat early. Breakfast big, Dinner small.

  2. Carbs early, Protein late.

  3. Eat on a consistent schedule.

  4. Carbs before exercise, okay...

  5. Carbs during exercise IF! 2+ hours duration and/or 1+ hour high intensity)

  6. Replace fluids and carbs after exercise, and add some protein.

  7. Minimize eating after dark.

Again, there are important considerations, including but not limited to people with endocrine or hormonal imbalances, addicts that may lack control measures and strategies, as well as certain subcultures and populations that forbid consumption of certain types of food or drink. Yet again, this is where pros are better suited to guide you than a coach's blog. Be honest.

Unless a Nutritionist/Sports Dietician is laying down the calculation, don't get bogged down in the math. Just keep the main ideas in mind.

Physique is incidental. Feed the physique, starve the feelings. Be honest about what you want vs. what you need. Then give the body what it needs, when it needs it.

Enjoy the holidays. Enjoy training.


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