Training yourself to eat well to perform well

February 16, 2024

Developing long lasting behaviours for health and performance

Nutritionally sound eating and drinking habits are key to living a healthy lifestyle, lifelong. In practice this means routinely eating a well-balanced diet supplying enough carbohydrate and protein, healthy fats and oils and all other essential nutrients, but knowing what to eat is only part of the equation.

We’re all creatures of habit and what and when we eat and drink is determined largely by deep rooted habits and well-practiced behaviours. Most of the time we operate on ‘auto-pilot’ and only think about the consequences of our actions when prompted to do so or when the outcomes are not favourable. Think about the times that you buy a bag of crisps, sweets or chocolate when you pay for petrol, or reach for the biscuit time (instead of the fruit bowl) when you’re hungry or skip breakfast because you don’t have time in the morning.

The outcome may be feeling tired and irritable in training or underperforming in an event. Your challenge however lies not with knowing what to eat and drink, but with changing your usual behaviour ‘your default’, and recognising and modifying your responses to triggers.

For those of you who are parents, it will come as no surprise that your own eating behaviours and food choices influence your children’s eating and drinking habits. If you consider your favourite foods to be a reward or treat, then it is likely that your children will reward success with their favourite foods. This may not be the best approach for recovery from a hard training session or a competition if favourites happen to be fast foods, cakes and sweets. By contrast success in training or competition may serve to positively reinforce a healthy habit such as eating a balanced and nutritious breakfast*.

How healthy are your eating and drinking habits?

Looking at the following statements, tick all those that you consider to be healthy behaviours?

1. Enjoying a wide variety of foods

2. Being adventurous with food - prepared to try dishes that are unfamiliar

3. Eating at regular intervals through the day

4. Eating meals at a table

5. Eating slowly - allowing 20 minutes or more to eat a meal

6. Participating in social events and eating out with friends and family

7. Eating colourful foods

8. Leaving food on your plate when you’ve eaten enough

9. Planning your week’s meals in advance

10. Writing a shopping list before food shopping

11. Experimenting with new recipes

12. Basing meals on simple, fresh ingredients

13. Cooking simple and quick meals

14. Carrying a water bottle and sipping throughout the day

15. All of the above

Well done if you ticked ‘all of the above’, you’re correct! These are all healthy and helpful habits to embrace. You’ve recognised that eating healthily is not simply about eating nutritious food. It’s also about having a healthy relationship with food and developing healthy habits and behaviours.

By contrast the types of unhelpful habits and behaviours that many of us ‘default to’ are easily formed due to our busy lifestyles – work, family commitments and training schedules and often they present as the easiest thing to do at the time.

Take time to look at the following statements. Are these any of your habits?

1. Missing breakfast

2. Skipping lunch or eating at the desk

3. Unplanned eating – seeing something tempting when out and about

4. Eating ‘on the run’

5. Eating for the ‘sake of it’

6. Eating out of boredom or for comfort

7. Relying on ready meals or takeaways

8. Only allowing yourself to eat foods you consider to be ‘healthy’

9. Restricting your food choices because it seems to be the right thing to do

10. Eating mostly the same foods every day

11. Cutting out entire food groups e.g. avoiding carbs or dairy

12. Copying others

13. Taking nutritional supplements ‘just in case’ or ‘because they compensate for less healthy habits’

14. Saving yourself for a ‘blow-out’ or a special event at the weekend

Changing behaviours is not always easy but it is helpful to take time to consider what is important to you, what habits you are most are able to change and what you have to gain from changing. Then set yourself a SMART goal (look back on last month’s newsletter).

*This month’s focus

Get Set to Go - start your day with a healthy breakfast

Whilst the benefits of eating a substantial and nutritious breakfast are well backed up by science, sadly many of us don’t take advantage of the benefits with at least 10% never eating breakfast and 50% rarely have time for breakfast. Those who do eat breakfast often do it in a rush. So, this month why not challenge yourself and your family to eat a healthy, tasty breakfast every day and reap the rewards?

What are the benefits of regular breakfast eating?

1. Breakfast eaters are most likely to have a healthy body composition.

2. Breakfast eaters are able to concentrate for longer and have better memory and problem-solving skills.

3. Breakfast eaters are more likely to get the right amount of essential micronutrients in particular Calcium, Iron, B Vitamins, Iodine.

4. Breakfast provides a good source of fibre for a healthy gut helping the healthy bacteria living within our gut to thrive. These healthy bacteria have wider health benefits including positive mental health.

5. Breakfast provides essential energy for physical activity, training and competition.

6. Breakfast drinks and milk on cereal help you to rehydrate in the morning.

Overcoming common barriers to eating breakfast

1. But I’m not hungry in the morning!

If you’re not used to eating regular meals it can take time for your body to adjust to eating in the morning. You may need to start with eating something small such as a piece of fruit or pot of yoghurt or a glass or milk. Once you get used to eating breakfast and start to feel hungry then you can gradually increase the quantities that you eat. Other reasons for not wanting to eat breakfast may be that you’re not yet hungry after eating a large meal close to bedtime. Try eating earlier in the evening or eat your main meal at lunchtime on some days.

2. I’m too busy for breakfast

Plan ahead by preparing some breakfast items the day before or get up a bit earlier (adjust your bedtime schedule so you go to bed a little earlier too). When you have time, why not make it a sociable event and eat with others or invite a couple of friends to breakfast with you?

3. I don’t like breakfast

Eating the same thing day after day or just eating breakfast cereal can get very dull and be rather tasteless. More exciting breakfasts can be very healthy and more substantial meaning that you have more energy in the morning and less need for snacks.

And if you are already a regular breakfast eater consider how you could improve your breakfast possibly by eating more variety, spending more time over breakfast or trying out having two smaller breakfast e.g. before and after a morning training session.

Nicky’s Suggestions for Tasty and Healthy Breakfasts

All high in fibre, rich in colour and micronutrients, a good source of protein and energy from carbohydrate and low in fat. More importantly tasty and a pleasure to wake-up to. A good reason to bounce out of bed………………..

1. Porridge made with semi-skimmed milk served with mixed berries (frozen are great) and topped with natural or low-fat flavoured yoghurt

2. Overnight oats (you could try adding a little muesli, nuts and so on) soaked with grated apple and topped with natural yoghurt

3. Baked beans on granary toast

4. Spanish omelette and crusty wholemeal bread

5. Grilled lean bacon or turkey rashers in a baguette with fresh sliced tomatoes

6. Poached eggs on an English muffin with wilted spinach

7. Fresh fruit salad (or tinned fruit) and yoghurt topped with granola

8. Banana pancakes with a drizzle of maple syrup

9. French toast (eggy bread) served with sliced fresh fruit and topped with fromage frais

10. Cinnamon and raisin bagel with crunchy peanut butter and sliced banana

11. Yoghurt and fruit smoothies

12. ‘No meat’ cooked breakfast with scrambled eggs, tinned cherry tomatoes, sliced mushrooms (lightly fried in olive oil), wilted spinach and baked beans served with slices of your favourite toast.

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